By Josh Letner
GOODMAN, Mo. —
In April 2011, Freddie Jennings was enjoying life as a 28-year-old American student living in China, but events took a dramatic turn when he fell three stories from his apartment’s balcony while adjusting a clothesline.
Jennings, who hit the pavement headfirst, suffered five fractures to his skull and spent four days in a coma at a Shanghai hospital. It was the beginning of a long struggle, first to survive, then to recover.
Now back in Goodman more than a year later, Jennings said Chinese doctors initially placed him in a large room with other critical patients and simply let nature take its course.
“I was in not really an ICU but a room where they put you to see if you were going to live or die,” he said. “There were about 35 people in one room, and my girlfriend told me she saw six people die while I was there.”
‘I want to be there’
Jennings, a graduate of Neosho High School and the University of Arkansas, originally went to China to teach communications as part of a program offered through Missouri State University in Springfield. He later returned to China on his own, tutoring high school students so they can attend college in the United States.
Half a world away, his mother, Kathy Jennings, remembers an early morning telephone call alerting her that her son had been seriously injured. The days were followed by frustration as she tried to learn more about her son’s condition.
“I want to be there when he wakes up,” Kathy said at the time. “With a head injury, you never know what you are going to have.”
Help came from Freedom Fellowship Church in Goodman, which the family had been attending only a couple of weeks. The congregation took up a collection and came up with $3,000 so Kathy and her husband, Fred, could make an emergency trip to China.
Some of Freddie’s former Neosho classmates also took up a collection to help.
Kathy, who says she has never liked traveling or crowds, was about to get a big dose of both. Freddie says he sympathizes with his parents’ plight.
“When you go from a town of 1,000 to a town of 20 million, it’s a big difference,” he said.
Soon after his parents arrived in Shanghai, Freddie regained consciousness. He was discharged from the hospital just 18 days after his accident. Kathy said that her family was forced to pay Freddie’s medical costs on a daily basis.
Freddie was not able to walk when he was discharged and was not prescribed any painkillers or anti-inflammatory medicine. Worse still, Kathy said he was not able to think or speak clearly. Instead, she said, he spoke what most people would consider nonsense for nearly a month.
“I was always able to speak, the problem was being able to think correctly,” Freddie said. “When you get your synapses knocked loose, they reattach, but sometimes they’re just off. Reality was not really there for me and for a month or two, I was telling crazy stories and saying crazy things.”
Charity Shelton, of the Missouri Rehabilitation Center in Mt. Vernon, said a good analogy for Jennings’ injury would be to imagine a filing cabinet with all of a person’s thoughts and functions stored as files inside. Now, take that filing cabinet and drop it off a third-story balcony. The result is similar to what happens inside a traumatized brain.
“When you have a brain injury, the files get all messed up. You lose some things. It gets all disorganized, but he more than put the filing cabinet back together,” she said.
Although he had been discharged from the hospital, Freddie wasn’t able to return to the United States immediately. He had to learn to walk and speak again, then wait for his injuries to heal enough to be allowed to travel in the pressurized cabin of an airliner. After returning, Jennings underwent surgery to repair a tear in his brain lining that was allowing fluid to leak around his brain. After the surgery, Freddie said it was back to square one with his recovery.
In late June 2011, Freddie’s parents took him to the Missouri Rehabilitation Center, where he met Shelton. She said Jennings had serious mental and physical deficiencies when he arrived.
“He was in a wheelchair. He had severe vision problems, and he had some thinking impairments,” she said. “During his stay here, he learned to walk again and his vision improved significantly, and his thinking skills were astounding.”
Shelton says it was Freddie’s cognitive abilities that set him apart from other patients she has treated.
“He was off the charts when we tested his thinking ability,” she said. “There were things that he could do that I couldn’t do. I have never seen anyone at this point in my career whose thinking skills improved so much following a brain injury. I would say his thinking is at 100 percent and that never happens, ever. (Brain injury patients) are always left with something that they have for the rest of their lives, but in a couple of months’ time, he returned to normal thinking, which is unheard of.”
Jennings says it was motivating to be surrounded by other brain injury patients.
“One of the things that really helped was when I checked into rehab,” he said. “I was really bad off, but there were people there who were worse off than me. As far as a brain injury goes, I was doing better mentally, maybe not physically, than they were. I was frustrated with how long it was taking, but I never had any doubt that I would get better if I just kept working.”
In April, one year after the accident, Freddie received the 2011 Courage Award from the Brain Injury Association of Missouri. Shelton says she nominated Jennings for the award, which recognizes accomplishments in life after a brain injury. She also said that in her 15 years in the field she has never seen as complete a recovery.
“I’ve been working with people with brain injuries for about 15 years, and Freddie was definitely exceptional,” she said. “People don’t make recoveries like he has. It’s just astounding.”
A few months ago, Freddie began teaching at Trinity Learning Center in Neosho. This fall, he hopes to teach algebra at Seneca High School to relieve a friend who will be on maternity leave. Jennings also has political ambitions and plans to run for the Missouri House of Representatives.
He said life has taught him not to sit on the sidelines.
“I don’t want to just sit by and watch something that I don’t agree with. I want to get in there and change it,” he said.
In the meantime, Freddie said he continues to work to disprove all the doctors who told him he would never fully recover.
“(Doctors) keep telling me that things aren’t going to get better,” he said. “They said I might walk again, but — even here in the U.S. — they said there were a lot of things that I wasn’t going to be able to do. I was told by an eye doctor to get on disability and stay there. I never went back to that doctor.”
‘I should be dead’
Freddie Jennings said he believes he has been given a second chance after suffering a serious brain injury in China last year.
“I should be dead, but I’m not dead,” he said. “I’m not disabled. I’m not mentally handicapped, and I believe that God saved me for a reason. And I feel that there is a purpose in my life, and I need to fulfill that.”