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Brandi Jewett, Forum Communications Co., Published November 10 2012

After serious crash, Grand Forks woman tells others to buckle up

GRAND FORKS – The first thing you may notice about 19-year-old Shelby Debell is the neck brace she wears.

The second is her infectious smile. These days, she has a lot to smile about.

Debell, who is from Grand Forks, was one of four passengers critically injured in an auto accident on Aug. 15 about 30 miles southwest of Denver.

While returning to their campsite from a concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, the driver fell asleep, sending the car into the ditch, where it flipped several times.

By the time it stopped, Debell wasn’t in it.

She had been thrown from the car into the roadway on the other side of the median.

The accident left her with critical injuries – injuries that would have been prevented if she had buckled her seat belt. Now Debell wants others to learn from her mistake.

“I hope people understand this can happen to them,” Debell said. “I saw it happen to others, but I never thought it would happen to me.”

The last thing Debell said she remembers from that night is looking up at the sky from a stretcher. She awoke from a coma three days later in St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood, Colo., with a broken neck, pelvis, wrist, leg and a 1 percent chance of surviving.

“The doctors said they’d never seen anyone survive that type of neck break,” said Shelby’s mother Lorraine Debell.

The break occurred at the vertebra closest to Shelby Debell’s skull.

But the surgical operations she endured were just the start of her road to recovery.

She would go on to complete six weeks of physical therapy at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital in Aurora, Colo. After returning to Grand Forks on Oct. 5, she has continued hand and speech therapy at Altru Hospital and more physical therapy at Achieve Therapy.

She said she looks forward to the day her neck brace comes off and to reconstructive surgery in her right shoulder.

Growing up, Debell said, her mom told her and her three younger siblings to always wear a seat belt.

“I always told them it doesn’t matter if you’re one block or 10 blocks away from home – buckle up,” Lorraine Debell said.

Shelby Debell was less than 15 miles from camp when the accident happened. She had buckled up after leaving the concert, but didn’t bother to after stopping at a gas station.

“I figured we were so close I didn’t need to,” she said.

Only the driver of the car was wearing a seat belt in the August accident, and he was the only one uninjured.

As Debell heals, she has begun spreading a message: Buckle up and don’t drive tired or with distractions.

When she sees news stories about people dying in accidents because they weren’t wearing a seat belt, she said, it gets to her.

“I feel like I should be preventing that,” she said. “People should know that one little belt can save your life.

“All it takes is three seconds to put it on.”

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Brandi Jewett writes for the Grand Forks Herald