D. Louise Brown
Emily Jensen nearly died in a car accident two years ago. This LDS Business College student who fought her way back to life now appreciates every minute of every day.
"I tell people life is wonderful because you never realize that until you have everything taken away from you and have to start all over again," Emily said.
Emily's barely discernable words come slowly, formed one syllable at a time as she struggles to communicate, labored speech just one result of the accident that forced her to begin life again, capable of less than a newborn.
Workers at the accident scene that day cut away the top of Emily's car which had been broadsided by a 15-passenger van. They anticipated extracting a body. Inside they found Emily, barely alive, with severe brain trauma and numerous injuries.
Emily spent 10 days in intensive care simply fighting to live. Life support systems monitored her brain pressure, a tracheostomy tube helped her breathe, and a gastostomy tube in her stomach kept her alive as she lay in the deepest type of coma. Her family clenched a thin thread of hope despite doctors' predictions that Emily would remain in a coma or be a vegetable for life.
But the doctors were unfamiliar with Emily's spirit. She emerged from the coma three months later.
"I thought I was gone, but my soul and my dream never left me," Emily said. "They kept me alive." She set daily goals for herself. She relearned how to breathe, swallow, chew, eat, hold her head up, grasp an object in her hand, drink, crawl, stand, and walk.
"I had to learn to do everything. You don't know how hard it was," Emily said.
But even as she struggled to regain these abilities, Emily was already concentrating on the one thing that had always been important to her: serving others.
Emily's life was filled with service before her accident. She had volunteered at a local camp for handicapped children, assisted elderly in their homes, visited hospital patients, took a young blind boy for walks to help him "see" the world, and offered yard care and home repair for those who couldn't help themselves. At school, Emily included those who were ignored by the crowds, reaching out to those who retreated.
Emily's family and friends believe that her resolve to recover grew from a desire to again render compassionate service. She even welcomed doctor's requests to have patients who'd given up on therapy come watch or work out with her.
"I was in so much pain that I wanted to try to help anyone else who was in pain," she said. "I let other patients watch me work to give them hope and courage. I tried to be there for them, to encourage them, to let them know I believed in them and in what they could do. I let them watch me fall down and get back up again. I let them know they could get back up again too."
During one of her therapy sessions a doctor asked her to speak to a young boy in a wheelchair. Emily's mother said: "She walked over to him, fixed her trembling hands on the handles of his wheelchair, looked him in the eyes and said, 'Don't you dare give up. People didn't even expect me to live. I made it and so can you.' She connected with him. She connects with people who have experienced tremendous struggles."
That "connection" gives Emily credibility as she moves among disadvantaged people. Her halting walk, labored speech, and trembling hands open doors between her and others as they sense her immediate understanding.
Emily worked through six months of intensive therapy to regain enough ability to leave the hospital. She returned daily for therapy. One of her doctors, Vera Tait, said, "In 20 years of working in rehabilitation, I have never seen anyone more determined, nor harder working than Emily."
When she left the hospital, Emily returned to Skyline High in a wheelchair, with her mother as her constant companion. Doctors recommended that Emily start out with just two hours a day at school. But she had other plans. She told her mother, "I worked too hard to get here; I'll never go home."
As she regained the use of her faculties, Emily returned to giving service. Her high school schedule, packed with homework and daily therapy visits, also included numerous service activities.
She worked weekly with deaf, minority and handicapped children. She worked with a fellow classmate to organize, prepare and serve 500 sandwiches each month to the homeless at the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen. She collected necessities, toys and medical supplies for third-world countries and for Salt Lake's battered women's shelter, the Christmas Box House, the homeless shelter, the food bank, and other agencies. She chose to celebrate her 18th birthday with children at the homeless shelter. She served dinner at the Senior Center, cared for the children at a multi-cultural day-care center, and participated in an Operation Smiles project that raises funds for corrective facial surgery for children in poverty. She volunteers weekly at Primary Children's Medical Center.
