Saturday, February 12, 2005

A Sign From Above

The first thing I noticed about Jennifer Shook was her beautiful eyes and smile. I also noticed her wheelchair. During several interviews with her and her parents, I visited Craig, Colorado, where she grew up and where fate nearly took her life.

There was a full moon that cold night in the small Colorado town where she nearly died. Sitting on the front porch at her friend’s house she could see the horses’ breath as their hooves crunched in the frozen grass. As Jennifer Shook gazed toward the pasture, she was in a somber mood and it was quiet outside. Earlier her boyfriend, Courtland, had sat next to her and they were discussing personal problems they hadn’t resolved while everyone else at the party was drinking inside Tracy's home.

Tracy’s mom had bought alcohol for Tracy and her friends and then had gone out. Everyone was underage by law, between 17 and 19, and had grown up together in the town of Craig. The house was new, but had no electricity. For light they used candles and battery-powered lanterns that were all around the house. Jennifer was not drinking because she planned on driving home.

By the time another friend, Travis, had arrived at Tracy’s around midnight, the party had died down and most people had left. As a supervisor at Pizza Hut, Travis had worked late that night. When Courtland left the porch, he smoked marijuana with Travis, according to Jennifer. Travis said he never smoked weed that night. He did, however, drink some beers, but still felt he was sober enough to drive. When Courtland returned somebody suggested they go watch the steam from the cooling towers next to the nearby power plant. It seemed like a good idea, they thought. Tina, the owner of a 1979 four-door Ford Tempo, was very drunk. So Travis offered to drive.

“Are you Ok?” asked Jennifer.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Travis said.

Jennifer hadn’t seen him drinking and knew he had arrived late so she never questioned him again. By 2:30 Sunday morning, they got in the tiny Ford, Travis driving and Tina in the passenger seat. In the back, Courtland sat in the middle, Luke to his left and Jennifer to his right. Of the five friends who had known each other since elementary school, Jennifer was the only one sober....

For a believer in fate, the full moon was an omen that early Sunday morning on November 12, 1989. There were other signs. Jennifer was a 19-year -old freshman at Mesa State College. She had driven home to Craig that Friday to visit some high school friends and her parents. More importantly, it was her best friend Heidi’s birthday and Jennifer’s parents, Drenda and Randy Forrest, had bought her a used station wagon. But why had Jennifer packed three pairs of clothes, her bible and address book for a short visit home? Why had Randy taken 300 dollars out of the bank that day and said he felt like he needed it, which upset Drenda? And just weeks earlier, Marvin, who was a friend of Jennifer’s uncle, had been severely injured in a motorcycle accident.

There were other signs for predestination or perhaps preparation for what lay ahead. Before she left for college, Jennifer volunteered much of her free time at a local old age home for two years. At that time, during her first week, an old lady had grabbed Jennifer’s hand and told her she needed somebody to talk to. And feeling that she had made a difference, Jennifer knew she would stay. Even though many of the elderly seemed helpless or stubborn, she learned that she had to make them take their medication and bathe. And no matter how many times they bit her and spit on her and punched her, she knew she was helping them, something she always liked doing.

Jennifer was the one who was stubborn and upset that day she came home and saw the station wagon her parents had bought her. She didn’t care if it would get more gas mileage than her pickup truck. The wood paneling is so ugly, she thought, and told Randy she’d never drive it. Little did she know she never would.

The next day, Saturday, Jennifer was arguing with Courtland on the phone. When she hung up, she was still upset and in tears. She asked Drenda if she could use her Trail Blazer to drive over to Heidi’s house.

“You’re too upset,” Drenda said. “You’re not going to drive anywhere.”

A while later, after she had calmed down, she again asked her parents if she could drive the Blazer. They said it was Ok. So Jennifer drove to Heidi’s house, where she ate birthday cake and played games with Courtland, Heidi and another friend. Then they decided to go to Tracy’s house party. Heidi didn’t want to go and stayed home with her parents....

They were low on gas and wanted some snacks. So they drove on U.S. Highway 40 into town and stopped at Gopher Foods. Jennifer saw Travis struggling to open the gas cap and she unscrewed it and pumped the gas for him. After buying some chips they got back in the car, in the same seating arrangement. In the distance beyond the four lane road and railroad tracks and Yampa River, steam billowed out of the giant cooling towers. With the full moon it was brighter than other nights.

