I feel like an inchworm trying to write a book. Each time I pull out my notes to work, I think of a great idea and inch forward in my writing. But, then I become distracted because I look out the window, or think about something entirely unrelated to my story. Once I reel myself back in, I can’t even remember what my idea was in the first place, so I reread what I’ve already written, hoping to find my place again. I get caught up thinking about another part of the story until hours pass, and I have no more than one new paragraph written.
It didn’t used to be this way for me. Before the car accident, I was never at a loss for words. I’m naturally inquisitive and during college, at Brigham Young University, I even liked to sit at the front of a class, so my professor would notice me right away. I always made a point to ask questions on the first day, just to hear the sound of my own voice. One time, my classmate in Philosophy of Art even begged me to stop asking questions so we could move forward in the textbook.
I don’t like hearing the sound of my own voice anymore. I constantly lose my train of thought, stumble, and forget basic words. I usually know what I’m trying to say, I just can’t remember the expressions, so I speak in circles, disguising my poor memory with filler words like um, and, whatever, anyway.
I have no memory of the accident. The only reason I even know it happened is because my family told me, and I vaguely remember the last few weeks in the hospital. My mom kept a journal, of which I’ve read every word multiple times, and she also took photographs of me. I’m taken aback when I see this stuff because for a long time I didn’t understand how badly I was injured. Some of these photos are almost unrecognizable.
After I left the hospital, I expected my life to return to normal. I’d immediately go back to BYU, complete my degree, attend graduate school, find a great job, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, life with a brain injury isn’t so simple. Things that were once easy for me suddenly became difficult. I started articulating my frustrations in a journal, which developed into this memoir, so now I have many of the details in one place. My writing is also an attempt to reveal what it’s like to live with an injured brain.
Traumatic Brain Injury is often called the silent epidemic because it handicaps people in ways that are invisible. We appear normal and fine on the surface, not exhibiting obvious signs of an injury, as most of the damage is internal. Survivors have impaired cognitive abilities such as getting easily overloaded, difficulty staying focused, balance and coordination problems, a sleep disorder, and a terrible short-term memory. My memory has improved over time, but for the first nine years after the accident, I constantly carried around scrap pieces of paper with the words “note to self,” followed by instructions of what I was supposed to do. I felt misplaced without these notes.
As a writer, I think my chapters are short and choppy. I’ve tried to be completely truthful about everything I can remember from the past 14 years, which isn’t much, and my mom’s journal entries are sometimes cryptic. In some places, I can only write what seems accurate; what makes sense for the sake of the story. That being said, my writing is choppy because my thoughts are choppy. This really bothered me for a long time, which is one reason it took me so long to finish. I’m okay with it now because finally I can appreciate how far I’ve come by completing my memoir. What first began as just a need to understand what happened to me has developed into a personal record of conquering a trial that I never expected to endure. But then again, a person doesn’t know how much they can handle until they are faced with a challenge.
Note to Self: You Work at the United Way
One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.
~ Rita Mae Brown
“Good morning, Jennifer!” Bill said brightly as I walked into the United Way office building. He was the perky older man with a friendly, contagious smile, who sat across from me at my desk in the fundraising office.
“Hi Bill!” I think my voice sounded as bright as his. Smiling, I glanced down at my little section of the long work table, and gasped when I saw all the papers. I remembered organizing it the day before, but it looked like a jumbled mess to me.
What am I supposed to do today? What are my tasks? I specifically remember writing them down somewhere! My heart palpitated. My head throbbed. I knew I’d made a list! How could I forget so soon?
I fumbled through the papers until I uncovered a Post It note that said, “Call these accounts tomorrow.” It was stuck to a list of companies that I was supposed to contact and help kick off their United Way fundraising campaign. The beating in my heart slowed and I relaxed. Just then my manager came in to ask Victor, another United Way employee, to follow him and get his picture taken for his security badge.
I hadn’t had mine taken either, so I followed them to the makeshift photo studio in our building’s basement. Three men squeezed their way upstairs, while we tried to make our way down. I was nervous. People walking up. People walking down. Don’t slip and kill yourself. Going to photo studio. Hold on to railing. Watch where you’re going, I told myself. There were so many things to think about at once.
