Students rally around two students, seriously injured in a May 12 traffic accident.
It’s more than just an entry in the crossword puzzle Jessica Gilman and her grandmother were working as the interview for this story began. It’s a word that could have described Jessica’s life since a May 12 crash left her hanging onto life by the barest of threads.
That accident put the 16-year-old Campus Community High School junior in Christiana Hospital suffering from a broken collarbone and pelvis, a lacerated liver and spleen, and most seriously, cranial trauma that at first caused doctors to consider her condition as almost beyond hope.
But less than a week after that horrific mishap, Jessica was back in Dover with James and Anne Ehler, the grandparents with whom she lives. She since has visited CCHS to thank well-wishers and is making plans to start her senior year.
“I’m feeling OK. I’m still a little bit sore,” Jessica said, almost matter-of-factly. “But I’m alive and that’s got to count for something.”
“It truly is a miracle,” Mrs. Ehler said. “I’m a big believer in miracles, and this truly is.”
Songs and prayers for injured students
The Monday afternoon accident occurred on a rain-slicked West Denney’s Road, as Jessica was being driven home by fellow student Robert Thomas. According to police reports, Thomas was turning onto Maple Glen Drive when his 2002 Ford was rear-ended by a tail-gating driver. The impact sent the Ford spinning into oncoming traffic, where it was hit again.
Both teens were wearing seatbelts, but the impact shoved Jessica’s passenger seat into the rear of the car, behind Thomas. It took rescue workers 45 minutes to extract her from the wreck.
Even though it was after hours, CCHS students and teachers began gathering as word of the accident made its way through the close-knit school community. Within two hours, approximately 100 students were at the school, singing and praying for Jessica and Robert’s recovery.
“There were people here until midnight and they wanted to stay even longer,” said junior Janna Dubin. “Everyone was really upset.”
“Even people I had never talked to in my life were coming up and hugging me,” added Tara DuBois, a friend of both Robert and Jessica.
Soon afterward, groups of students were going up to Christiana to see Jessica, even though she still was unconscious.
Because Jessica is well known for her interest in Japanese culture, someone hit upon the idea of creating origami paper cranes to symbolize hopes for her recovery. Within days of the accident, practically all of the almost 300 students at CCHS were creating the little sculptures from multicolored pieces of paper and stringing them up in the cafeteria and school lobby.
In Japan, where the crane is considered a sign of good luck, people often are given groups of 1,000 or more paper cranes as a wish for recovery from illness or injury.
The CCHS students created more than twice that number for Jessica and Robert.
A kick in the gut
With five broken ribs, Robert – who declined to be interviewed for this article – was in serious, although not life-threatening condition following the accident. Such was not the case for Jessica, whose prognosis meant an almost immediate air-evac flight to Christiana.
At the time, Mr. Ehler was not even aware of the crisis – he was on his way to visit his son in Germany, his plane having left Philadelphia at almost the same time the crash occurred.
Mrs. Ehler made her way to Christiana to be with her granddaughter, were she was joined by school counselor Stacey Clark and other school administrators. For two days, Jessica remained unconscious, unaware of the scores of students making their way to her bedside.
Her first reaction to the outside world came when she kicked Clark in the stomach.
Noticing the still unconscious girl’s extremities felt cold, Clark had been putting socks on Jessica’s feet when her legs suddenly jerked. Despite the surprise, Clark took it as a good sign.
“It was the first time I’d seen her move,” she said. “When it came to that, I decided I’d take it.”
Jessica regained consciousness soon thereafter, and her condition amazed doctors. While they knew her broken bones and bruised internal organs would heal with standard treatment, they had no idea how the pressure inside her skull had affected her cognitive abilities.
The answer, it turns out, was not a lot.
Jessica’s memory up to the accident is clear, although she recalls nothing about the crash itself.
“All I remember is just that just before we got hit, Robert said, ‘I wonder why that person is tailgating me,’” she said.
‘Never give up’
With Jessica’s physical injuries on the mend and no apparent physical damage to her brain, doctors allowed her to return home May 16, only four days after the accident. She was joined by her grandfather, who finally had managed to book a return flight from Europe.
Since awakening, Jessica has found her short-term memory lacking. A voracious reader who keeps several books by her bedside, she will read a chapter or two, but have no recollection of what she’s read. She’ll use something, then put it down and forget where she left it. That, and other memory lapses have proven frustrating, but also have given her a goal of overcoming the problem.
And there’s little doubt she will, Clark notes.
“Jessica is very persistent and very tough,” she said. “She’s a hell of a fighter, although I didn’t know how much until this week.”
And while the support of her schoolmates, teachers, neighbors and church have been instrumental in her recovery so far, Jessica admits her own brand of rebelliousness will be at least part of the reason she’ll make it past this obstacle in her life.
“I have a lot to live for,” she said. “And I’m stubborn in my own way. I don’t always like to follow the rules.
“If someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll tell them, ‘Who says I can’t?’ and then I’ll try it anyway."
Mrs. Ehler has come to admire that spirit in her granddaughter.
“It says you never give up because you just don’t know what the verdict will be,” she said.
Reach Jeff Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.