Travis drove less than a mile on U.S. Highway 40 East when he saw a police car with its lights turned off and parked in the National Guard Armory parking lot. As he passed the Armory, the police car pulled out behind the Ford. Travis said he wasn’t speeding after the cop pulled out. Moffat County Undersheriff Dennis Craig told the Northwest Colorado Daily Press that Travis accelerated as he passed the police car. Jennifer said the same thing as Undersheriff Craig.

Travis knew he and the others had been drinking so he wanted to create as much distance between himself and the police car as possible. That’s why he turned right onto East First Street and sped up. They passed the drive-in theater they had been to many weekend nights in high school. Travis’s adrenaline was rushing. Perhaps that is why he didn’t notice the cop’s flashing lights or the passengers screaming at him to slow down. He was worried more about the beer bottles in the car than his friends’

Knowing those roads well, and in a panic, Travis drove into the Road and Bridge Department parking lot and turned off the headlights. He then turned onto an access road that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. He had been down there many times to go fishing in the Yampa River. Normally the gates were closed to the access road. But this is a story about fate, and on that night the gates were open.

What happened just before they crashed into an embankment and flew through the air and landed on the two passenger wheels and slid just twenty feet shy of the river is not clear. What is certain is that no one was wearing a seat belt and that the car was totaled. Jennifer says Courtland punched Travis just before they hit the embankment. Travis says Tina reached over and turned on the headlights before they went airborne. After the crash, Craig told the Daily Press that the Ford traveled 85 feet through the air, and reached speeds of 60 to 65 miles-per-hour during the chase.

Whatever happened, it was surreal to Jennifer. After all, her father Randy had worked in law enforcement most of his life and had worked at the Road and Bridge Department for several years before retiring just months before. Thoughts raced through Jennifer’s mind yet everything around her seemed like it was in slow motion. He’s running from the cops, oh my God, he’s running from the cops.... this jerk is wrecking the car...Oh God, that really hurt....

When the Ford came to a stop, her belly felt like it was on fire and she was gasping for air. Courtland lay in Jennifer’s lap, dazed. She couldn’t feel him laying on her. As the windshield shattered, Courtland broke his jaw on the dashboard. Tina broke her nose as did Travis, who hit the steering wheel so hard he was momentarily unconscious when the car landed. Luke had just a few bruises.

Jennifer tried to push whatever it was out of her back with one hand as she grabbed the handlebar above the door with the other hand. By then Travis was awake and frantic and he said he told Tina to say that she was driving. Jennifer said Travis was pulling Tina toward the driver’s seat and yelling, “She was driving! She was driving!” when the cops arrived and told him to freeze and handcuffed him. Travis denies that claim. However, he was headed to the Coast Guard and knew he’d be kicked
out if arrested.

The policeman in the pursuit had radioed for an ambulance during the chase. Soon more cops as well as ambulances arrived at the scene. They handcuffed Travis first. Tina was screaming and bleeding. In the backseat, Luke saw Jennifer struggling to breathe and started shaking her and asking her if she was Ok.

“No, no, no, no!” cried Jennifer. “I’m not Ok.”

In a panic, Luke got out and ran in circles around the car yelling, “She’s hurt! She’s hurt!” The police and paramedics thought he meant Tina, instead of Jennifer, and told him they’d take care of her. Unlike Tina, who was covered in blood, Jennifer bled internally. After they helped Tina, a cop leaned into Jennifer’s window and asked if she was Ok. No, said Jennifer. Courtland regained consciousness and saw Jennifer in aguish. “Just hold me, just hold me,” she said. When he hugged her, she cried, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” When he had put his hand on her knee, it felt just like her belly had, like it was on fire. Courtland started swearing and yelling for the medics to help her. They took him out of the car.

Jennifer was in shock. As they cut off the doors to remove her in a L-board from the backseat, she couldn’t understand why someone was screaming every time they said they were going to lift her. She didn’t realize she was the one screaming. They carried her into an ambulance on a backboard with her legs straightened and tied down. Jennifer was conscious but still in shock on the way to The Memorial Hospital in Craig.

