One year later: Jake Howell defines hope

By Stephanie Rebman

By ADAM ARMOUR
Itawamba County Times
TREMONT – “I love you,” Tremont’s Jake Howell, 14, told his mother, Melanie. He dropped down into the cushion next to her on the couch, wrapped his arms around her and squeezed.
This is a noteworthy accomplishment because he couldn’t do any of these things a year ago.
“He’s very loving,” Melanie croaked, her son strangling her with his hug. “He loves giving hugs and high-fives.”
Meekly, she laughed.
“Although sometimes he’ll forget that he’s already given you two or three hugs, or told you he loves you,” she said.
“I love you,” Jake told his mother again, his voice small and soft, but full of sincerity.
This time last year, Jake couldn’t say a word to his mother. Jake couldn’t walk or feed himself or push up out of the bed. Following an ATV accident, which left him with a diffuse axonal injury – essentially significant scarring of the brain – Jake couldn’t do much of anything at all.
But one year later, all that has changed. He’s up and about, visiting with friends and doing some light schoolwork at home. Although he’s far from 100 percent, Jake’s physical and mental improvements over the past year have amazed family, friends and medical professionals. His mother couldn’t be prouder. Even when she speaks of Jake’s challenges, her voice carries all the buoyancy of a restrained cheer.
“You miss those little things that people do every day,” she said. “People don’t appreciate how easy it is to put their shoes on, but it’s not for him … or getting dressed or taking a bath or brushing his teeth. These are things he can’t do.”
“But it could be worse,” she added. “He could still be flat on his back … His doctors thought he would still be flat on his back.”
Diffuse axonal injury is one of the most common forms of brain injuries and also one of the worst. Sufferers are often permanently impaired in some way.
Following his accident last April, Jake spent more than a month comatose. Prior to the accident, the seventh-grade Tremont Attendance Center student was actively involved in both baseball and basketball.
Now life is very different.
“Basically, our lives revolve around therapy now,” his mom said, adding that Jake attends several different types of therapy at least three times each week. These sessions are helping Jake regain his basic motor functions.
Jake’s also having to progress back through school. He’s functioning on the cognitive level of a 7-year-old child. Currently, he’s doing the school work of a second-grader, slowly building back up to the junior high level as his brain recovers. He works with a tutor several times a week and visits the school regularly for social interaction.
“I’ve never seen a child so happy to be in school,” she said. “I’ve heard him tell a few of his friends that they need to enjoy going to school because it’s boring at home.”
There’s always some new goal to achieve – a small step back in the direction of a normalcy he may never reach.
“Honestly, we have never been told whether or not Jake will fully recover,” she said, adding that the doctors’ candor didn’t allow them to be caught up in false hope. “From the first day, they have been using the word, ‘unfortunately.’ That prepared us for the worst. We never thought everything was going to be rosy.”
“I’m rosy,” Jake said from across the room. His mother gave him a raised eyebrow and said, “Whatever.”
For Melanie, the uncertainty of her son’s future cuts both ways. She knows wholeheartedly there’s a chance Jake will never be the same and this naturally frightens her. But, of course, there is hope … not the false kind, but the honest-to-goodness hope that’s born of optimism and faith and strengthened by the changes she’s seen in her son. Jake’s progress over the course of a single year has been astounding, outpacing that of many patients who suffer from the same injury.
So, in Melanie’s heart and mind, she knows it’s only a matter of time.
“Emotionally, this has been very tough,” Melanie said, failing to choke back tears. “To see a kid who wants to play ball and interact with other kids, but can’t … it’s tough.
“There’s always hope,” she said. “That’s what we’ve lived for.”
adam.armour@journalinc.com