The first time Jessica Owen spent a day in a wheelchair was in second grade.
Her mother wanted her to know at a young age what it was like to struggle doing the simplest things — getting dressed, shopping, playing outside — because she wanted her to know that others constantly overcome greater problems than her own.
Now, some two decades later, that life lesson is helping the former sixth-grade teacher navigate the turn her world took three months ago when a falling tree on Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass killed both her parents and left her, her sister and her brother-in-law with devastating injuries.
The three were sitting next to one another in the middle seat of the family’s SUV when the massive tree came down on them four days before Christmas.
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Owen, 27, spent more than two months at Harborview Medical Center before joining her sister and brother-in-law, Jaime and Steven Mayer, both 25, at a Northgate nursing facility that is now her home.
Jaime, who has progressed to using crutches, was discharged from the facility two days ago. Steven is still there with her sister, both still in wheelchairs and facing more surgeries.
Only the sisters’ 22-year-old brother, Jeremy Owen, was able to walk away from the accident scene, though he, too, bears scars, his more emotional than physical. Together, they’re pulling each other through a healing process they say only their parents could have prepared them for.
“You just don’t know how you’re going to act until the situation is in front of you,” Jessica Owen said. “It’s push on or give up, and you make a choice for yourself.”
Physically, the athletic and sports-loving Owen is the most challenged, suffering a partial spinal-cord injury that’s left her with very limited control over her limbs.
Her sister Jaime, a Seattle University law-school student, and brother-in-law Steven, who works at Microsoft, can use their arms to get around in regular wheelchairs. Doctors expect both to walk again, though Steven might be able to do so only with a cane.
Jessica Owen’s chances of walking on her own are less certain. She does walking-simulation exercises using a walker, and with therapists supporting her feet with every step. But except for that, she has moved around in a motorized chair she directs with her chin, only recently starting to use a hand-controlled joystick.
No one can predict if her spinal cord will fully heal or how soon.
“You can’t really plan ahead. That’s the worst part,” she said. “It could take three years to try walking again, or it could take six months.”
Her new job: rehab
Given the severity of her injuries, Owen’s rehabilitation therapy is the most intense. She’s confronting it like it’s a full-time job replacing the one she had at Frank Love Elementary in the Northshore School District.
She has pursued physical challenges her whole life, including coed wrestling in high school. Later she started her own running club. Now, “rehabilitation gives me purpose,” she said.
“If I don’t have purpose in my life, everyone around me is going to be miserable, so I’m giving myself a direction and pushing into it.”
But learning how to do simple things again like washing her face, that’s a different story, because to her those challenges are more personal than physical.
“It’s really hard not to be able to do those things because they’re part of being human,” she said. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to work at it because it takes away my dignity.”
Her sister is confident Owen will work through those emotions, in part thanks to the perseverance both their father and a childhood soccer coach instilled in them.
“Anytime we started a new sport, we had to do it for at least two years,” Jaime Mayer said.
Friends and family have offered encouragement since the accident, and gifts in the form of jerseys, signed footballs and care packages have arrived from members of their favorite sports teams.
Most of Owens’ rehabilitation expenses are being paid through donations from friends, family, Bothell residents and others who have followed their accident and recovery through a
More work ahead
For Owen, there are bits of progress here and there.
Last month, with two therapists stabilizing her upper body, she began standing on two feet.
She hopes her next home — the Craig Hospital in Denver — will bring her rehabilitation even further. The facility specializes in spinal-cord-injury care, but it’s expensive and not covered by insurance.
Owen said she’s in no rush to get there. “It’s worth it to wait for the right time so I can get the most out of it and the best bang for our buck,” she said.
Until then, she’s visiting, emailing and texting the people in her life. She writes to her sixth-graders every week. She ribs her brother-in-law for now having a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead, just like Harry Potter.
And, thankfully, she now can hold her sister’s hand and feel it — something she couldn’t when they first held hands at Harborview after the crash.
As Jaime Mayer tests her sister’s hands by pinching, opening, closing, pushing and pulling them, Owen tells her how much she can feel and do.
“I can’t push you, but I can pull you in like crazy.”