At their home watching a movie, Drenda and Randy felt restless. Jennifer normally was home by one. She’d tell her parents she was home, that was the rule, and then go to bed. It was a quarter of three. No Jennifer.

At Memorial Hospital, the medics had cut off Jennifer’s pink-and-blue-and-white-pinstriped shirt, white turtleneck and jean-bib overalls. Jennifer had borrowed the outfit from a friend and said, “Don’t cut them off. They’re not mine. Don’t worry, I’ll sit up and take them off.” No, they said, you can’t sit up. One of the doctors kept asking Jennifer to move her toes, and she kept telling him, “I just did.” Well, do it again Jennifer, he said. No movement.

Then a sheriff named Jeff, who like all the other policemen in town knew Randy, came in and told her, “We need to call your folks.”

“No, you are not going to call my parents at this time of night and tell them I was hurt,” she said. “You just give me a shot. The pain will go away and I’ll go home.”

Courtland gave the number to Jeff, who called the Forrests and told them Jennifer was at the hospital but she was Ok, nothing more. Randy was irate. No one calls at this time of night unless something is seriously wrong, he thought. Drenda thought Jennifer probably broke an arm or leg or was in trouble for doing something.

“In my whole life if there’s anything I can change it is that time that my parents got a phone call that their daughter’s in the hospital and they don’t know if she is going to make it,” says Jennifer, unable to hold back tears while sitting on her couch in her Grand Junction home. “I’m sorry for putting them through that.”

But it wasn’t until Randy walked into the Emergency Room that the chief of detectives told him that his daughter had been seriously injured in a bad accident. While Randy talked with the detective, Drenda looked for Jennifer.

Hard times were nothing new for Drenda and Randy. They met at a horse stable in California. At the time Randy was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Lighter Than Air (LTA), a helicopter base. He was exposed to Agent Orange during his two trips to Vietnam and ever since he had suffered from a panic disorder and joint problems and had numerous surgeries. In 1970, they got married in Las Vegas and Jennifer was born that August near the LTA in Huntington Beach, Calif. She was two and a half months premature and weighed two pounds and nine ounces. Three months after her birth, the military discharged Randy so it wouldn’t have to pay the medical bill, which cost 45,000 dollars. They sued the military and won five years later, but by then they had
lost all their valuable possessions. And Randy didn’t request a medical disability from the service until 1998. Again the military refused to pay and after two years in court he won that case too.

After Jennifer was born Randy worked in law enforcement and within a year he moved to Colorado. They moved many times around the state when Jennifer and her younger brother Andy were growing up. Finally they settled in Craig. Everywhere they lived, they owned a ranch and had countless animals and did rodeo events. Family is the most
important thing in the Forrest household. As soon as Jennifer’s childhood is mentioned Drenda flips through a photo album from their current home in a small Colorado town named Austin.

“This was in the backyard of where we lived, wasn’t it?” Randy asks.

“Yeah,” Drenda says.

“That’s her lamb ... She had animals ... That’s her in the hay barn,”
Randy says.

“She always had the brightest eyes,” Drenda says. “See how bright her eyes are? Always a happy kid.”

“Always happy.”

“She argued a lot when she was a teenager.”

“Always had a temper. Always had a temper. I think she gets that from her grandma.”

She has some stubbornness too?

Oh, worse than that,” Randy says. “Worse than stubbornness.”

“When she had her accident, she had a bigger temper because you hate everything for a while.”

“This is what she looked like before her accident.”

“Yeah, that’s right before her accident. We don’t have the older pictures in this book. She was very pretty.”

When Jennifer was growing up, Randy had seen every kind of death and trauma you can think of, so much so that he says he became numb to death. But nothing could prepare him or Drenda for what they were about to witness that night at the hospital. Even that morning a few years prior when Randy was building paths in the snow for his sheep and he collapsed and thought he was going to die in the sixty-below temperature seemed minuscule in comparison to seeing Jennifer that night. And even that day months prior at the rodeo when Andy was bucked into the fence and stepped on the jaw, throat, groin and liver by a horse and rushed to the emergency room – even that wasn’t as bad as Jennifer.

