Georgia State Senator Renee Unterman is spending this week preparing for the Georgia Legislative session that goes into session next week.
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BUFORD -- The last decade has been tough for Renee Unterman.
A long, public divorce, marked by a domestic dispute that caused her to lose custody of her daughter. A battle with depression, including some in-patient care. A car accident that left her son with a broken neck.
Then finally the worst tragedy possible, the death of her son.
Through it all, Unterman, a lifelong politician, has continued her role as a state senator, slogging through the rough times and the public glare.
In the past year, though, Unterman has staged a major comeback, accomplishing goals she has worked on for years and gathering accolades along the way.
"I had always been involved in suicide prevention, but I had no idea it would be applicable to my own family," Unterman said of her son Zak's death bringing more purpose to her role in the General Assembly.
The former nurse is in charge of a subcommittee that governs spending for much of Georgia's health care. Her son, as well as her own battle with depression was on her mind as she wrote a bill that crafted the new Department of Behavioral Health.
"It's just first-hand experience," Unterman said of the life circumstances that have created even more compassion in her. "I thought divorce was the worst thing in the world; then I lost my child. It makes you want to struggle and get through it."
That sense of empathy with her constituents will be with her again as legislators reconvene at the General Assembly on Monday.
"When you suffer, you realize what it's like to suffer," she said of bringing a new understanding to her conversations with constituents.
For her work last year, Unterman received her second Public Health Hero Award from the Georgia Public Health Association and the 2011 Star of Life Legislator Award from the Georgia Association of Emergency Medical Services.
But the Buford woman's proudest accomplishment in the last 12 months has been the passage of legislation combatting the sexual exploitation of children.
It is a cause she has championed for four years, and it was also a passion of her son's.
"I'm working for two people, not just for one," she said of taking on his cause as well.
Because of her work, the Georgia senator has been asked to be a part of a lecture series at Princeton on the topic.
Through Unterman's worst times, many of the friends she built in political circles stayed by her side, allowing her to maintain her leadership positions.
Charlotte Nash, Gwinnett's commission chairwoman, said she knew Unterman would rise from the circumstances.
"Renee is a tough lady," said Nash, who worked for the government when Unterman served as a county commisisoner in the early 1990s. "I've watched her go through a lot of difficult things in her life."
The tenacity was evident when Unterman played on state championship contending basketball teams at Berkmar High School, Nash said, and even more by a near-death experience 20 years ago, when Unterman was trampled by a cow on her Loganville farm.
Unterman said she doesn't remember the trampling, but she draws heart from the fact that she had battled to keep one of two helicopters in the county government and that one remaining chopper was the one that life-flighted her to a hospital, saving her life.
"That's pretty symbolic of me," she said.
And that high school coach, she said, has meant a lot in terms of teaching her fortitude and strength.
"I've always been very competitive," Unterman said. "It was understanding that life has brought many changes and you have to endure those and go forward. ... It's just been devastating, but I've tried to fill the void with working."
And while Unterman still spends days at the cemetery visiting Zak's grave, she has found a new joy in her life.
She reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Phil Coker -- the man she shared a short-lived marriage with at the age of 18 before a dream to go to college got in the way. The two remarried a year ago.
"She's had a good year," Nash said. "I tend to be an optimist and believe that hard things, if you can get through them, can make you stronger. I believed she would get through, knowing her character and her strength of will. I was convinced she would get through it."