STRONG – Raechell Luce of Strong says she can handle whatever life tosses her way.

Hanging upside down in her car for an hour last July with a broken neck waiting to be freed by the Jaws of Life gave Luce a special perspective.

“It can’t get any worse,” jokes the 17-year-old daughter of Ralph and RaeAnn Luce. “If I’ve made it though this, I think I can make it through whatever else comes up. It might not be easy, but I can make it.”

On Friday night, just 11 months after her Geo Metro went airborne over a knoll on Weld Road, spun sideways, slammed into a telephone pole and flipped onto the roof, leaving her dangling upside down for an hour while rescuers worked to free her and her passenger, Ben Sweeney, Luce, the second youngest senior at Mt. Abram High School, will graduate at the top of her class.

Although the accident was the most serious trauma Luce has endured, she found something positive in the experience.

After being transported by air to Central Maine Medical Center, she spent 16 days there, undergoing surgery to have a bone pulled out of her hip and used to fuse her neck.

She returned to school for her senior year with a stiff neck brace hidden under her wavy brown hair. Instead of headlining as a hero on the soccer field and basketball court as she had always imagined, Luce was resigned to spend her time out of the senior spotlight, struggling through physical therapy three times a week.

She learned to write with her left hand because her right had been severely damaged and type papers using a voice-typing program. Her best friend had to help her dress.

“I consider myself a very strong-willed person,” Luce explained. “But you definitely can’t get through something like that on your own.”

It was during her recovery period that she discovered she wanted to become an occupational therapist, ever-thankful for the therapists who had helped her get better.

Luce hopes her experience will help her connect with future patients after she graduates from Husson College, where she will go next fall on a full scholarship. “I don’t have any doubts about my major. I love it,” she says. “So many people helped me through it, and now I want to give back a piece of that.”

Today, all that remains of that day is thick purple scars on her hands, neck and back, a twisted heap of Geo Metro metal in some junkyard and the wisdom she has learned since. She can even laugh about the crash, Luce says, and discloses that when she offers a friend a ride home from school, they tease her back and say, “No way!”

Still, being valedictorian with a 96.9 grade-point average at last check in a class of 69 students is a nice payoff.

“At the end of my sophomore year, I decided I really wanted to make finishing first in my class a goal. It’s hard for me to do something and not do it full-hearted. I knew I could do it, and I did.”

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