The only child of Rosalia and Amadeo Saburido, she lived in Caracas, Venezuela for all of her childhood. Living with her father after her parents divorced, she studied engineering in the hope of taking over the family air conditioning business.
On September 19, 1999, Saburido attended a birthday party near Austin, Texas. She and her friends Laura Guerrero, Johan Daal and Johanna Gil decided to drive home after a few hours, and accepted a ride home from classmate Natalia Chpytchak-Bennett. At the same time, Reginald Stephey, an 18-year-old high school student, was driving home alone after drinking beers with his friends at a party. On the outskirts of Austin, Stephey's 1996 GMC Yukon collided head-on with Chpytchak-Bennett's 1990 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency.
Guerrero and Chpytchak-Bennett were killed instantly, while Gil and Daal suffered minor injuries. Chpytchak-Bennett's Oldsmobile caught fire, and Saburido's feet were trapped under the seat, preventing her from escaping. Fortunately paramedics John McIntosh and Bryan Fitzpatrick happened to be driving past and were flagged down by Stephey. The fire had spread, and the flames were leaping several feet up into the air by the time they arrived. McIntosh put out the fire with his extinguisher, and the two men set about removing everyone from the vehicle. Saburido was still trapped, and Macintosh and Fitzpatrick did not have the necessary equipment to free her. The fire then restarted, forcing McIntosh and Fitzpatrick to retreat. Saburido was inside the car for 45 seconds until a fire truck arrived to extinguish the fire. Saburido was then cut from the car and airlifted to the burn unit in Galveston.
Saburido suffered second and third degree burns to over 60% of her body, but survived despite her doctor's expectations. Her fingers had to be amputated, but there was enough bone left on her thumb to construct an opposable thumb. She lost her hair, ears, nose, lips, left eyelid, and much of her vision. Saburido subsequently underwent more than 120 reconstructive operations, including cornea transplants to restore her left eye.
In June 2001, Reggie Stephey was convicted on two counts of intoxicated manslaughter. He was sentenced to two concurrent seven-year prison sentences inside Huntsville Unit and fined $20,000.
Saburido and Stephey met for the first time after his trial and conviction in 2001. Saburido has stated that Stephey "destroyed my life completely," but forgave him. Regarding the meeting, Stephey later stated that "What sticks out in my mind is, 'Reggie, I don't hate you.' It's really touching someone can look you in the eyes and have that much compassion after all that I have caused."
Saburido allowed graphic post-accident photographs of herself to be used in the media (posters, TV-commercials, and internet chain mail) to illustrate a possible outcome of drunk driving. She is most well known for a commercial in which she holds a pre-accident photo of herself in front of the camera, which she lowers to reveal her disfigured face and says, "This is me, after being hit by a drunk driver." When asked why she appeared in the campaign, Saburido stated "I feel very good to do it because I know people can understand a little more what happened to me -- why my life changed completely. So I think for me, for everybody, it's a good opportunity."
In order to ensure the material involving Saburido that was used in an ad campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation could also be used in schools, the videos and photos taken of her involved the use of soft lighting to improve her appearance and consultation with child psychologists to ensure the material, although graphic, would not frighten children.
Regarding her life after the accident, Saburido stated that she has never given up: "If a person stumbles, he must pick himself up and keep going. I believe this is very important; if not, life would not have much sense."
Saburido appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on November 17, 2003. She was also interviewed on the Australian 60 Minutes on March 14, 2004 and was featured in a Discovery Health documentary on face transplants. She continues to educate people on drunk driving. Oprah Winfrey has called Saburido the one person she had met who defined "inner beauty" and that she is "a woman who defines survival."
Stephey served his full sentence, having an appeal denied in 2005. He was released from the Huntsville Unit in Texas on June 24, 2008. Saburido stated: "I don't hate him, I don't feel bad because he's out, he can reconstruct his life again." Saburido is currently living in her hometown of Caracas, Venezuela.
On May 20, 2011, Saburido again appeared on the fourth to last episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, a show dedicated to Oprah's Favorite Guests, including Mattie Stepanek and her "all-time favorite" Tererai Trent. During the segment Saburido revealed that as of the taping of that show, she had undergone over 120 surgeries.
Saburido was among 21 disfigured people who had approached surgeons at a London hospital to carry out Britain's first face transplant operation. She was also looking into other possibilities for a face transplant in other nations and hospitals.