High school senior Caytie Gascoigne was driving to her after-school job when she was hit head-on by an SUV, breaking her back, her neck, her pelvis, her legs and her sternum. She spent three weeks in a coma as her family wondered whether she would survive or ever be the same.
But this week, the 17-year-old walked across the stage at her Murfreesboro, Tennessee, graduation to a standing ovation.
"It's really surreal," Gascoigne told ABC News. "I don't feel like it really happened. It's really an amazing feeling."
"Basically, it was a miracle," said Tom Nolan, the Riverdale High School principal. "I remember driving to hospital the night it happened, and I met with her mom and dad. Seeing where she was that day, how she's progressed to what she’s done now is unbelievable. It's an inspiration to the school, to the whole community."
The car accident left Gascoigne in a deep coma in December, and her brain threatened to swell into her spinal cord, which would have killed her, said Dr. Richard Miller, chief of trauma and surgical critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, where Gascoigne was treated. Doctors placed her in an induced coma and repaired her broken body. Little by little, she woke up and was eventually moved to a rehabilitation center. Miller sat in the audience with Gascoigne's friends and family at graduation.
"The recovery process has definitely been long and just grueling and painful," Gascoigne said. "I just always look at it as 'I will get better. I can't stop trying.'"
Since returning to school in March, Gascoigne has gradually gone from needing a wheelchair to a walker to walking on her own without even a trace of a limp. She's been in a school play and was voted prom queen. At graduation, she was voted "most outstanding senior girl."
"I've never seen a kid work as hard as she's worked," Nolan said, adding that she's just about back to normal.