“You see how my head is sunk in there?”
Jackie Thomas tapped a finger against a picture in the book. In it, she’s smiling wearily. Her hair is cropped nearly army-short, doing nothing to hide the way the right side of her head curves inward. It looks as if someone has pressed it in with the palm a hand.
“That’s because I don’t have a skull,” she said, smiling proudly.
By all accounts, the 26-year-old Fulton resident really should be dead after … or, at the very least, not walking around talking about how she should be dead. The doctors said as much. She was supposed to be blind; brain dead; unable to walk; or unable to talk. One or all of those.
Then again, Jackie never really minded what the doctors said.
On May 27, 2006, Jackie went ATV riding with some of her friends in the 20 Mile Bottom area. She was driving, a passenger at her back, when the vehicle flipped … and flipped … and flipped six more times after that. Both driver and passenger were thrown from the vehicle. Jackie landed headfirst on pavement.
“When I arrived at the hospital, she was lying in the emergency room … one of the trauma rooms,” Jackie’s mother, Margie, said. “She was completely unresponsive. They told me she would be a ‘salvage operation.’”
Jackie spent 17 days inside ICU, floating in and out of stable condition. During that time, Margie fought to hold onto hope, not an easy task given the situation. It was an awful time.
“We didn’t know if we were going to have her or not, but we were prepared for the worst,” she said.
In order to allow Jackie’s brain room to swell, doctors cut out a chunk of her skull, near the top, right-hand side. This piece was sewn into her abdomen while her brain healed, a technique doctors use so that the body doesn’t try to reject the absent piece of bone when they reattach it. It would end up staying there for three months. They also removed a golf ball-sized piece of her brain.
Doctors kept Jackie in a coma for several weeks to allow her body time to heal. During this time, Margie never left her daughter’s side.
“I prayed for healing. I prayed for the doctors. I prayed for the nurses. I prayed for her body to be healed His way,” Margie said. “I prayed that whatever God gave me, I would be blessed by it.”
Margie prayed and sang, frequently serenading her daughter with a soft, heartfelt version of Crystal Lewis’ “Beauty for Ashes.” That’s their song, Jackie said.
“It gives me strength when she sings it,” she said. Margie sang it frequently.
Apparently, it worked.
She’s a fighter
After more than two weeks in ICU, Jackie had healed enough to be transferred to a step-down unit. She spent a week there before being moved to a regular room.
That’s when she started to wake up. When she did, she seemed to be filled with spit and fire.
“Oh, she fought,” Margie said. “Hard. She was conscious but not really there.”
Coming out of her coma, Jackie cursed and quarreled; she spoke in third person and irrationally insisted on eating at Comer’s Restaurant. She had to wear mittens in order to prevent her from grabbing things.
“I was so uncontrollable,” Jackie admitted with a shrug, Margie, nodding beside her.
“We had to tie her down one night because she was fighting so hard,” Margie said. Because she couldn’t use her hands, Jackie tried to scoot down in the bed and untie her restraints with her teeth.
“Then,” Margie said, “there was the time I tried to feed her and …,”
Margie trailed off, so her daughter finished the statement:
“I told her that I was going to chop her up into little bits of pieces and eat her,” she said.
“There was really no negotiating with her about anything during that time,” Margie said with a laugh.
Not that it was really Jackie’s fault. Think of heavy rock hitting a windshield, the way cracks spiderweb out from the point of impact. Her brain was like that: Broken. It had to rebuild and repair.
She doesn’t remember any of it. After the accident, which caused a traumatic brain injury, there’s nothing but blank space.
“That’s just part of it,” Jackie said. “I have to go by what everybody else tells me. It’s two months of my life that I don’t remember happened.”
Good thing, then, that her family, mother in particular, won’t ever let her forget it.
Miracles, still today
“It was kind of like starting over as a baby at 19 years old,” Jackie said of her recovery at the rehabilitation center in Jackson. “We have a lot of funny stories from that time.”
When the brain is severely traumatized, it has to relearn how it works. It’s difficult to tell how long this process will take. Maybe forever. That’s what doctors feared for Jackie.
Again, she defied what they said she could do.
“Every time the doctors would give us a diagnosis, tell us where I was at, the next day I would defeat it,” Jackie said, a tinge of pride in her voice.
“It was like her body was fighting whatever they were telling us,” her mother added.
Slowly, over time, Jackie stubbornly rebuilt her body and brain. It was a time of little miracles.
“People don’t understand the concept of how little things become big things,” Margie said. “Those little accomplishments — tying a shoe, eating on her own — are huge events.”
One after another, those huge events, those little miracles, came and went. Before long, she was out of the hospital and back to, relatively, normal life. Since her accident, she’s gradated from college, built a career in social work and, last month, tried out for American Idol … all things she shouldn’t have been around to do.
“People who come in contact with her don’t realize how much of a blessing she is,” her mother said. “There are miracles still today. She’s one.”
Jackie smiled and shrugged, just happy to be here.