As Drenda walked in they were putting hot blankets on Jennifer’s cold body. It was the only time Jennifer cried that night and she kept telling her mother she was sorry. “Everything is going to be Ok Sis,” Drenda said. Randy checked on them and then went into the room with the Xrays. He looked at them and knew instantly that her back was shattered. That’s when the doctor told the nurses not to move Jennifer. It was too late, they had moved her and twisted her during the X-rays. Randy knew it was not the best equipped hospital. When he stayed there overnight after collapsing in his field, he unhooked the heart monitor to see how long it would take for them to check up on him, which wasn’t until the next morning.

In Jennifer’s room, she was shaking and yelling, “Don’t touch my legs.” The nerves in her legs were not working. Randy told Jennifer she had a broken back and was going to go to the hospital in Grand Junction. The only person Jennifer could relate to was a high school friend who graduated with her. He also had broken his back in a drunk driving accident six months prior and Jennifer remembered him on crutches at graduation.

For obvious reasons, the cops wouldn’t let Randy near Travis, but Randy told Courtland, “If she isn’t all right, I’m coming after you.” A cop let Drenda into the room where Travis was handcuffed to a bed. Travis didn’t know anyone was seriously hurt. They had to use force in order to take his blood to see how much he drank. His blood alcohol level was .18. He was resistive and throwing a fit until Drenda told him, “You see my face and you remember it because you’re going to see it again. You broke my daughter’s back.”

Randy drove home – his feeling of rage replaced with panic – and woke up Andy. “I remember seeing the hurt on his face,” said Andy, who had a feeling of disbelief and devastation upon hearing his sister was seriously hurt. “My father doesn’t cry, and he had tears in his eyes. I think that’s when it sunk in that it was really bad.” They drove in their two pickup trucks to Grand Junction. Randy used Jennifer’s address book to call her college friends and others. At the hospital they put Jennifer in a helicopter but it was only able to get ten feet off the ground because of mechanical problems. So she was driven in an ambulance with Drenda to the Craig airport and flown to Grand Junction where they had better medical facilities.

At Saint Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, doctors operated on Jennifer for eight and a half hours. The waiting room was packed with Jennifer’s family and friends she knew from growing up and rodeo and college. After the operation, the surgeon came out and said, in a nonchalant voice, that Jennifer would never walk again or be able to use her bodily functions. The family and friends were stunned. “I never saw my (own) dad’s face have that look, ever,” said Randy, who later learned the surgeons hadn’t removed the bone that was stuck in his daughter’s spinal column and did not put in the bone graphs properly.

Twelve hours later Randy noticed Jennifer going into blood shock and her system was shutting down. A few months earlier Jennifer’s cousin suffered severe brain injuries from a motorcycle accident and needed to be revived several times during surgery. Because of that incident, Jennifer and Randy, who were always open with each other, made a pact to not use life support (DNR) if either of them needed it. Randy and Drenda asked the medics if Jennifer needed blood and if so they were willing to donate for her. The doctors and nurses said everything was fine despite the DNR orders. Jennifer’s skin grew more pale and she became more tired. That’s when Randy told Sister Mary Georgette his problem. The hospital was run by nuns. Well, I’m not going to put up with this, said Sister Mary, fuming at the incompetence, and within
minutes Jennifer had all the blood she needed. Through the next three weeks at the hospital, Sister Mary comforted and kept a watchful eye over Jennifer and her parents.

Randy used some of his connections in order to reserve a spot for Jennifer at Craig Rehabilitation Center, one of the best facilities in the nation, in Englewood, Colo. But first he had to have Dr. Tyce sign off that it was Ok. Tyce refused to sign the waiver. Having dealt with Tyce’s arrogance for three weeks, Randy jacked him up on the wall and started choking him and said, “You’re going to do it my way or you ain’t walking away from here....” Thirty minutes later the paper was signed and Jennifer was flying to Craig Rehab.

At Saint Mary’s they had Jennifer in a machine trying to get her to walk. At the time, they were pushing her too hard to walk and it only made her recovery worse. In denial, she thought once the pain went away she’d walk away, no problem. At Craig Rehab the doctors were blunt, especially Dr. Hsu, a renowned spinal chord specialist who told Jennifer she had a disease and would never walk again or be able to control her bowels, bladder or sexual functions. But as her rehabilitation progressed, Jennifer used forearm crutches to walk.

