Ray Duckler: A terrible crash, a long journey, a new life 

  • Jennifer Field of Peterborough spent two months in a coma after she was involved in a car accident in 1992 when she was 17. She has written about her journey in a book, “From Blue Ribbon to Code Blue.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/4/2016 12:34:33 AM

It didn’t take long for Jennifer Field, nearly killed in a car crash 24 years ago, to make her point.

Seated in her brightly lit condominium, with the energy from coffee shops and restaurants in downtown Peterborough buzzing outside her windows, Field leaned forward and picked up a pencil.

That was it. Lesson over.

“I appreciate I was given this second chance at life, and I don’t want to squander it,” Field, a former championship-caliber equestrian, told me. “When you have a near-death experience, you realize all the small things. Picking up this pencil is more of a big deal than you ever thought it was.”

Then came the eye-opener, the new lens Field uses to see. “Do you know how long I worked at doing that?”

Months, actually. Now Field is a college graduate, an author and a motivational speaker, all shocking facts given where she was during those early months and years after the accident.

In 1992, her car skidded on snow and slammed into a tractor-trailer while she was a 17-year-old student at the Dublin School, leaving her with a traumatic brain injury and an uncertain future. Surviving was no guarantee. Beyond that, Field, comatose for two months, was given little chance to lead a productive life.

She could be bedridden, perhaps speechless and motionless forever, doctors told her mother, Joanne Field. Any improvement, they said, would come in the first year only. That’s it.

After waking from her coma, however, Jennifer was walking down hospital hallways. Sure, she looked like, in her mother’s words, “Quasimodo,” hunched and slow and off balance and shifted to one side. But she was on her way.

“So many people to be grateful for where I’m at, and so many people helped me along the way,” Field said. “And I did not do this by myself, and I wanted people to hear other voices, which is why I wrote the book.”

Her book, From Blue Ribbon to Code Blue, is about miracles and never quitting. Field lays it out with brutal honesty, making sure to explain that her dating life suffered because men were overwhelmed by her injuries, and her riding career, once on the doorstep of an Olympic berth, ended because of the accident.

And then there’s Field’s mother, giant part of the book. Joanne Field features a stubborn streak longer than a presidential campaign. She literally closed her ears, using her fingers like a hear-no-evil monkey, to the dark words coming from the medical world. With old money from a rich family background, she used her wealth to become an Indiana Jones-like adventurer, daughter in tow, searching the world for alternative treatment to help her daughter lift that pencil.

Jennifer placed her fingers on her lips several times to fight back tears when the topic switched to Joanne. I asked why she was crying.

“My thoughts of living my life without her,” Field said. “She’s 73. And at the same time, she could not imagine her life without me.”

The signs from her past were evident. Field clutched a glass with both hands, as though the water she sipped had to last in a barren desert. She walked slowly, her upper body unusually erect, her head noticeably still. She suffers from double vision, and her left eye moved to its outer corner while her right eye stopped at its mid point, showing eyes that do not always work in concert.

And her thoughts wandered, abandoning her in mid sentence, yet never truly frustrating her. She’d simply admit to me that she needed assistance so she could pick up the ball and continue running with it.

It aligns nicely with Field’s current mindset, an acceptance of her new life, devoid of equestrian glory. She tried to ride twice after the accident, fell off twice, scared the hell out of her mother and that was that.

“Everyone was amazed, thought I would be depressed, asking, ‘How can you just walk away,’ ” Field said. “I wanted to be who I was. I couldn’t be the person I had become on a horse.”

Once, that person was the youngest rider, at age 12, in a national competition at famed Madison Square Garden in New York City. She finished eighth among 119 riders. Field rode horses named Double Dare and Swan Lake, moving as one, jumping with grace and power and confidence, climbing the sport’s ladder.

Joanne Field was always along for the ride, basically joined at the hip. She’s a descendant of Marshall Field, who built a Chicago-based department store empire in the 19th century. His net worth at the time of his death 110 years ago was reportedly $125 million.

With the resources to pursue her dream, Jennifer worked out in Florida each winter, utilizing a private tutor to keep pace with her studies.

“A beautiful rider,” Joanne told me by phone. “A great rider. She had good hands on the reins on every single horse she rode. That was our life. I told her she was not going to train horses; she was going to train herself.”

Added Jennifer, “For me I found something in it. I loved winning and I fell in love with the competition, fell in love with riding, and getting the blue ribbon. That was big.”

On. Nov. 17, 1992, with her sights set on the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and perhaps the 2000 Games in Sydney Australia, Jennifer’s car slid on ice as she drove home to Peterborough from the Dublin School. Her “head ricocheted back through the driver’s side rear window,” Field said in her book.

She lay in a coma for two months. She opened her eye one day, with Joanne watching, of course, and the groundwork was set for a conflict, pitting a mother marching forward with blind faith against a skeptical medical community that told Joanne her daughter could only progress so far.

Jennifer’s riding career was through, sure, but, doctors suspected, so was most everything else: college, working, loving, living.

That’s about the time Joanne stuck her fingers in her ears and hummed a tune. Literally.

“The doctor said I want to talk to you, and I said I didn’t want to hear anything bad and he kept pushing,” Joanne said. “He started saying bad things, so I walked away and did that with my fingers. It was self preservation. The doctor must have thought I was nutty.”

Dr. James Whitlock did not. At the time, he worked at the Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem. Field was virtually helpless when she arrived, unable to lift herself into a chair or eat. But Whitlock said Field’s background, her fitness from riding, her intelligence from family grooming, convinced him he could help her.

“We routinely admitted people who had dismal prognoses by others,” Whitlock told me by phone. “I had my own rules for determining that. Above-average intelligence has been known to be a favorable prognosticator factor for a lot of years in terms of recovery from traumatic brain injury.”

From there, mother and daughter charged forward like thoroughbreds, seeking treatments from a healer from Sri Lanka, and traveling to places like Miami, Connecticut and Mexico.

They encountered strange sounding methods. Neurofeedback had to do with a high-speed computer helping to re-train Field’s brain waves. Craniosacral therapy and plasticity meant her brain could stretch like Silly Putty from a light massage. Continuum movement dealt with fluid in her body, the planet and the galaxy. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy meant climbing into a chamber. One specialist touched Field, then burped to release bad energy, while another banned garlic from her diet.

I asked Dr. Whitlock about these methods. Witchcraft or sound medical practices? He said “there are definitely things on the fringes that turned out to be wonderful, and if something does not strike me as dangerous, I would never poo-poo someone’s idea out of hand.”

But he added, “A large part of anyone’s healing process has to do with what they believe about that process. At some point, it’s really what we believe or expect from a particular therapy that will influence the outcome.”

And Joanne summed it up this way: “There she is, with this great life.”

Jennifer still has headaches now and then and loses her train of thought, but she graduated from Wheaton College in 1995. She created the nonprofit J. Field Foundation to help others with brain injuries. She speaks to corporations, inspiring executives to push themselves without fear. Her book was published last month. She fell in love with a carpenter from Rhode Island named Bruce Dionne, whom she met through a friend.

“She turned around and I said, ‘Wow, she’s beautiful,’ ” said Dionne, who walked into the condo near the end of my interview. “I could tell something had happened to her, but I felt the softness come out.”

At that moment, Field lit up, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and the charm of Peterborough buzzing below those windows. She walked over to Dionne and gave him a hug, after placing the pencil back on the table.

It all looked so easy. Field, of course, knew better.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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