All Jessica Nelson wants to do is brighten your day.
That may seem like a tall order for the 16-year old Tracy area resident due to recent events, but a radiating smile and bubbly laughter make it hard not to feel positive in her presence.
One might think Nelson - Jessie - would have a different attitude on life since July 8, 2014. That night, Nelson, a two-sport athlete at Tracy-Milroy-Balaton, was driving home from her grandparents' house when she lost control of her vehicle. It flipped into a cornfield; a neighbor found her a few minutes after.
Jessie's mom, Sue, rushed to the accident scene. Heart-stopping fear overtook her. "All of it came over me like one big wave. I was in a panic," she said, sitting at her kitchen table earlier this week. "She started screaming. I walked over to near where she was. She was screaming about her right leg. I had a sigh of relief when I knew she was alive."
Jessie suffered numerous injuries. She had a compound fracture on her right tibia and fibia, a chip in her iliac crest, severed tendons in her hands, contusions to her lungs, a broken bone in her face, and numerous scratches and bumps.
Initially, it looked like the ebullient teen would recover in time for the 2015 volleyball season, but there was a setback on Labor Day. Doctors found that an infection had eaten away part of her right leg bone and they needed to take measures to save it. "Limb salvaging, that's what they called it," says Sue.
That's when it looked like her competitive volleyball career was over. "They said to her, 'Jessie if your goal is to play sports for fun someday, then I think you won't be disappointed,'" said Sue Nelson.
After a seven-hour surgery at the Mayo Clinic on Oct. 14, Jessica got her "bionic leg." The technical term is a Ilizarov Apparatus - a device with three metal rings and 12 pins that are inserted into a leg. It's designed, in part, to help lengthen bones that have been fractured, and it has to be adjusted multiple times a day.
"If you stop or if you go too far, it can greatly affect it," Sue Nelson said, while adjusting one of the pins and holding a white sheet of paper with rows of three digit numbers that show where each pin needs to be adjusted and when. "You have to be vigilant with this whole thing," she adds.
Jessie has become used to the tinkering with leg. She sits in her wheelchair smiling while her mom adjusts one of the pins. Nearly four months after the crash, she treats it as if it was just another high school event. She scrolls through her Instagram feed on her phone which has numerous pictures of her time at the hospital. She explains the complex healing process of her leg like it was a physics equation. However, unlike most other high schoolers, she's not self conscious about her new device.
"Should my leg be in it?" she asks when setting up for a photo.
Before the crash, volleyball took up most of Jessie's life. She played year-round and would save her money to take part in summer camps. This summer she wanted to go to the Intermediate Camp at Southwest Minnesota State so badly that she told SMSU coach Terry Culhane that she'd switch from her normal position as a hitter and go as a libero, not an easy switch for someone who is six-feet tall.
"She had such a passion for volleyball. She played exhibiting that passion and energy," said TMB assistant volleyball coach Rick Haberman. "She played displaying that love of volleyball." Haberman gave her the nickname "Big Ol' Jessie" in ninth grade.
Even though Nelson hasn't been on the court, she's still very much on the minds of the TMB volleyball community. Her teammates put a poster on her locker before every home game. The school's public address announcer, Jim Miller, announces Nelson's name before every game. Volleyball players from other teams have shown their support as well, and numerous Panther fans have worn "Big Ol' Jessie" T-shirts at matches throughout the season.
The shirts were part of a fundraising effort. They are purple, Jessie's favorite color, and have her favorite Bible verse on them. It's from 2nd Chronicles: "But as for you be strong and do not give up for your hard work will be rewarded."
Her team visited her in the hospital a few days after the crash. They had just returned from a camp at the University of Wisconsin. They wore homemade shirts that said "We love you BOJ" and presented her with an autographed volleyball that they got members of the Wisconsin volleyball team to sign for her.
"It was very emotional. I was very happy to see her," said teammate Sara Stoneberg. "I cried a little bit. The second I saw her in the room I hugged her. I wasn't thinking volleyball at that moment. I was thinking about how she was still alive."
Jessie said it was one of her favorite days of the last few months.
She still follows her team closely.
She furiously tried to get updates during the Panthers' recent game against the Marshall Tigers. "I was texting three different people. I couldn't get the online stream to work," she said. The Panthers ended up winning, beating the Tigers for the first time in over a decade.
Jessie's time is now mostly spent going to doctor appointments, being involved with her church youth group and catching up with homework.
Sue Nelson said it's been an adjustment for both of them. Jessie said her biggest challenge has been answering the same questions over and over about her leg.
However, she says she has gained perspective from the crash.
"You've got to know if something did happen, you have to know what to do. Say you're an athlete, and you got that taken away from you. How are you going to look at it? I can look at it that it's so horrible that I can't play anymore. Or I can look at it, now that I can't play volleyball, 'I can do this. A door has been opened,'" she says while fiddling with an Evian water bottle.
One door that has been opened for Jessie is her career path. She now wants to become a registered nurse.
"My life would have been completely different if this hadn't happened. It would have been sports, volleyball especially. I hopefully would have gone to a decent school on a volleyball scholarship. I would have gone for culinary or design school," she says.
She's relieved to have found some clarity through all that has happened to her.
"I'm glad I now have more of a plan of what I am going to do," she said.
The medical professionals who assisted her encouraged Jessie to consider nursing in her future.
However, she made it clear she wants to work with children, because nurses in that field "don't just do what they have to do and go home. They want to brighten your day," she said, with a smile, of course.
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