During her recovery friends and supporters in Craig and other towns they had lived in, including the local old age home, organized many fund-raisers and sent lots of flowers and cards. At the Little Britches Rodeo Association Finals in Delta, Colo., they dedicated the night to Jennifer, who walked out on her crutches in tears to a standing ovation. They had established the Jennifer Forrest Foundation scholarship.

Drenda had never seen anyone get that many flowers. Jennifer also received cards and flowers and teddy bears from Travis for several months but threw them all out when she got them. She was still in denial. When she looked at her shadow, she noticed half of her body and the wheelchair. She didn’t think of herself as a whole person.

But she thought she’d be able to walk if she put forth enough effort. During rehabilitation Jennifer exercised constantly. On weekends, when the therapists were gone, she talked them into unlocking the weight room, where she worked out for three or four hours a day. Randy met a woman at Craig Rehab who was in a wheelchair and had gained lots of weight since her spinal injury a decade earlier. The woman told Randy that Jennifer would be just like her in ten years. But Jennifer was in denial. When anyone brought a mirror near her, she threw it against the wall. “I was so dedicated to getting myself physically better,” she says. “I never concentrated on getting myself mentally better.” She saw psychiatrists because her family thought it was best for her to move on. But she couldn’t move on just yet and she wondered how they could.

Andy never could accept the fact Jennifer was paralyzed from the bellybutton down. After all, when he was in the emergency room after his rodeo accident, he was the one who told Jennifer to go back and finish her part in the rodeo. Since her accident they no longer wrestled or played around or did the rodeo together. And at first, when Jennifer was battling the emotional pain of the accident, an awkward wall stood between them. Although the wall has fallen, their relationship hasn’t been the same. “I still don’t accept it,” Andy says. “Every time I see my sister when she’s coming over, I expect her to pull up, jump out and walk up there and give me a hug.” But even growing up they were very different. Unlike Andy, rodeo and school did not come as naturally to Jennifer. It was the myriad hours she spent training her horses that Jennifer learned the value of hard work, a value that in many ways seemed innate. For Andy never practiced like her or spent as much time on homework. And she was the only one in the family who asked to go to bible school. Perseverance and helping others, two things she learned in the rodeo community, stayed with her long after her accident.

Six months after the crash and tired of crying in the shower, Jennifer decided to go back to the site of the crash. And she also decided to go talk to Travis, who was serving a year in jail on one felony and three misdemeanors related to the accident. She was worried he was going to be mad at her and he had the same concern. They talked for about twenty minutes. Travis felt awkward and said the first thing Jennifer said was that her and Courtland’s sex life was never going to be the same.
They both cried and asked each other for forgiveness. And every time she visited the site for the next few years she thought, yeah, that’s where it changed my life. Soon, however, she began to accept her disability.

By that fall, nearly a year after the accident, she joined a national organization called “Think First” and visited different high schools across Colorado, speaking candidly to students about car accidents and drinking and her injury. It was then that she realized, if I can’t be honest with myself, how can I be honest with them? She enjoyed public speaking and educating teenagers. Acceptance settled in. She used the forearm crutches less and less and the wheelchair more. Years later, in 1994, a therapist at Craig Rehab told Jennifer that she should compete in Miss Wheelchair Colorado. I don’t do beauty competitions, said Jennifer. The therapist told her the three-day competition was judged mostly on speaking ability and presenting yourself in public and just a small part on appearance. Having given public speeches across the state for several years Jennifer was a perfect candidate. So in 1994, at the age of 24, Jennifer became the youngest Miss Wheelchair Colorado winner. She then competed in the national competition, traveling and listening to inspirational stories of other disabled women. Being in a wheelchair no longer seemed like a life sentence. She was no longer alone. She wasn’t the only one who had struggles. And she wasn’t the only one who could live a happy life and achieve her goals.

Although she had returned to Mesa State in the fall of 1990, she dropped out after a semester, thought she was in love and moved to Denver. But she returned to Mesa State and in 1996 she graduated with a degree in adaptive physical education with an emphasis on exercise physiology.

