Norton Shores Woman remarkably recovers from severe brain injury A skiing accident on a bunny hill changed Gail Jones' life forever

By Emily Pfund

The Muskegon Chronicle

NORTON SHORES, Mich. (AP) -- Gail Jones is familiar with the details of her 2010 snow skiing accident -- the brain injury, the surgery, the prognosis she would never walk again.

She just doesn't remember any of it happening.

On Feb. 10, 2010, while skiing on vacation in Durango, Colo., the 52-year-old Norton Shores resident fell and hit her head. She got up and kept going. Her boyfriend tells her that later that night she didn't eat much at dinner; she said she wasn't feeling well. The next day, she collapsed on the slopes and was rushed to a clinic and later airlifted to New Mexico, where the nearest neurosurgeon was located.

Her fall on the bunny hill seemed insignificant at the time, but it had caused massive bleeding in Jones' skull.

Her sister, Michelle Kemp, also of Norton Shores, said the pressure that had built up from the bleeding and swelling had caused a brain herniation, meaning the brain was being pushed through a hole at the base of the skull, causing damage to Jones' brain stem.

The surgeon who operated on Jones told her family that he hadn't expected her to survive the surgery.

But she did survive.

Jones spent six weeks in an intensive care unit in New Mexico and another six weeks at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids. At first, she was paralyzed. She could only open her eyes and blink.

"That's how we communicated at first," Kemp said. "We said things like, 'Blink if you're in pain.'"

Jones also could use her left hand to squeeze the hands of her loved ones.

"We were just pleased that she was awake and could somewhat communicate," Kemp said.

Doctors, amazed that she had survived the surgery, said she would never walk again. They said she would spend the rest of her life in a nursing home, dependent on others for everything, unable to even feed herself.

Jones doesn't remember much about that ski trip or what came afterwards.

"It's just empty," Jones said of a yearlong memory blank. "(Blocking those memories is) my brain's way of protecting me."

She said she remembers sorting through helmets to find one that would fit her before she went skiing, and later skiing down the hill. After that, there's nothing.

In May 2010, she was transferred to Sanctuary at the Shore nursing home, 900 S. Beacon in Grand Haven. It was here that fragments of Jones' memories started to return.

"I remember my room (at Sanctuary at the Shore). I remember my roommate passing away. I remember going to (physical) therapy," she said. "And I don't remember anyone feeding me, so I must have been eating on my own."

Jones was still in a wheelchair and attending therapy sessions two to three hours every day, but her condition was improving. She soon began to communicate more with her family and the facility's staff and was relearning how to walk, how to feed herself and how to tie her shoes.

The hardest day of her ordeal was the day a doctor told her she would never drive a car again.

"It was quite a shock," she said. "I'm told that's typical of traumatic brain injuries. You can't get a driver's license after that."

This is especially difficult for Jones because her boyfriend of six years, Rob Essenberg, is blind. Before the accident, she drove him to work in Lansing, but now both of them rely on their children -- Jones has a daughter and Essenberg has a son, both 21 -- for transportation.

Her therapists at Sanctuary at the Shore said Jones' support network was instrumental throughout her treatment. "Her mother was here every day," said occupational therapist Rebecca Bletsch of Muskegon, who worked with Jones.

Kemp also has been involved in her sister's treatment and obtained legal guardianship to make financial and medical decisions while her sister was unable to choose for herself.

"At this point I still have it just to make sure she's comfortable (making decisions), but I'm confident I'll soon relinquish it," Kemp said.

Essenberg has remained by her side as well throughout the ordeal.

"He is amazing. Even today he rubs my hands. I get contractions in my hands; it relaxes the tendons," Jones said. "He's just there for me whenever I need him."

Today, Jones is putting her life back together. She is two credits shy of earning her master's degree from Western Michigan University and intends to finish it.

"It was one of those things where one day I said, 'Oh my gosh, I never finished that,'" she said.

Before her accident, Jones had submitted a rough draft of her research paper, but was not able to make revisions. She said once she readjusts to life at home, she will try to pick up where she left off.

"I had a good life before," she said. "I'm not willing to let go of that."

Jones' recovery surpassed doctors' and therapists expectations.

"When she came here, we thought it would be a permanent placement for her," Bletsch said.

When she left Sanctuary at the Shore, staff had begun to call her "miracle girl."

"I'm not comfortable with that," Jones said. "All I did was return to where I am. I'm nothing special."

Published: Tue, Sep 6, 2011

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