Sabrina Rosado was celebrating her police academy graduation on December 16, 2017, when she and her friends went holiday party hopping. As the night wound down, they decided to go out and find some food.
After the festivities, which had included alcohol, the friends left and Rosado jumped into the back seat as they drove off. In the rush, she forgot to put on her seat belt. The driver was speeding at about 70 mph when it hit a train trestle. Rosado flew from the backseat and slammed into the front windshield.
The next thing she knew, she was lying in a hospital with severe injuries to her face and spinal cord.
“I broke nine vertebrae and my entire face,” Rosado told TODAY. “My jaw was wired shut.”
She hadn’t questioned getting into that car and, 24 years old at the time, it wasn’t what she expected in her life.
“I didn't think it was going be me, I went a hundred times over what I did that weekend,” she said. “It's not only about drinking and driving, but it's also about just being aware of who is driving when you've been drinking.”
Rosado said because she broke all the bones in her face and struggled to talk, she had to jot notes on scraps of paper. What's more, she had to figure out how to sit, stand and walk again.
“My body forgot the muscle memory,” Rosado explained. “I had lost so much muscle, it was painful. It's almost like I forgot how to walk.”
She wore a brace and used a walker, taking small trips to the end of the bed, the bathroom and eventually the nurses’ station, to build up her strength.
When they removed the wires from her jaw, she had to practice chewing and eating again.
“It was just frozen, so I had to go to therapy and they would slowly work it,” Rosado said. “I just cut everything into smaller pieces."
Although she had a series of reconstructive surgeries on her nose, cheeks and eye sockets, she said her face didn’t hurt nearly as much as her back.
She didn’t even know what she looked like until she passed by a mirror two days before leaving the hospital in early January 2018: both her eyes were bruised and one eye socket is round, while the other is almond-shaped. Her face swelled tremendously and she had a "new nose."
“The first time I saw my face, I said ‘Holy s--- .... Like what happened?’” Rosado said.
That’s why she didn’t feel alarmed when she couldn’t see her phone screen clearly. A black spot floated across her left eye at times, causing shadowy vision. Eventually, she adapted by squinting or covering her left eye. But, weeks after Rosado left the hospital, she was still making that accommodation and her mom asked about it.
“We put two and two together that maybe I had some eye damage,” Rosado said.
They visited a local eye doctor who noticed blood pooling in her eyes. He told her that, usually, the body absorbs it, but it takes time.
Rosado was concerned, since she can’t do the job she loves without good eyesight, so she sought out a second opinion. She visited Dr. Gennady Landa, director of retina services at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. She was diagnosed with choroidal ruptures in both eyes and, without intervention, she could lose her vision permanently.
“I'm a police officer, so that's not OK,” she said.
While she could see better out of her right eye, Landa noticed the rupture in that eye was close to the center of vision. If it grew, she would have irreversible vision loss, he said.
At first, Landa tried injecting a medication to absorb the blood, but it didn’t work. Then, he said surgery became her best option.
“One of the reasons that I wanted to do the surgery was because I couldn't see what's going on with the bleeding,” he told TODAY. “I was able to remove the blood from inside the eye.”
Landa also discovered why Rosado was seeing a spot in her left eye. She had a laceration closer to the area that controls central vision, which he couldn’t repair. The surgery still improved Rosado's sight: Less than two years afterwards, she's back at work as a police officer, drives, wears contacts and passes her firearms tests regularly.
“I am happy for her. She came back again a very joyful person,” he said. “It makes my work very rewarding to deal with these cases.”
Rosado is thrilled with her improved sight, she’s able to do her job and enjoy life. Yet, she struggles: Some days she stares at the mirror, examining how her face has transformed.
“It's been a long road to build that confidence up because my face does not look the same,” she said.
A good sense of humor has helped her cope. She joked that she wished she'd gotten a boob job, too, not just a new nose out of the crash.
"They could have just asked me what I wanted," Rosado said. "I was already under the knife."
One big thing that's also made it easier for her has been the support of loves ones— even though it's tough relying on others.
"I don't want to ask for help, I'm the helper," she said.
But it was that outlook that aided her recovery and motivates her to share her story, which she hopes inspires others.
“Maybe I can even give hope to somebody else,” she said, “there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.”