“Hi Jennifer!” one of the men smiled at me. “See ya back upstairs in the office,” he said, as he climbed the steps. I smiled, as if I knew him and what he was talking about, even though I had no idea. Victor hopped down the stairs, but I just pushed myself against the wall and waited until everyone passed.
When I finally made it to the studio, the photographer was surprised to see me. “Jennifer, didn’t we take yours yesterday?” he asked. After looking around the studio, things did seem familiar. Feeling foolish, I admitted my memory lapse, but he took my photo again anyway, just to be sure.
After he finished, I returned to the improvised office where our entire United Way team sat on folding chairs next to long tables; it felt like a college classroom. I sat in my usual middle seat and sighed once I saw the mess of papers again. Where do I start?
“So, did you get your ID badge, Jennifer?” I looked up across the table to see the same man who almost bumped into me on the stairs.
“Oh, um, hi,” I answered. “Yeah, I got the picture but they won’t have the badges for a couple days.” I guess I knew this guy after all since he sat near me. I couldn’t remember his name, so I pretended I was too busy to talk.
After stacking my papers, I realized that I didn’t have any more donation slips. I knew there were some extra on the little shelf at the other side of the room, so I quickly scribbled, “Get more donation slips,” on a yellow Post-it, slapped it on my face so I wouldn’t forget what I needed, and walked over to the shelf.
Victor stopped me along the way to ask a question, while Bill smiled and made a joke about the note on my face. “You’re so funny!” he said, pointing to my cheek. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then I remembered the Post–it, and pulled it off my face. I smiled, turned towards the shelf and grabbed more slips. I hastily pushed my way back, feeling glad that no one talked to me along the short way. I didn’t have a Post-it telling me to go back to my desk.
As soon as I sat in my seat, I forgot what I was doing again, so I searched my papers for help. “Call these accounts to launch campaign,” I read. A note next to one account said that I’d already called once, but only left a message. I decided to contact them first, and ask the preliminary questions. I dialed the number and a woman answered.
“Hi, this is Jennifer from the United Way of Minneapolis Area. Are you going to be the campaign coordinator this year?”
“Yeah?” she answered, her voice inflection raised slightly to ask a question. “Haven’t we talked about this before? Remember? We decided I’d create a raffle for those who donate to the United Way. You called me two days ago.”
I had no memory of ever speaking to this woman. Apologetically, I thanked her and hung up. How could I forget I’d talked to her already? From the corner of my eye, I saw Bill scurrying towards me.
“C’mon Jennifer, it’s time for the United Way Training. We’re all supposed to be outside on the grassy area across the street.”
“Oh, yes of course,” I lied. I guess I just forgot. After Bill and I made our way outside, we sat in a large circle with the other fundraisers.
Did I remember to put on deodorant this morning? The intense Minnesota humidity immediately made me sweat. The sun glistened brightly, causing the damp blades of grass to shimmer. I looked down at the soggy grass beneath me and wondered if it felt like I did: wet and uncomfortable.
We listened to a professional trainer talk about how to motivate our corporate sponsors to donate money to the United Way. I gazed up, but the bright sun blocked my view. It didn’t really matter because I was barely able to pay attention. I felt nauseated and my head spun.
This was my first official job after graduating from Brigham Young University. It didn’t completely relate to my bachelor’s degree in humanities, but I’d convinced myself that working for the United Way made me a professional humanitarian.
“Jennifer? Jennifer?” I heard someone calling my name. Still squinting, I looked up to find the trainer talking to me.
“Yes?” I answered, scanning the circle of people around me, searching for clues about what we we’d been discussing.
“Your company? You were loaned to the United Way from what company?” Bill quietly whispered in my ear.
“Oh, I’m not loaned from any company,” I answered, explaining my status, while still holding my hand above my eyes, as I tried to block the blinding sun. “I was hired directly by the United Way.”
The humidity was making me feel nauseous again. We’d been there for what seemed like hours, doing team building exercises and learning about the organization.
“The United Way system includes approximately 1,350 community-based United Way organizations. Each is independent, separately incorporated and governed by local volunteers,” the speaker droned on and her words trailed off.
