From brush with death, two lives are renewed

Her pupils were dilated. She was close to death. A chaplain huddled with her frantic parents.

Dr. Andrew Reisner, a pediatric neurosurgeon on duty, dropped what he was doing to attend to her.

Jessica Jones, 14, had fallen off a retaining wall. Horsing around with friends, running from house to house while trick-or-treating on Halloween night in east Cobb, she had tripped and fallen 5 feet, head first, onto a concrete driveway.

Reisner didn’t have time to learn her name or story, or even to consult with her parents. He knew only that this young “Jane Doe” was suffering from a traumatic brain injury. Still clad in her last-minute costume of “blue” — blue hair, blue-painted cheeks and blue collared shirt — she had slipped into a coma. Reisner put her chances of surviving at less than 5 percent.

Within minutes, he performed an emergency craniotomy, slicing into Jessica’s skull and creating an opening to stop the bleeding.

For Reisner, such moments are normally about loss and what can be done to minimize it. At worst, it might be the loss of life. Or perhaps the loss of everyday function — to use a spoon or dress oneself, or to recognize loved ones who must become lifelong caretakers.

As he worked on Jessica, Reisner never imagined that her traumatic accident would instead bring so much gain.

The patient would find a mentor, a drive to succeed and a passion for understanding how the brain works.

The surgeon would find a source of inspiration, a resilient young woman who would motivate him to keep going whenever all hope seemed gone.

A week from today, in Palo Alto, Calif., 22-year-old Jessica will complete her studies at Stanford University, graduating among the top of her class.

Recently, she was honored as one of the top students in the university’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Recipients typically invite an influential teacher to the ceremony. But Stanford granted an exception so Jessica could thank the man she most admires, the surgeon who gave her a second chance eight years ago.

Survival and persistence

That night in the operating room at Children’s Scottish Rite campus on Johnson Ferry Road, Reisner inserted an intracranial pressure monitoring device into Jessica’s head to check the swelling of her brain. He met with her parents and told them the situation was critical. Everything that could be done had been done, he said. He couldn’t make any promises.

About 100 children with traumatic brain injuries arrive at Children’s from across the state every year, according to Reisner. Most die or suffer severe complications. Fewer than 10 percent return to normal functioning, he said.

For 48 hours following the surgery, Reisner left the hospital only briefly to go home and shower. As he monitored Jessica’s condition, he saw some promising signs. She was breathing on her own, he noted. But she remained in a coma, and the days were passing by.

Finally, five days after the accident, Leslie Jones heard her daughter shift in her bed. She rushed to her side. Jessica’s eyes slowly opened.

“Where am I?” she asked softly.

“You were in an accident and you are in the hospital,” said her mother. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she responded.

Leslie Jones raced down the hall to a family waiting room. She woke Jessica’s father, Jay Basham, cheering, “Jessica’s out of a coma!” The pair had divorced years before their daughter’s accident, but remained close. Neither left Jessica’s side at the hospital.

As she recovered, Jessica could talk and recognized her family. Her mother thought she would soon go home and resume life as usual. That wasn’t to be.

Jessica couldn’t feed herself. She had to wear diapers. She couldn’t read, couldn’t name three things the color red.

Reisner, now 53, had seen many patients suffer through the physical and cognitive challenges that stem from severe brain injuries. But in Jessica he saw something else, too: a will to recover that would leave him awestruck of her progress.

He watched as physical therapists encouraged her to take 10 steps, and she took 11. He witnessed her determination to find just the right words to communicate.

“We’d ask her questions and she would try to retrieve the right word and it took this mental effort to do it,” he said. “You could tell she was trying so hard.”

An inspiring letter

Within weeks of the injury, Jessica had taught herself how to read again. At first, she kept losing her place in books. Her mother encouraged her to use a ruler for assistance, but she refused. Instead, she practiced for hours and hours, over and over, until things finally clicked.

After Christmas break, just two months after her fall, Jessica returned to Walton High School in east Cobb.

She resumed her full load of honors classes. Completing homework and preparing for tests now required more time. She started using index cards to help her remember geography and history lessons. She worried about keeping up her grades and living up to the expectations she’d had before the accident.

She was offered an assistant to help her with her balance, and school officials suggested she get an extra set of books so she wouldn’t have to cart them around. But the only accommodation she required was more time to take tests.

One day that spring, she received a letter from Dr. Reisner.

“I just want you to know how proud I am of you. And remember, this is your story,” he wrote.

Jessica hung the letter in her bedroom.

“Before, I was a straight-A student and getting good grades was pretty manageable, and now you have to work really hard, and so in that context, you are not sure of yourself and there’s a lot of doubt and being scared,” Jessica recalled of the months after her fall. “And to get a letter out of the blue with a message saying ‘you have done so well,’ and ‘you are doing so well,’ was just wonderful.”

That spring, she finished the year with all A’s. She’d continue to score straight A’s all through high school.

During her sophomore year, Jessica called Reisner and said she wanted to volunteer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

He was happy to help arrange it. That summer, she spent two days a week volunteering in the day surgery waiting room and at the hospital’s information desk. At Stanford, Jessica has volunteered with autistic children, and developed a passion for children with special needs.

‘Tenacity and character’

Two years ago, Jessica’s mother, an attorney, was named Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s vice president of general counsel. Every few months, Reisner would check in with her for updates on her daughter’s life in college.

What he’s learned seems almost miraculous: Jessica exhibits no lingering effects from the accident.

About a year ago, Reisner was driving around his neighborhood when he noticed a lone daffodil that had survived a late frost. He snapped a photo of the flower and sent it to Jessica with a note that said, “This made me think of you.”

“What I have admired is her tenacity and her character,” Reisner said of Jessica. “Even if she got B’s and C’s, even if she didn’t go to college or even finish high school, that would not change my opinion of her in any way.”

On May 1, during Stanford’s ceremony for the humanities school’s top graduates, Reisner was there to help celebrate Jessica’s achievement. He brought her a graduation card he had passed around the hospital. It carried best wishes from dozens of nurses, therapists and other hospital workers who helped care for Jessica during her hospital stay.

During the ceremony, Reis-ner gave a brief speech, one punctuated by his tears. “A large team of doctors did their job,” he said. “Initially we did not know if Jessica would survive, let alone walk or talk again. But that was only because we did not know Jessica Jones.”

Reisner calls the ceremony the “wow” moment of his career. Jessica’s remarkable recovery, he said, helps keep him motivated to never discount the chances of patients facing slim odds.

Meanwhile, the young woman who beat those odds is taking her degree in human biology across the country. She’s decided to dedicate herself to work in an area that redefined her life. As a graduate student at Yale University, she’ll soon begin a research fellowship in neuroscience.

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