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Jackson Stewart: Fighting through a near-death experience

It’s clear now that Jackson Stewart isn’t going to let a 50 mile-per-hour, head-on crash into a large tree stop his pursuit of life.

It’s been nearly six months since the car in which he was traveling slammed into a tree off West Port Madison Road, sending the then-18-year-old islander into a precarious future.

He suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and various other critical injuries, which led to a three-week coma, 60 days in the hospital and the likelihood of years of mental and physical therapy if he survived.

The paramedics who flew him off the island to Harborview Medical Center last Aug. 8 weren’t sure he would even survive the flight and when he did, the hospital’s emergency staff didn’t give him much of a chance of living either. Still, he hung on hour after hour, day after day, as the Seattle hospital’s medical staff did all it could to ensure he didn’t slide from unconsciousness into death.

His family members certainly were prepared for the worst, as his father, Lance Stewart, implied during the first (on Aug. 12) of 68 entries the family made on the CaringBridge website through Jan. 1, 2012.

“Jackson’s state is perhaps stable, but one never knows,” Lance wrote. “He is on a ventilator and seems to take breaths sometimes on his own. His temperature is high and they have to cool him down with a chill blanket. He can reflexively move his legs and arms in response to pain, and can spontaneously flinch sometimes dramatically. He is on pain killers, antibiotics, a food tube, catheter, oxygen sensor, and his eyes are shut. They  are no longer monitoring brain pressure as that seems to be stable. The road to recovery from this point is an unknown, and we are focused on the future now. We are very appreciative of everyone’s thoughts and prayers, especially the Bainbridge Island outpouring for this tragic event.”

During Jackson’s three weeks in a coma, his family watched as he gradually began to fight through pain and his inability to regain consciousness, often moving his left arm and leg, pulling at his neck brace, or trying to remove tubes connected to him. It was apparent he wasn't willing to go quietly into the night.

Jackson’s defiance, even while in the coma, became a rallying point for the family, but not everyone saw it, including one of the neurosurgeons involved in the eight-hour surgery two weeks after the accident that involved inserting 14 titanium plates and 62 screws in his fractured skull and face. Later, the physician apologized to Jackson’s family for thinking that Jackson wouldn’t survive, for doubting his will.

The turning point, said his mother, Mary Jo Stewart, was the way he bolted out of his coma – talking and then walking within a couple of weeks despite many obstacles to overcome.

“The doctors said he was a lot further along than they thought he would be coming out of a coma,” she said. “They said it was unusual for someone to come out of a coma like that. I guess he was ready to rejoin us.”

Life-changing event

Jackson was enjoying his brief summer after graduating from Bainbridge High in June 2011. His short-term future seemed determined after accepting a scholarship to the University of Colorado, the Boulder college where he could delve into a science-focused curriculum while also continue his pursuit of becoming an accomplished skier.

Life was good, at least until a week before he was to leave for school and he went to a party at a friend’s home on the north end of the island. When the party wound down during the early-morning hours of Aug. 8, he decided to grab a ride home rather than stay at a friend’s house nearby as he had told his parents on the phone. Besides the driver, a male friend sat in the front passenger seat and Jackson was in the back seat directly behind the driver.

According to police reports, the driver was under the influence of alcohol and lost control of the vehicle. Its left rear hit the tree, which smashed through metal and glass as it made contact with his Jackson's head. Apparently he reacted to the pending accident and turned away, leaving the right side of his head vulnerable.

Neither the driver nor the other passenger suffered serious injuries; the driver was charged with driving while intoxicated and vehicular assault, a felony charge that is still pending.

The community’s reaction to Jackson’s uncertain future led to a groundswell of support, not only from family and friends, but many islanders who didn’t know him. The family says the support has been cathartic for Jackson.

“Obviously, it has been a life-changing experience for Jackson and it has been a very traumatic six months for the family,” said Mary Jo, who believes her son’s personality has changed.

“He has matured quite a bit,” she said. “Before the accident, he was guarded and edgy a lot, irritable. There’s real change going on. Now there’s not much of a filter with him. He’s right out there. And he understands that his lifestyle during his senior year was destructive. He has finally seen what goes on here, that there’s a lot of enabling by parents. It’s frustrating to him that some of his friends still don’t get it, and he’s lost some friendships because of that.”

Jackson and his family realize his mental and physical stability will take years to achieve, but they also consider his sudden maturity to be a consequence of the accident.

“I just figure that you have to pay for your actions,” Jackson said this week from his dorm room at the University of Washington, where he is taking a full load of unaudited classes during the winter term.

“Getting in that car and living that lifestyle, in a way, makes me think that it was more than just an accident,” he said, “Not like a death wish, but just being stupid. I understand now that the whole lifestyle for kids on Bainbridge is ridiculous. I guess you have to go through something like this. I’ve changed my perspective on life. The only thing that really matters now are my future choices.”

His mother said it’s as if he has lived 10 years in five months.

Lessons learned

Jackson gradually began slipping out of the coma, which officially ended on Aug. 29 when he started communicating with hand gestures and rudimentary sounds. But it was obvious his sense of humor had returned.

On Sept. 6, one of the family’s friends said jokingly to Jackson: “If you keep getting better, I’ll let you flip the bird at me,” Lance wrote in the CaringBridge journal. It took a few seconds, but Jackson flipped him the bird.

His sessions in speech therapy began, and on Sept. 9 a family member asked Jackson what he wanted to eat when he got out of the hospital. He grunted something unintelligible, something that sounded like “diquis.” Frustrated, Jackson wrote what he was saying, and it was “Dick’s,” the Hamburger Drive-in located in Seattle.

Throughout September, Jackson continued to make progress with his strength, coordination, language and walking with the aid of a walker. By the third week of the month, his throat was beginning to heal and he occasionally was able to eat regular food.

He started taking trips home and left Harborview for home on Saturday, Oct. 8 – exactly two months after the accident. He was still limited physically and his memory loss frustrated him (he remembers nothing of the accident), but it was obvious that he was healing.

Once home, he embarked on several physical challenges. A half-marathon runner in high school, he started running, swimming and lifting weights. He even told his parents he wanted to start skiing, but that’s not going to happen.

While Jackson seems to be in a hurry, only missing one term of college because of the accident, he said he realizes that his recovery will be gradual – like moving in slow motion. His working memory is beginning to function closer to normal, he said, but his ability to recall specific information in his memories is still a work in progress.

The function of his right eye, which has muscle and optic damage from the accident, is also a question mark going forward. Therapy and time is the answer, but for now the eyelid covers the eye unless it is taped up.

The best part, his mother said, “is that Jackson is in very good spirits, which is probably related at least in part to his commitment to exercise and fitness.”

When reached at his dorm in Seattle, Jackson said that after spending about eight days in Seattle he was feeling a little depressed.

“It’s just that about all I’m doing here is eating, sleeping, going to school and working out,” he said. “But I like it here and I have friends. It’ll get better.”

He said he’ll probably continue to attend UW rather than transfer to Colorado, which deferred his enrollment for a year. That's partly because he will be able to continue his rehabilitation at the University of Washington Medical Center, which is associated with Harborview

“It’s probably best for me to stay here,” he said. “I like being around my parents and my brother and sister. My family had to go through a lot with me. My parents were at the hospital every single day, and spent most nights there.”

They’re more important to him, he said, since the accident.

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