I wasn’t even paying attention. I just sat and touched the damp grass. It must have rained recently, I thought. I loved the rain. Quietly, I giggled to myself as I remembered Stacie and me frantically running to Spanish class in the middle of a rainstorm during our college study abroad to Chile. We were supposed to give a presentation to our Chilean culture class, but we overslept during our siesta after lunch. That Chilean rainstorm was more than two years earlier, but it seemed like just yesterday.
And just think, you almost didn’t go to Chile, I said to myself. A few years earlier, I had told my dad I wanted to study abroad for a semester, and I’d looked at programs in Israel, London, and Chile.
“Traveling is for after college, Jen,” my dad told me. For some reason, he thought if I left Provo, Utah, I wouldn’t return. This is probably because he dropped out of the University of Minnesota to play golf in Florida, and feared the same thing would happen to me. He didn’t want me to leave, which only made me want to go more, so I got my own cash together and told him, “I’m going.”
I rubbed my hand back and forth along the damp grass again, and wondered what my life would be like if I’d just remained in Chile for the rest of the summer, or returned to BYU with my brother, Brent, a week earlier than I did.
Why didn’t my car have airbags? It was just an accident, but sometimes I wish I was the one driving along interstate 80 in Nebraska, and not Kyrra.
Note to Self: Get Airbags on Next Car
You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them.
~ Desmond Tutu
Brent is eighteen months older than me, but sometimes we’re mistaken for twins. We attended BYU at the same time, had the same college major and even sat next to each other during class. Of course, usually we made the 18 hour road trip together from Minnesota back to Utah at the end of every summer. But 1994 was different.
He left a day earlier than I did to attend a wedding. My 17-year-old friend, Kyrra, had a family reunion in Utah at the same time as school started, so she and I agreed to drive together. I remember standing outside my parents’ house as my mom photographed us in front of my Mitsubishi Montero. The overstuffed car had everything I owned jammed into it, including my stereo and the original Luis Guzman painting I’d purchased a few months earlier in Chile at the bargain price of $150. I remember Kyrra practicing how to drive a manual transmission at a rest-stop somewhere in Nebraska, sometime before the accident. This is my last memory for several months.
My mom was at work when she received a call from a nurse who broke the news. “This is Shermaine Sterkel from Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. I’m calling about your daughter. Are you sitting down, Mrs. Mosher?”
“Oh, no, no don’t ask me that!” she answered, as that question is usually followed by bad news. Mom’s heart nearly pounded through her chest.
“Your daughter was seriously injured in a car accident in Kimball, Nebraska. She’s been transported to us in critical condition with two broken legs, a fractured neck, and a very serious head injury.”
My mom became frantic and started cussing, which was out of character for her. She grabbed her purse, ready to make a run for the door. As soon as her co-workers found out what happened, they offered to drive her home.
“No, I need my car. I’ve gotta drive myself,” she screamed, in hysterics. “Wait, no wait — first I have to call Tom,” and she dialed my dad’s work number. There was no answer, so she only left a message.
Mom drove home like a mad-woman, speedily weaving in and out of traffic. “I wasn’t safe to be on the road,” she later admitted. “But I didn’t care. I had to get home. I needed to get a hold of Tom and Brent.”
She didn’t have Brent’s new phone number yet, so Mom called my friend, Deiudon, and begged her to find him. Deiudon only knew approximately where he lived, so she drove around until she saw his car parked in a driveway.
Brent happened to be upstairs unpacking when she rang his doorbell. His roommate, Scott, answered the door. “Is Brent here?” she asked, in a distressed tone.
“Yeah, he’s here,” he answered, completely unaware of what had occurred. “Brent, come down here, you already have visitors!”
He ran to the front door, surprised to see Deiudon. “I found you by looking for your car,” she said, her voice shaking. “Your sister has been in a car accident.” She didn’t know the extent of it, only that it was bad and he was supposed to call home.
Brent scurried next door to use his neighbor’s phone, since his wasn’t even hooked up yet and my dad answered. Apparently, Dad already received a call from the hospital at the same time that Mom recklessly drove herself home from work. They both made it to our house just minutes apart.
“Mom and I are flying to Nebraska in a few hours,” Dad told him.
“Can I come? There’s no reason for me to stay in Provo anymore, without Jennifer. I’ll meet you guys there.”
