‘You’ll Never Play Sports Again’
It’s suspected that a faulty wheel bearing sent Jessica Nelson’s car rolling about five times into a field, crushing her legs, and nearly killing her before she was rescued by a farmer in the right place at the right time.
That was two years ago. On July 8, 2014, she suffered a compound tibia and fibula fracture where the bones in her lower leg broke. A Sioux Falls hospital did what it could to stabilize her injuries with an emergency operation. Unfortunately, she developed a post-surgical infection.
Nelson was faced with a difficult choice. After the infection ate away three-and-a-half inches of her bone, she could either cut off her leg, or head to Rochester for a second opinion. So she chose to head to Mayo Clinic, and was told she could indeed save her leg — but that she’d never play sports again, and it would be a terribly painful treatment.
Nelson’s life was going to be irrevocably changed because of one wheel bearing, one corner. Her leg was irreparably damaged in terms of ever being the same. But she chose to have a Taylor Spatial Frame attached to her leg, which is essentially a cage around the leg that screws into leg bones to stretch or correct them. She and her parents would have to turn screws to stretch her bone to recover the lost inches.
Three turns a day, for over 100 days, moving the bone a millimeter a day.
It was going to be the most painful choice, but the right one.
When Nelson walks into a room you notice two things. A muted yellow Booney hat fits tightly on her head, the two side straps tightened, giving her a low profile. Long brunette locks jet down each side of her face.
The second thing? She’s tall. At six feet she commands attention when she steps into a room.
But it’s when she speaks that you understand just why the Rochester Community and Technical College freshman is now starting on the college volleyball team: she’s convivial, energetic, and knows how to weave a tale.
She tells her story of the accident, almost excitedly. When she reaches the part about the pain she felt, she lowers her face, allowing a break in her voice as she remembers the nadir of the ordeal.
“The pain that I went through was indescribably excruciating,” Nelson says. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel that kind of pain again. It really put a lot of stuff in perspective.”
Aside from that, the conversation mostly pauses when she yawns. She woke up late and missed a class. She’s found it difficult to sleep since the accident.
If you ran into Nelson in a class or in the hallway, you would not suspect that she doesn’t sleep much or was in an accident.
But her life of normalcy is a relatively new one.
The bionic woman
“When I first got it put on he (her doctor) told me I would never play sports again, and it was really hard for me,” Nelson says when talking about her new Taylor Spatial Frame. “Before my accident, I put volleyball first in my life. To hear that I could never play again,” Nelson pauses for a long time, allowing only the office air conditioning unit to be heard. “Was insane,” she says with a snap back to the conversation.
“I invested my time in volleyball, I invested my money in volleyball, I invested my future in volleyball. I was planning on playing (Division 2, Division 1) volleyball; I was getting offers and scholarships. I invested my whole life in volleyball. For that to be just stripped away… that was really hard for me.”
Recalling the aftermath of her accident and affixing the apparatus to her leg is hard. Everything took another turn for the worse when it finally got taken off. The problem was that the doctors reversed their decision and told Nelson she could indeed play sports again.
So she did.
But just a month later she felt something: “It was like bone pain. I thought my leg was going to break,” Nelson says.
More surgery. Two screws. A single rod.
Nelson did too much too quickly, but the bone had healed more than expected, which was fortunate. The new rod would ensure her leg could handle her active lifestyle.
“I can’t really feel a lot of it, and it’s very scarred – it has a lot of scars,” she says of her leg. “But just the fact that I’m able to walk again is crazy. Having to rely on a wheelchair, a walker, and then crutches for almost two years of my life. It was almost degrading for you as a person because you felt like you could never be totally independent.
“And then it just kept dragging on, and on, and on.”
But Nelson kept her positive demeanor. Boosted by her excitement at being able to play sports again, she stepped into the next chapter of her life.
A new beginning
The day after Nelson had a doctor appointment after fully healing, she visited RCTC. The February air bit harshly at exposed skin.
Nelson wasn’t planning on attending the community college, but looked into the school’s nursing program (Nelson’s care pushed her a bit toward nursing as a career). She was also intrigued by the Mayo Clinic connection and the affordability.
Checking out the sports center was a must now that she was fully healed. Between checking out campus and the sports center, Nelson heard of RCTC’s volleyball program, and immediately headed towards the athletic staff offices.
“I went by the offices and asked, ‘So, who is the volleyball coach,’” Nelson recalls. Sitting behind the reception desk that day happened to be the head coach of the team, Amber Zitzow.
After talking with her for 30 minutes, Nelson was on the team.
“Before this I didn’t know who Amber was, that the school had a volleyball program; Amber had no idea who I was. I was just some random chick who showed up,” Nelson laughs as she remembers the invite. “It was really cool to feel wanted.”
If Nelson comes off as pushy, she’s not. She’s determined and positive, unafraid of trying.
It’s something Zitzow remembers vividly six months after meeting her.
“I didn’t know if she was going to be able to play this year, but after hearing her story, I knew she had to be part of the team, regardless if she played or not,” Zitzow says.
After two years on the sidelines, Nelson once again found volleyball. She’s a starter now, able to move her body again without help, with minimal hindrance, and renewed vigor. Just recently she was standing on the volleyball court, spiking hard into the wooden floor, hopping high to block, and yelling encouragement to teammates as they swept a visiting team.
Before her accident Nelson put volleyball first. After the accident she began having a better relationship with her God.
She felt as though she needed a push to go back to her religious roots. Her spiritual backbone helped her get through all the suffering, and made her rethink what was important to her.
Which isn’t to say she’s not enjoying volleyball again.
“The coaches here have been so amazing to me, and I absolutely love them,” Nelson says. “And the girls we have are just so good, super accepting of who I am — I tend to talk a lot. I’m really excited for what the future holds for our team. I wouldn’t choose another team, even if I could. I’d choose this team over and over.”
And she’s excited for her future outside of the sport as well, wherever that may go.
“Every day and everything I do, I want to try and help other people, try and make them happy — be the light in their life.
“I find the bliss in the unknown because I know God has a plan,” Nelson continues. “Right now I’m here. Coming here, it just clicked.”
You’d forgive Nelson for faltering. Most would understand if she became bitter. You may even let her rage at the world for taking her reason for being away at 16.
But Nelson, a firm believer in Christianity, didn’t allow that to become her story.
Instead, she’s a student, a successful athlete, wise beyond her years, and absolutely ready for her role in the world.