The gym doors open and the soon-to-be graduates enter—proud and expectant. Surrounding them, family and friends sit in equal anticipation. Soon, the names are read off and each student approaches to collect their diploma. Jaya Fever stands in the queue. Her name is called, and she steps forward, using a single-point cane for support as she makes her way to the podium. Like her peers, she receives her diploma and sits back down, a smile crossing her face. Unlike her peers, that moment represents so much more than just the culmination of years’ worth of classes and extracurricular activities. For Jaya and her family, just a few months earlier, the possibility of walking at graduation seemed a distant fantasy.
We’ve all done it. We drive the same route every day. We joke, “The car drives itself!” We drive the well-worn path from Point A to Point B and our minds float off to the things we need to do and worries that weigh on us.
For Jaya and scores of her classmates from Adair-Casey/Guthrie Center High School in Guthrie, Iowa, the early morning drive to school was just that—routine, something she had done hundreds of times before. In early December 2022, just a short time before the first half of her senior year would end, Jaya passed through a familiar stretch of rural highway on the way to school. Her car lost traction and skidded across the road at a high speed, colliding with a utility pole.
“I don’t remember the accident and much of what happened after,” Jaya explains. When memories started to form over the following weeks, they were a mix of reality and dream-like associations.
For Jaya’s family and friends, recovery at Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa immediately following the accident wasn’t a metered progression of big gains in a short period. “It was like walking in the dark,” remembers Jaya’s father Kyle. The family’s hopes were mountainous, but they learned to simultaneously focus on every small gain she made, starting with the tiny wish for her to just open her eyes.
The accident and ensuing traumatic brain injury lead to post-traumatic amnesia or PTA— a period following a severe brain injury during which an individual may be physically conscious but lacks the ability to form memories crucial to rebuilding routines. Fortunately for Jaya and her family, the Amicous Disorders of Consciousness Program at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, Illinois met their needs.
The program, designed to aid those who are “minimally conscious,” is an introduction to physical rehabilitation in a secure and supported environment. Doctors and nurses monitored Jaya’s medical needs while clinicians initiated therapies that didn’t require active involvement.
A family video of Jaya during this time shows her up and walking with full support from clinicians. While clear that a semblance of progress is beginning, Jaya’s personality—the life behind the open eyes, the wit and sarcastic sense of humor that those close to her loved and cherished, was absent.
Jaya’s PTA began to subside around the halfway point of her time at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and the picture of Jaya was coming back into form. She was ready to continue her rehabilitation journey, her family securely by her side.
In almost equal measure to the imperative of her physical progress, Jaya’s expression through music and art grew daily in the figures and objects on a canvas, the strum of a chord, and the starting pitch of a song. She began to work with Life Path Specialist Ricci Anderson. “I knew from early on that Jaya was a young woman who would go far at QLI,” remembers Ricci. “With so much of her life ahead of her, she is determined to use her spirit and fight in creating milestones.”
Initially, painting sessions were one-on-one, working on creating smaller pieces—a very practical and fun way to use strategies and skills developed in visual and occupational therapies such as the improvement of fine motor skills, attention, and focus. She got involved in QLI’s music program, playing songs with other clients, building hand strength and coordination when holding drumsticks, or sustaining a chord on a ukulele.
When it came to physical therapies, Jaya recalls, “I never said no to suggestions that were brought up by the team. I kept moving forward.” Within just three months, Jaya progressed from requiring a wheelchair for mobility to walking with the support of her therapist. Shortly afterward, she walked with a four-point cane and then a single-point cane. Jaya holds dear in her memory the day when she could finally walk to the lake on QLI’s campus, confidently navigating down a steep and uneven grassy hill to the path, and then laps around the concrete trail.
Jaya worked with speech-language pathologist Zoey Devney to improve the quality of her speech and work through her dysarthria, strengthening the muscles utilized for speaking. “To tackle vocal cadence and rhythm, we’d work through the text of a story, taking the measure of how many words Jaya could read aloud per minute. Initially, she was around 75 words per minute, but within a few weeks had improved to 110 words.”
All told, the crux of the journey for Jaya would be seen with one event she knew she didn’t want to miss—her high school graduation. Early on, it became clear that this goal would be the perfect opportunity to centralize Jaya’s therapies.
“Leading up to Jaya’s graduation,” shares Ricci, “we’d spend time going to coffee shops. We’d park far away so she could walk to the shop entrance, a way to implement what she had learned in physical therapy. We’d also take advantage of the outing to practice vocalizations and speech quality when ordering drinks.”
Increased confidence returned as well, and over time Jaya grew fully independent in her routines. “I was so thankful to see her independence coming back,” affirms Jaya’s mother Laura. “It’s always been a part of her.” The social environment of QLI built Jaya up and provided equal parts encouragement and support.
With family, friends, and QLI team members in attendance, Jaya graduated in May 2023. “Early on,” reveals Jaya, “I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. But to be there, in front of everyone, was amazing.”
Another graduation soon followed when Jaya completed her inpatient program at QLI in June of 2023. She continued to return to campus a few times a week for the outpatient motor learning program, continuing to improve to walk long distances with no support.
Now at home, Jaya is all about looking forward. “I do a few physical therapy sessions weekly,” she says, “as well as some voice and piano therapies.” The goal is to attend Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, pursuing a path either toward being an elementary art teacher or a speech-language pathologist. “It’s a slow and steady climb for Jaya now,” muses her father Kyle. Even with work and progress still to be made, Jaya isn’t dissuaded in the slightest.
“My brain injury didn’t take a part of me away—I still am as I’ve always been.”