Scott drove Brent to the airport and they were both silent in the car, except for the moment when he told Scott, “I know I won’t be back very soon.” My mom later told me Brent knew before he even got to the airport that he’d drop out of school for the year, or for as long as I needed him.
When they arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport, he called home again to tell our parents he’d gotten his ticket at half-price for bereavement. Not that a discounted airline ticket was any consolation, but it seems worth noting as this was the first in a series of gifts that our family received.
Brent made it to the hospital 30 minutes before my parents. As soon as Mom and Dad walked in, the receptionist went back to get a nurse who would take them into my room. As they waited, another receptionist paged a physician to explain my condition. This physician was Dr. Tom White, the surgeon assigned to my care.
My injuries were life-threatening and I needed medical attention fast. Regional West Medical Center was the closest level II Trauma Center to Kimball; located 40 miles away in Scottsbluff, a town of just under 15,000 people. This was very small compared to our home in Minneapolis with a population of over 375,000. Dad even describes the hospital as having a “small-town, everybody knows your name feeling to it.” I received wonderful, personalized care there. My favorite parts of Mom’s journal are all the places she writes about the relationship she developed with the staff at Regional West.
“Your nurse, Duane,” she wrote, “once told me to put clunky, oversized high-top tennis shoes on your feet, so you wouldn’t get foot drop from laying comatose for so long (a deficit that develops when your toes and ankles turn upwards; you drag the front of your foot on the ground when you walk).” She still keeps these shoes in her cedar chest at home. “I don’t know why I kept them. I guess just as a reminder of how far Jennifer has come.” The shoes must have worked because I don’t have foot drop now, and my gait is normal.
“In addition to changing your IV and giving you medication, Duane treated you like a real person,” Brent told me. “He was always making sure you looked comfortable.” Once, he said, Duane let him help lift me from the bed to a gurney while they changed my bed sheets. “That stuff meant a lot to me. He always kept us involved.”
Even today, Mom, Dad and Brent talk about my doctors and nurses at Regional West as if they’re family. I’ve heard countless other stories of people who hate the hospital where their loved ones are being treated; feeling like nothing more than a number to unattached doctors. Our experience wasn’t like this in Nebraska. I was in the ICU longer than any other patient at the time, so the entire department knew everything about my care. Brent later said, “It seemed like someone (the hospital staff) was always in your room, just checking on you. They took great pride in your recovery.”
Brent told me what it was like the first time they saw me after the accident. He said you enter the intensive care unit through two sets of double doors. The first are large oak doors, the second are metal automatic doors. My room was the first one on the left. They walked in, stunned by what they saw. I lay motionless, and my entire body was thick. My hands and eyes were bloated, and my head was shaven on one side. There was a long, stitched cut from the top left corner of my forehead all the way back to the middle of my head. I had tubes in my mouth, connecting to a ventilator that controlled my breathing. My legs hung in traction, suspended by white, canvas straps and pins ran through my tibia bones, connecting to cords from which hung heavy weights that were used to pull the broken bones back into position.
“I’m sorry about the horrible car accident,” Dr. White said, when he walked into my room to greet my family. “We’re doing everything we can to help Jennifer.” He continued explaining the specifics of my injury, but after describing the contraptions holding my broken legs together, my dad fainted and fell forward towards my bed. Luckily, Brent was able to catch him before he fell on top of me. From then on, the doctors asked my dad to remain seated when he came into my room.
The initial medical assessment did not look promising. Dr. White wrote the following evaluation:
This young lady is badly injured. She has multiple traumatic injuries with a severe head injury, and a Glasgow Coma score of 3 to 4 . There is no obvious operable lesion on the CAT scan, but she is paralyzed and sedated to keep her intracranial pressures controlled. The only movement I saw before paralysis was a purposeless left arm movement. She has a C-1, C-2 fracture and bilateral mid-shaft femur fractures. She will be started on antibiotics, admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and given Tetanus Prophylaxis.
My family soon learned the accident details from the hospital staff, which in turn, had learned them from the police. They think I rested my legs on the dashboard as Kyrra drove along Interstate 80 in Kimball. A gust of wind might have hit the SUV because within seconds the car tumbled and rolled five times into the median. My legs stuck out the passenger-side window, and a deep laceration sliced across my forehead, peeling my scalp from front to back. Kyrra sprained her wrist in the rollover, and I was unconscious.