Since 1996 she has worked at the Center for Independence (CFI) in Grand Junction and is now the recreation coordinator. CFI, a nonprofit agency that was established in 1982, serves 13 counties for people of any age and their families with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities. During her 40-hour work week, Jennifer writes grants, organizes two or three activities, gives speeches at colleges and conferences and works on general promotion for the 85 or so people in her group.

When Jennifer took a two-year hiatus, working at a group home for Mesa Developmental Services, where the people at the group home had severe cognitive disabilities and couldn’t take care of themselves, she discovered a greater appreciation for the people at CFI.

One reason she joined a recreation program, called Positive Outbound People or POP, was that she figured having a disability she could more easily relate to the people in her group. She has helped people of many different disabilities, such as those who are blind, wheelchair bound, mentally retarded and epileptic. It’s been a mutual benefit. She loves watching them have fun bowling or setting up a tent at a campground or dressing up for a Halloween costume party at the CFI. And their self-esteem improves with frequent socialization and activity. One woman in the program was abused for fifteen years in California before moving to Colorado with no confidence or belief that she could do anything independently. She joined POP a year and a half ago. Since working with Jennifer, she has lost fifty pounds, lives in her own apartment and has a job at a daycare. And most important, she believes in herself. And so does Gary, a man born without eyes, who climbed Pikes Peak with Jennifer fours years ago and plays Chinese checkers with another guy at the CFI by feeling the pieces with his hands.

I have met the greatest people since the car accident,” Jennifer says. “I may not be where I’m at now. I could say would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, and who knows where my life would be. But I probably would have never met Nick.” She met Nick Shook through a mutual friend almost three years ago. They both lived about a mile and a half from each other in Grand Junction. Her parents didn’t have to do a background check on him, like they did other guys Jennifer dated, because they knew he was the only guy who has really loved Jennifer since the accident. On Sept. 20, 2003 they got married and moved into a modest house in Grand Junction to save money. They take road trips and fish together. She spends more time at home than before she was married. She downhill skis on a bi-ski with crutches that look like she’s standing up with a walker. Reading fantasy books and watching feel-good movies are things she enjoys, as is counseling for newly injured hospital patients.

Still, frustration and annoyance are part of Jennifer’s every day life. Simple tasks are no longer simple. She can’t change a ceiling lightbulb. She has been more susceptible to illnesses such as bladder and kidney infections. “I think anyone who says they’re over it completely is lying,” Jennifer says. “There are times that I still, you know, I wish I could go dancing. I wish I could do this or I wish I could do that.” When she took her group to the Corn Maze a few months ago she picked up some bacteria and got a high fever and kidney infection and had to go to the hospital for antibiotics and an IV.

With the large dose of pain fate has brought Jennifer, it has also delivered a significant sense of purpose and fulfillment. One of her first speeches after the accident was in a small two-room schoolhouse in DeBeque, Colo., to a group of students from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Then a couple of years ago, when Jennifer was in Walmart when a worker said to her, “Your name is Jennifer.” How, thought Jennifer, does she know my name? The worker explained to Jennifer that she was in eighth grade when Jennifer had given the speech in DeBeque and that
she and her friends had never driven drunk or had ridden with a drunk driver. Travis has done the same. Fate, funny how it works.

“I think out of every one of us in that car, I think I was destined to do something with it,” Jennifer says. “If I’ve been able to teach a kid to drive sober or be responsible. I ’m not blaming the alcohol because I have a drink once in a while. I’m not blaming alcohol. I’m blaming the fact that someone can’t be responsible when they’re drinking. That’s the problem. So, if I could help someone with that. If I could help the people in my group experience life better or differently, I think that’s why I lived.”

Before the accident, Jennifer wanted to be a biology teacher, and be a rodeo rider during the summers. A professor at Mesa State told her women in wheelchairs can't be teachers. Still emotional from the accident, Jennifer quit. The dream never died. Last year Jennifer enrolled in some classes to get her master's degree in special education but Randy talked her out of it because he said that she couldn't be a responsible teacher if she were unable to control her bladder. Still, Jennifer dreams of teaching one day. But she has already taught so many so much.

This story first appeared at in February 2005.