This is Jen Best, brain injured in a car accident when she was 20. She’s 42 in this picture. She’ll soon be 53 – on June 27, 2018 – and still looks almost this young. I think she’s beautiful – I don’t use this word out loud as the tomboy in her doesn’t like it – but I’m not the only one who thinks so. Family and friends always comment on her youthful face, and love her smile and her wit.
She was born Jennifer Best 1965 in Provo, Utah, the middle of two sisters, her youngest sibling her beloved brother. She lived in Utah until she was 17. This was two years after her father divorced me and I moved to Virginia. She stayed behind with friends, went to Brigham Young University for a year then moved to Virginia. She was living with me, her younger sister, and brother when she turned left on a green light, plunging all of us into a new life. February 5, 1986. She didn’t see the pickup truck heading into the intersection. Her younger sister in the passenger seat survived with a crushed pelvis (see Stephanie’s page).
Jen Best (who once upon a time was Jennifer)
The Old Jen, as we call her. Age 15 or 16 here (can’t remember which). One of my favorites of her, eating a cookie, probably not chocolate chip though maybe it was. The New Jen says she has always hated chocolate.
The Old Jen was a tomboy. Here she is on a tree stump somewhere above Kamas, Utah, where her father was born and his parents lived until their deaths. Lots of wilderness areas where she could hike and climb trees.
She graduated class of 1983, from Orem (Utah) high school three and a half years before the accident. She says she hates this picture. Upset that the girls had to wear white while the boys got to wear blue. I laugh at her every time she tells the story, how she’s wearing her jeans under the white gown. She was a character then, and still is.
When I divorced her father and moved to Northern Virginia in 1982, she helped me drive across country. What an adventure that was. (You can read the story on the page Lost in Youngstown.) Short-term memory loss is a result of brain injury. She does remember bits and pieces of that long-ago night – February 5, 1986 – in the drizzly dark when she turned left on a green light, her younger sister in the passenger seat, but she never knew what hit them. Plunged into a coma, she would be in rehab at Mt. Vernon Hospital (Alexandria, Virginia) for eighteen months. No HMOs back then. Today she would have been released to home or a nursing home within months. How blessed we were by an incredible staff of nurses, doctors, and therapists.
The New Jen at Mt. Vernon Hospital Alexandria, Virginia
Comatose Jen. I would read to her, show her familiar things from her past to stimulate her brain. Her eyes “tracked,” the medical term for eye movement. Unable to move anything voluntarily on her body, she had wonderful nurses who would reposition her all day, all night.
The doctor casted her arms and legs hoping the tension would release the severe spasticity. But the right arm today is locked at a less than a forty-five degree angle, the hand also fused downward. During this time there were many fasts and prayers from family and friends, and daily visitors. So bright eyed yet she still can’t move anything voluntarily on her body. These were difficult months for all of us. I was working six hours a day at a citizens lobby, and began making the hour and a half round trip to Mt. Vernon when the staff said it was crucial that she have visitors to stimulate her brain. Church groups visited. Family visited. Missionaries visited. They and other priesthood holders gave her some powerful priesthood blessings. (See this site for an excellent LDS Glossary that defines terms such as priesthood and priesthood blessings for those not familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints/Mormons.)
On July fourth she voluntarily moved a finger and began “talking” to us through a communication board the nurses had devised. She likes to tell how she told us, letter by letter, “My-Mind-Is-Fine.” She also likes to point out that it was Independence Day in the United States of America when she moved her finger.
Her older sister here with Stephanie who was released about three months earlier, her pelvis having healed slightly off-center. Stephanie’s holding the communication board. Even though Jen looks droopy and still isn’t verbal, she can now laugh. Her sisters could make her laugh, a lovely sound. Making progress step by step.
The wonderful speech therapist who worked with her each day told me she had to learn to swallow food again, precursor to being able to talk. It took me half an hour to feed her in the cafeteria at Mt. Vernon Hospital, but this was great progress. Then, finally, eleven long, difficult months after the accident, the week before Christmas 1986 she became what the staff called verbal. I wrote about this beautiful Christmas gift.
It’s one week before Christmas, eleven long months after the accident. I realize Jen is mouthing words I can’t understand. Three days later when I visit her again the door to her room is closed. I wait at the nurses’ station. Finally, the door opens and Jen’s favorite night nurse bustles out. Why doesn’t Carol motion me into the room? Why doesn’t she look over at me? She isn’t smiling as she disappears around the corner, returning in a few minutes with a clean towel and a hospital gown, closing Jen’s door behind her.
I anxiously wait, and wait. When the door opens again, nurse Carol smiles and waves me into the room. Jen doesn’t look any different than always, but the head of the bed is raised so she’s sitting upright and I realize her eyes do seem brighter and more alert than usual and she is smiling and so are two other nurses and a young aide who motion me forward. I lean toward my daughter, I watch her lips move as she says, “I-love-you-Mom,” the words slurred but audible. “Oh Jen!”
I press my hand to my mouth. “Tell her again,” Carol says, and Jen does, the words louder this time. “Thank you, everyone. Thank you, thank you.” I’m overcome with emotion. I can’t stop smiling this almost-Christmas day. Some gifts you never forget.
I’ll be forever grateful to the superb care she received at this hospital that kept her for so long in their program. At the end what Medicaid didn’t pay, they wrote off. This and the length of stay wouldn’t happen today (2018). I’ll be forever grateful to them and to God. If I ever had a lot of money, I would contribute to Mt. Vernon Hospital.
Back to the World
Eighteen months in rehab. She would soon be released, and I would be her full-time caregiver. Stephanie and my son were living with me, and I had remarried about a year earlier. For seven years would have this husband, until he died, who would help me. But I was the one who had to do hands on. I went to the hospital each day that last week in September to learn how to transfer Jen from wheelchair to car to bed. She wasn’t paralyzed, a blessing, and could weight bear or I would have never been able to take care of her. This I believe was a gift from God. My faith got me through this time, and has been with me ever since.
For a time, a van came to our house to take her to the hospital (MVH) wearing this green smock (green her favorite color, one of the first things she’ll tell you 🙂 In 1987 the outpatient program was called BRIDGE, acronym for brain injured daytime group extended, she volunteered doing simple paperwork. She loved interacting with people.
A standing box some friends built for her in 1995, nine years after the accident. We still have the box that I’ve disassembled and taken with me in all the moves Jen and I have made in the last twenty years. During all this time, her brain stem has never healed enough for her to walk, but this box has kept her legs from withering away. I’m grateful she’s not paralyzed and can stand with help. I wouldn’t be able to transfer/take care of her if her legs couldn’t bear weight. One Sunday at church, shortly after he hospital release, a woman who had visited Jen several times at the hospital in her more comatose state, dropped to her knees in front of Jen’s wheelchair and said, “You’re a miracle.” Rocking forward in her chair, Jen grinned and shot back, “I’m a sitting miracle.” They both laughed.
This picture that I really like on a very good day taken maybe five years ago, an afternoon I drove Jen to the Mall in Washington D.C., one of our most favorite places. She happily remembers the ducks on the pond below the Capitol building and the warm, sunny weather. How perfect the day. How stimulating the bustle in our country’s capitol city. How happy she was in her mint-green shirt, waving at my digital camera. She even liked the food I happily found in an East India restaurant.
We were still very young even five years ago. But her short-term memory has seriously declined lately. And always there’s pain in her bad left foot. Still, we carry on, enjoying family – Jen has ten nieces and nephews – church friends, and good neighbors where we live in Harrisonburg, Virginia, home of James Madison University where a grandson is working on a bachelor’s degree. We feel blessed.