There happened to be a fireman and a physician’s assistant driving behind our car; they both stopped to help. One of the men found a piece of plywood, and he manually put my legs in traction while the other held my neck straight. They told the state trooper who arrived on the scene, “She’s bad. I don't think she’ll make it to the hospital.”
An ambulance took us both to the local hospital where they were able to stabilize me until an Airforce Emergency Transport from Cheyenne, Wyoming brought me to Regional West Medical Center. This rapid flight only took seventeen minutes. The pilot was so concerned about my injuries that he called the hospital twice to check on my condition after he left.
Brent, Mom, and Dad all slept in the hospital that first night. My parents squished side-by-side on a reclining chair in my room, and Brent slept on two footstools pushed together. The next morning, worn out, they walked to the hotel across the street to get a room. They had just arrived when Mom got a call from Dr. Ernie Beehler, my neurosurgeon who said, “Do you know how seriously your daughter is hurt?” He explained that I might not make it through the night.
My exhausted mother surprised herself by screaming at the doctor, “Don’t you dare tell me that over the phone! We’ll be right there.” They ran over to the hospital to talk with Dr. Beehler face to face. Standing at a nurses’ desk, right outside my room, he let them know about the swelling in my brain.
“The CT scan did not reveal any architecture on her brain. Our brain looks a lot like cauliflower, with ridges and valleys, and this structure has been swollen away,” Dr. Beehler explained. “I can’t tell you what her injuries mean, or what disabilities they will cause, but the increasing pressure building up in her skull could soon cause her death, or she could never wake up at all. We need to see some sort of movement from her, to know that she’s still in there.”
My family lost it after this conversation. They went into my room, and sobbed uncontrollably for more than ten minutes. The rest of the day was dismal, just sitting around, waiting for updates, waiting to see, as Dr. Beehler had said, some sort of movement from me.
That night, something remarkable happened. They were back in my room; it was dark, probably ten o’clock. The lights were off, except for one small light by the door. Dad clasped my hand, and quietly whispered, “Sweet Jennifer…” just before he saw me slightly look towards him, and softly squeeze his hand.
“Brent! Loretta! Jennifer moved!” my dad screamed. Mom repeated my name, and cried tears of joy. Brent broke down and sobbed so hard he had to leave the room. This was a defining moment because, as Brent later told me, I was “always one step ahead of Dr. Beehler.” If he said, “We need to see her do this…,” then I would do it. Each small step showed them I was very slowly on the path to recovery.
Finally, they met with the neurologist, Dr. Terry Himes, who let them know that at least I’d live. “She might never be the same person,” he explained. “She might have difficulty speaking, she may have a different personality, and she probably won’t return to college.” He spent an entire hour and a half talking with them, and all of his words were difficult to hear. All except for one statement that everyone clung to when they needed hope. He said, “Jennifer will still have the same spirit and you will still love her.” His advice continued, “Regardless of how much she recovers, she won’t remember much about her time in the hospital, so I recommend you keep a journal for her.”
My mom diligently wrote in her own journal every night anyway, so she immediately started one for me. On Sunday, August 28th, five days after the accident, she wrote:
Jennifer looks like a beat-up old lady, and has been lying silently in her hospital bed for days now. There is a large, thick collar around her neck. Although her bulging eyes sometimes look half open, there is no movement from her today. She looks like she is in a peaceful, deep sleep. Dr. Himes told us the most damage was done to the left side of her brain which controls the language and speech. She’ll probably have some disabilities relating to this. Her nurse today is named Kathleen. She is wonderful and explains everything she does.
“I don’t tell people this very often,” she said, “but I have seen two other miracles leave this room and I really feel like Jennifer will be the third.”
My parents and Brent developed a regular routine in Nebraska. Every Monday, Dad drove himself to the airport to catch a flight from Scottsbluff to Denver, and then from Denver to Minneapolis where he tried to keep his construction company together; he returned to Scottsbluff every weekend. Each weekday, Brent and my mom took turns waiting in my hospital room, hoping to witness an eye blink or a hand lift. Sundays they went together to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where many people were willing to help. A different member of the church had them over for dinner almost every night. My family says they gained a deeper understanding of service during this time because never before have they felt so helpless, and had such a “need” to be served.