Emily said: "I'm grateful to serve. It's only when we serve others that we forget about ourselves. I know that when I perform a service for someone, they turn around and serve someone else. The difference it makes in the lives of others is amazing."
While still in high school, Emily received the University of Utah's Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Leadership Award for demonstrating a "commitment to social action, initiating positive change, and cultural growth." She graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average. She received a standing ovation as she slowly crossed the stage on her own to receive her diploma.
At LDS Business College, Emily's legacy of service continues. She volunteers weekly at the Shriner's hospital for children, at the homeless shelter's pre-school, and helps raise money for Primary Children's Medical Center. She also regularly visits children in therapy, offering hope and encouragement in a way only she can give.
Recognition of Emily's service is national. She won the Yoshiyama Exemplary Service Award, a $5,000 award given by the Hitachi Corporation. She was one of 10 chosen from among 1,500 nominations, and the only disabled recipient.
Emily's influence impacts her college peers. Student body officers at the college assist Emily as she attends class. They write notes for her and translate her questions to the teacher as necessary. The students describe Emily as intelligent, devoted, and hardworking.
Student body president Nathan Dahl said: "This has been an honor for us to work with her. The experience is ten times better than anything else I'm doing." He added, "When we help Emily, that's a life-defining experience."
Mr. Dahl has been working with a donor to buy a specialized computer for Emily that will allow her to type her own papers. "It takes her five times longer to type up a paper because she has to punch every key separately. I'm really anxious to get this for her," he said.
Another student officer, Brooke Robison, said, "She told me that she knows she was saved from the accident to help people. Every day she's in the best mood. I wonder why I can't be like that. She's helped me a lot."
Emily also influences faculty members. Kathy Skene, coordinator for the learning assistance lab, said: "She left a paper she'd written for me to read. I couldn't believe the insight. She has insight that people my age don't have. I wish she could speak easier so others could gain her insight. But you can feel it from her spirit. Everybody who works with her has increased self worth and insight."
Administrators have monitored Emily's progress, impressed by her independence. Dean of students Karen Peterson noted: "We have no idea where she's going to end up, probably much further than anyone expects. She has no self-pity, and so she doesn't get any pity."
Pity is the last thing Emily wants. As her life continues to improve, she takes on new goals. Her latest is to increase her class load at the college.
Emily's mother, Terri, said, "Her time at the business college means everything to her. The fact that she's there is remarkable. She's determined to get the skills to put her in a position in life to help kids that have been through what she's been through."
Emily's family acknowledges that her example has strengthened their own lives. Terri said, "Emily's taught me about faith. Faith is a very comfortable thing to have as long as things are going well, but when tragedy strikes, especially in the life of a 16-year-old, you learn things about faith in ways that you never did before. Emily has helped a lot of people understand what genuine faith is. Instead of having this experience make her bitter or self-absorbed, it seems to have opened her heart up even more to a whole arena of people who need her love and care. She's my hero."
Emily's father, Larry, has been her companion since high school in what he calls "our morning ritual." At 5 a.m. he and Emily head to the gym where she augments her daily physical therapy with a workout. The workout has become such a bond between them that even when he's out of town he finds a gym and works out. "She wouldn't let me not do it," he said.
Larry said: "I think she has drawn exceptionally close to the Spirit during this. I think that is why people are so drawn to her, because she has such a portion of the spirit with her. I don't know exactly why or how that is, but she has been blessed that way."
Emily knows that she has grown through meeting the challenges before her. She asked her dad not too long ago, "Dad, was I always this happy, or did it take the accident to realize it?"
Emily once wrote, "Leo Tolstoy said, 'The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.' I believe that. Everyone needs to feel the kindness of your spirit."
Serving others will continue to be Emily's hallmark. It has prompted the hard physical, emotional and spiritual strength that allowed her to triumph over tremendous obstacles. She subscribes to the belief that if "the difficult takes time, the impossible takes just a little longer." Her ability to apply that creed convinces others that achieving the impossible is a near certainty.
As one college peer said: "Looking at Emily's life, I can't complain any more. She's the happiest person alive."
March 29, 2002