NEW YORK CITY — It was nine months to the day after Sept. 11, 2001. Elmira native Theresa Sareo was well into recording her third album, which reflected upon the World Trade Center tragedy, and was walking close to where the disaster had occurred.
“As a New Yorker I was still reeling from 9-11, writing songs about going through that experience. We were all so afraid, trapped in fear for so many months after,” she said, noting that she had begun composing the song “I Am the Light” because “that was the first time I had felt some hope.”
In the blink of an eye, Sareo’s hopeful feeling was erased — and her life was almost snuffed out as well. She was hit by an impaired driver in midtown Manhattan, and her entire right leg was severed.
Five years later, Sareo has produced many positives out of that devastating event. She has returned to her career as a well-known signer/songwriter in New York City, and also is making a public impact on a national level as an advocate for fellow amputees.
“As an entertainer I always sought the spotlight. But never in my wildest dreams did I think it would have happened through something like this,” she remarked.
Sareo grew up in St. Mary’s Southside Parish and attended Southside High School. She’s a classically trained vocalist and has lived in New York City for the past 20 years.
“I moved to New York right after high school, totally with stars in my eyes. New York will do that to you when you’re from a small town,” the Manhattan resident said. “It took a few years before I started making money again at music.”
Sareo has since become well-known on New York’s singer/songwriter circuit, appearing in many top nightclubs with her jazz trio. She also is a private vocal teacher. As an independent recording artist she has released three albums: her self-titled debut album; a second, “Embrace”; and “Alive Again,” which shares stories about people who have touched her life and reflects on losses from 9-11 as well as her accident.
On June 11, 2002, while at the corner of 34th Street and Park Avenue, Sareo was struck by an SUV after the impaired driver attempted an illegal U-turn. She was pinned to a fire-hydrant pole, and her right leg was severed at the top of her hip.
“I don’t remember anything about that accident, anything about that day. I woke up at Bellevue Hospital, struggling out of a coma a few days after, and was told what happened to me,” she said.
She credits her many family and friends in Elmira and Rochester for aiding in her recovery.
“The upstate Catholic community prayed long and hard for me during the crucial first week and beyond,” she noted. “I do believe that their positive energy of love was a large contributing factor toward my survival during that period when I wasn’t consciously involved with it.”
A long rehabilitation process awaited Sareo; she initially spent two months in the hospital.
“There came a point I became emotionally like, what I was going to do with this, what life on one leg would be like? It felt pretty bleak,” she acknowledged. “But my friends were very resourceful. They dug up other amputees and sent them to the hospital to come visit me. Interestingly, three were in the entertainment business. Well, that changed everything for me. They became my life raft, human beacons of hope — not only to go on in life and be successful, but keep doing what I love.”
Sareo received a prosthetic leg one year after she was discharged.
“Unless I’m walking around in a short skirt, people just think I walk with a limp and a cane,” she said.
She set out to reclaim her career and completed her “Alive Again” album. She also created the Amputee Support Program at Bellevue Hospital, where she now serves as peer counselor for amputees and their families.
“I know first-hand what it’s like to be saved, so I became motivated to do the same thing to do that for people in their darkest hours,” she said.
Sareo recently made her second visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where she has visited injured military men and women returning from the Middle East.
“These kids have multiple injuries, multiple amputations. As one soldier said when I asked, “How are you doing, sir?” he said, ‘Well, I’m beat up, broken and blown up.’ That was just a real honest description,” she remarked.
Sareo also is a public speaker on disabilities and trauma recovery. She appeared on “Larry King Live” in June 2005 where she was interviewed by Nancy Grace, and has twice met Sen. Hillary Clinton.
“It kind of all has jelled together — my music, my outreach, my survival messages. It works in this real humanitarian way,” she said.
Sareo must still contend with a series of ups and downs: “Life is difficult. I’m never going to make excuses for it. It’s hard to live a disabled life and live every day without a limb, a substantial part of your body gone forever. It’s an interesting journey, as to how you choose to respond to it as time goes on.”
She encourages people in similar situations to allow the natural grieving process to occur, because “on the other end of that you will find joy in your life.” Her own joy, she said, comes from being at the bedside of people who have survived traumatic injuries.
“I know that’s where I’m supposed to be in that moment; it becomes really clear to me on a deep level,” Sareo said. “I feel like my spirituality really opened up — the humanitarian work that I’m doing, it comes from that place that connects all of us.
“For me, the only way to cope with such a big loss is to live a big life. I asked the universe, the gods, the goddesses to let me live big. I believe somebody’s answering,” she added. “It doesn’t even matter what obstacles get thrown in your path — you can still dream big, connect your sense of purpose in life, what moves you, what fills you up and what brings you joy. Don’t be afraid to do that. It will bring you to special places you never thought you could go.”
EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information about Theresa Sareo, visit www.theresasareo.com.