A few days into my recovery, Mom, Dad, and Brent got to the hospital early in the morning, and a nurse was already in my room. “Jennifer is not doing so well,” she told them. “Her sodium count has dropped, and she’s not responding to the medication. Dr. Himes has already been in, but left to order another CT scan for her.” Mom gasped, while Dad and Brent plopped down on separate chairs and buried their faces in their hands. Just then, Dr. Himes returned with the test results.
“I have good news,” he announced. “I didn’t see any changes on her scan, so I think the unresponsiveness is due to the medication we’ve used. I’m cutting back some on the Phenobarbital (an anti-seizure medication) and on the morphine (a painkiller), which could be making her more drowsy.”
For the rest of the day, my family just sat in my room waiting and hoping to see any sort of reaction from me. The next week was the same. Waiting and hoping. Waiting and hoping.
I feel as if now I’m telling a story about someone other than myself: this happened, and then that happened; a documentary of quick takes about a person, who also happens to be me. I’m not writing from memory, nor am I embellishing my injuries. I was there, but I wasn’t. This is about my life, but it’s not. It’s surreal. These are details that my mom recorded in her journal, and I’m just recounting them, second hand.
Wednesday, August 31, 1994, was a pivotal day for everyone. It was just eight days after the accident, and Mom and Brent arrived at the hospital before 6:30 A.M. (Dad returned home to work for the rest of the week), and sat next to my bed for a while, until Dr. Himes walked in to examine me. He turned to my mom and said, “Loretta, I’m going to go ahead and do another MRI, so we can see how her organs and tissues are progressing.”
“Okay,” she flatly agreed. “That’s fine. I’m just going to walk down the hall for a minute to stretch my legs. I’ll be back.” Brent followed her.
They left the room and didn’t get more than halfway down the hallway when they heard Dr. Himes yelling, “Hey, Mom you better come here! I got a response!”
My mom and Brent bolted back into my room, expecting to watch me sit up, smile, and ask, “Where am I?” But everything looked the same as it had a few moments earlier. Dr. Himes was still standing next to my bed, and I still lay practically motionless.
“I think I got a small response from her,” Dr. Himes explained. “It’s not much, but I asked Jennifer to look at me, and she turned her head towards my voice. She seems to be more alert if you talk to her.” He left the room to order an MRI.
Mom’s lips quivered, as a tear streamed down her cheek. “Jennifer, I’ll do anything for you. I’ll turn cartwheels, anything, just please keep getting better,” she pleaded, rubbing her hand softly against my arm. “If you want me to keep massaging your arm, just squeeze my hand.” My mom said I gave her hand a big squeeze. “Brent! Did you see that? She squeezed my hand!”
This moment was the second in a very gradual series of instances as I emerged from a coma that lasted almost four weeks. Mom later describes it like “watching a baby being born.” She’d see just a little response, such as a gentle head turn, a hand squeeze, or a slight curve in the corner of my lips, almost a smile. As each day went on, I looked brighter and more alert than I had the day before. But, I still wasn’t speaking. I wasn’t walking, and I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t doing any of the normal, unassisted life skills that an adult is supposed to be able to do. Like Mom said, I was almost a newborn again, and no one had any idea how much more I would grow.
I’m indebted to my mom for diligently recording details in her journal, especially now as I try to piece together information and understand what happened to me. I’ve spent so much time wondering how I was going to function with a brain injury that I never really thought about what it was like for my terrified parents to watch their injured daughter in the hospital. Her journal is a glimpse of the unconditional love that parents feel for their children.
Mom tried to be positive, but that wasn’t always possible. “I have my really bad moments,” she wrote. “When I think about what could happen, that Jennifer could die, or she could be spastic, then I feel depressed. If Jennifer hurts, our family hurts. But, I also know if I don’t take care of myself, then I won’t be much help to them. I need to pull it together. So, I’m not going to let any negative thought come into my mind,” she decided. It was the night after making this decision that Mom had a dream that strengthened her capacity to cope. Again, she wrote about this in her journal:
Finally, I’ve been able to sleep. For two nights in a row, I dreamt about Jennifer at different stages during her recovery: in a wheelchair, learning to walk again, and with a Halo Brace on her head. Then the next morning, I combed my hair while looking in the mirror, and another thought flashed through my mind: Brent and Jennifer graduating college together. I take these as messages from God and they bring me hope.
