On July 19, 2018, Zach Sutterfield went to sleep in a friend’s apartment in San Marcos. Early the next morning, he woke up surrounded by flames and with his body on fire.
“From that moment in time, I was burned 68%,” Sutterfield said. “Double amputations, traumatic brain injury, passed away twice at the hospital. I had to relearn everything from walking to feeding myself to my own name.”
“I pretty much told myself, ‘I’m never going to college. I’m never going to graduate,’” he continued. “Because at that point in time, I couldn’t even write my name. I didn’t have a thumb. I had given up all hopes on that.”
Against all odds, on Saturday, Dec. 10, Sutterfield crossed the stage at the Junell Center/Stephens Arena to receive his ASU Bachelor of Arts in English degree, with a large group of family, firefighters, nurses and doctors there to cheer him on.
“I think it is a mixture of stubbornness and family willpower to get here,” he said. “I wanted to walk across that stage. I wanted to take that diploma and really stamp out this chapter in my life that has been the most grueling years as a young 20-year-old.”
A self-proclaimed theatre nerd in high school who loved speech and debate, Sutterfield completed two years at Angelo State and was exploring a transfer to Texas State when the fire happened. He spent 18 months in the hospital, never giving up the dream of a college education.
“We decided we should reach out to ASU to see if there was anything they could do to help me graduate with what I would want to graduate with,” Sutterfield said. “We spoke to the English Department, and at the drop of a hat, they were like, ‘We can do it. We can make sure that he walks the stage with what he wants to pursue.’”
“I hope that I can just be a beacon of hope for someone who’s going through what they’re going through.”
To date, Sutterfield has had 33 separate surgeries, making attending in-person classes somewhat of a challenge.
“The English Department bent over backwards for me,” he explained. “They set up a program while I was in Florida for surgeries to be ‘in the classroom.’ They basically set up an iPad camera that works on a swivel so I could be in class. They did everything they could to help get me to this point.”
“Dallas Swafford at the disabilities center, she’s been incredible,” Sutterfield continued. “She helped make sure all my accommodations were met. Drs. Serrano, Dushane, Ashworth-King in the English Department – every single one of them has become like a surrogate family member. They tried their best to make sure that everything they could do that was within their power and guidance, they would do for me.”
Now graduated, Sutterfield looks forward to his next chapter, working with Sons of the Flag, a nonprofit with the mission to revolutionize burn care and quality of life for veterans, first responders and their families.
“There is a huge lack of knowledge when it comes to what needs to be addressed when it comes to burn care,” Sutterfield said. “We want to make it more available to the public eye and more accessible.”
“I’m ready to hit the ground running with my mission,” he continued. “I’m ready to start living my life, my best life. Not that I haven’t lived a great life so far, but you know, there are a lot of things I want to pursue that I can’t necessarily get done while juggling 16th-century British Literature.”
And ultimately, Sutterfield hopes his story inspires others to pursue their dreams.
“I hope that people can look at my story and realize that their dreams are doable,” he said. “What they want to accomplish is doable. You know of course, I hope they check their fire alarms. I hope that I can just be a beacon of hope for someone who’s going through what they’re going through.”
“I’m just very, very grateful to this university for allowing me to still pursue my dreams. I’m really proud to be a Ram.”