The Comeback Kid

A writer colleague recently asked me to name the hardest-to-write story I’ve done. This article originally appeared in The Lakeland Ledger, Polk County, Florida, on May 3, 1998. Here it is.


As Polk City Hardware’s softball team storms through the season, one player—Jessica Fisher, identified as player number 1 “Speedy”—has been an inspiration to watch. Call me sentimental, but I cried at her last game. She’s never played softball before this season and yet, she’s the comeback kid. To watch her now, one wouldn’t know that less than a year ago she lay comatose and bleeding, identified as patient #3446912 in the emergency room of the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is the story of her comeback.

blurry lights showing speed

Her life was changed on Memorial Day, May 26th, 1997 at 8 a.m. She was with her father, Maury L. Fisher, M.D., her uncle Phil and her aunt Lee on the way to the airport. At the intersection of Harris Boulevard and Sharon Amity Road, a Chevy pickup ran the red light and rammed the back left side of the car where Jessica sat. An ambulance arrived in minutes and took her to Carolinas Medical Center.

Doctors took scores of x-rays and scans. They found broken ribs, two broken collarbones, a fractured left kidney and two collapsed lungs. A scan revealed her nose was broken. Deep facial cuts bled from her forehead and the left side of her face where glass embedded itself. These injuries were minor compared to her head injury. Doctors warned of brain damage from bleeding, and the potential need for neurosurgery if her brain swelling continued.

It took five hours of plastic surgery by Doctor Felice Moody to patch Jessica’s face back together. She was still in surgery when I flew in from Orlando. We were grateful to learn that glass had missed her eye. It took my breath away to see my ten-year-old daughter helpless, struggling for life in the pediatric intensive care unit. Tubes ran from her nose and mouth, another was attached to her skull above her right eye. Other tubes and wires ran under the covers. Black stitches held her swollen face together. She had blood and tiny cubes of glass in her hair. She remained comatose for eight days.

While family and friends prayed, a soft-spoken procession of neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, trauma specialists, nurses, and radiologists explained the possibility of permanent brain damage, paralysis, seizures, and infection.

The nurses granted us 24-hour access to touch Jessica, but we could bear only minutes at a time. We camped out in the waiting room and paced and made phone calls to friends and family. Because a picture tells a thousand words and it was painful to speak about the situation, I took a photo and sent it back home with friends to share with prayer warriors. It was a tag-team arrangement. Maury would talk until he cried, then his sister or I would talk until breaking down.  As an orthopedic surgeon, Maury had always been the one who brought news into the waiting room. Now he had to wait for it.

Phone calls and visits from friends kept us going through the eight days Jessica remained unconscious. Pastor Gittner, from a local Lutheran Church, prayed and spoke softly in Jessica’s ear about God’s grace, and love, and strength. We also played the soundtrack from the Whitney Houston movie The Preacher’s Wife on a tape player attached to her bed. Jessica was in God’s hands.

We rejoiced and wept whenever she opened her eyes. We cheered when she was freed from each line, each tube, each wire, and then discharged from the pediatric intensive care unit. We piled fifteen stuffed animals and anchored twenty helium balloons to her bed. The nurses led the parade of family and friends up to the second most depressing floor of the hospital—pediatric neurology rehab.

There, Jessica got her own room with a bathroom, bulletin board, television, and a spare fold-out bed. She was outraged to discover she was in large disposable diapers and later fell trying to climb out of bed to go to the bathroom herself. After a day she whispered what she wanted–“Daddy” and “Cookie.” In a flurry of phone calls, we reported it to friends. She didn’t know where she was or why. She struggled to answer simple questions, like naming the days of the week. She did not remember the accident.

The only mirror in her room was on the wall above the sink. It was too high for her to use, yet I worried about how she would react to her face. Later that day, she saw her reflection in a metal paper towel holder. She flinched, then shaking, she reached up and touched her face. I sat her on the bed and told about having scratches on her face from the accident. Her 200 stitches had been removed before she woke up. I reminded her of her friend Caylee once had stitches on her face that didn’t leave a trace. Jessica’s cuts were deeper, covering her forehead and the left side of her face. Hers would not all disappear.

Over the next three weeks, Jessica fought her way from being too weak to lift her head, to being able to feed and dress herself, and gradually, to walk slowly while holding onto someone. Maury returned to work to tend to his patients and flew up every weekend. There were 20 to 30-second delays between when we asked her a question and her whispered reply. The grueling physical and cognitive therapy lasted from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. She slept solidly between sessions. Often she cried and pleaded to skip the afternoon sessions, but I urged her to do all the staff asked her to. A walk down the hallway showed the results of stalled recoveries. She begged to go home to Florida.

She told me she hated me while she clung to me. Thirty minutes later she forgot all about it because she had not yet recovered her short-term memory.

Beanie Babies, balloons, flowers, and cards arrived daily, from family, her classmates at Grace Lutheran, her Sunday School class, neighbors, friends, and friends of friends. Part of her eye-hand therapy was to open the cards and gifts. When she tried to read a card on her own, she sounded out the syllables like a first–grader instead like a fourth-grader who had read To Kill a Mockingbird months earlier.

The doctors couldn’t predict if she would be able to go back to school, or how much memory she might have lost. They were confident her body would heal well. “Kids bounce back faster than we expect,” they’d say. Neuropsychological tests showed she had much to recover, but the specialists assured us that we would see results even two years down the road. We discharged Jessica from the hospital on June 17th, taking our hopes and fears with us.

We returned to Florida on June 20th. Neighbors had strung up a banner to welcome her back. Her friends crowded in to hug her and remind her that they had been praying. She basked in their love. For the rest of the summer, she played mostly indoors. When she went out, it was only after being slathered with 45-strength sunblock to prevent sun burning her healing scars. She could not participate in sports because her reflexes were still too slow.

Three days a week we drove to Orlando for continuing therapy. When school resumed Jessica remembered the names of her classmates and teachers, but she had forgotten how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. She added an apostrophe to any word that ended in S, and when reminded of spelling rules, she’d slap her forehead and say, “Oh, yeah. I knew that.” Her approach to homework was disorganized, rushed, and emotional, but she fought to improve. At Thanksgiving, she endured a second round of plastic surgery. Gradually we allowed her to resume normal activities and sports.

Jessica’s softball team stands 12-0. As the season nears the final games, we also near the next Memorial Day. It’s been a long year. She lost a summer of childhood. She has been forced to accept her own mortality and every mirror reminds her of the accident. Sometimes, as parents, we get misty-eyed watching her do everyday things, things children take for granted, like being able to tie her own shoes, or ride a bicycle, or play on a softball team. No matter how her team finishes the season, I’m choked up with pride, because Jessica has already proven she’s undefeated.


PostScript

Coaches Mike Littlejohn and Greg Gaither coached Jessica’s softball team to finish the season 14-0.

Thanking Heros

Jessica shown with the paramedics who rescued her

When we returned to Charlotte a year after the accident for follow-up testing, we tracked down the paramedics who rescued Jessica: Melissa Grimes and Brad Chenausky. In all their years of work through the Mecklenburg County EMS Agency, they had never before been personally thanked. It was an honor to meet them and thank them.

Charlotte, North Carolina has since installed 20 intersection cameras. They expect to earn millions each year in fines and the presence of the cameras has reportedly reduced the number of intersection accidents. There are cameras on Harris Boulevard and Sharon Amity Road.

Today Jessica is an RN working on her nurse practitioner’s degree.