From then on, she felt stronger every day. “I just have to believe that Jennifer is going to be okay,” Mom told herself. This deliberate positive thinking helped her start smiling a little, and her sense of humor even returned.
Eighteen days after the accident, she called the hospital early in the morning to see how I was doing. My nurse, Kelly, answered the phone. “Everything is stable, Loretta, except Jennifer bumped the button on her bed, and raised her head way up. So, I unhooked the motor just in case,” she explained.
“Oh! That must’ve looked pretty funny to watch the bed go up and down,” my mom quietly whispered into the phone, and they both started giggling.
“Why are you whispering?” Kelly asked.
“Well, because I don’t want to wake up Tom. He’s still sleeping,” Mom answered softly.
“What Loretta?” my dad yelled from the bed. “What? I can’t hear you!” He must have heard my mom say his name and assumed she was talking to him. Neither of my parents slept very deeply during this time.
“I’m not talking to you!” my mom answered back, almost in banter, but still in a whisper.
Kelly heard this short conversation and laughed over the phone. “You guys are pretty funny.”
“We’ve got to laugh about anything we can these days, to keep our sanity,” Mom responded.
On Thursday, September 15, 1994, 23 days after the accident, Mom wrote in her journal: “I didn’t sleep well last night because I was so worried about Jennifer.” She called the hospital and talked to another nurse named Kathy.
“Jennifer has been pretty ornery this morning,” she explained. “She pulls off her heart monitor, I put it back on and she pulls it off again. It’s like she’s playing a little game with me.” Mom got really excited because if the nurse recognized that I was playing games, it meant my personality was returning. Later that afternoon, she got even more excited.
Brent and my mom sat in the hospital room, exercising my arms. “You’re doing great, Jennifer,” Mom cheered. “You’re really progressing and I’m so proud of you.” And then she asked me for a hug. I reached up my arms and pulled my mom towards my chest to give her a genuine, sincere, half-hug. She said it was the sweetest hug she’d ever received. Clearly I was responding to her.
“Can your brother have one too?” Brent asked, and I pulled him down towards me, to give the same gentle hug, and they both started applauding; not that I could hear them, but it was another sign that I was coming around.
Just then, my anesthesiologist stopped in my room, to get an update on my condition, as all of my doctors often did. “Hi! What’s all the excitement about?” he wondered.
“Jennifer just hugged us both!” Mom was elated, as if I was a toddler who had just taken her first steps.
“That’s great news! I stopped in earlier this morning, and noticed that Jennifer is looking brighter.” He sounded just as thrilled. “I’ll post signs around the hospital.”
“That’s what’s so great about this place,” Mom wrote. “Everyone knows Jennifer, and is concerned about her. I know we’d never find this same kind of intimacy at a big-city hospital.”
We spent just over four weeks in Nebraska, all of which time I have no memory. According to the hospital discharge report, I was able to let ice chips thaw inside my mouth, and I had begun taking minimal sips of water. On September 28, 1994, I was stable enough for Mom and I to board a two-engine air ambulance bound for a hospital in Minneapolis. Mom wrote in her journal that some of my nurses, Duane, Kathy, and Kelly, cried when we said good-bye to them.
Two pilots and two flight medics accompanied us on our flight home. Strapped to a cot, I was so agitated that I flung my arms from side-to-side until the medics gave me a sedative so I’d relax. The drug didn’t work for very long. Each time they tried to clip an oxygen tube near my nose, I’d frantically pull it away. Finally, they just held it close, but whenever I felt too much air blowing at me, I’d pull the towel over my face.
As the plane got closer to the airport in Minneapolis, the urban lights sparkled and my mom felt the city’s energy. “Finally we’re coming home,” she said to herself. “Five weeks is a long time to be away, especially in a small town like Scottsbluff, Nebraska, under such miserable circumstances.” When we landed, an ambulance was waiting to deliver us to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, which would be my home for one week until I could be admitted into Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.