At times--when Jennifer Bell's younger sisters, twins Meredith and Leigh, are learning from a physical therapist how to help steady their sister's hips so that she can improve her balance and range of motion--there is the undeniable reality that life in the Bell house has changed, perhaps forever, since Jennifer suffered a brain hemorrhage last winter.
Then there are other times--like Monday night when the family piled onto the bleachers at Largo High School with Jennifer nearby in her now seldom-used wheelchair to cheer on Meredith on the basketball court in a summer league championship game--when life as the Bells know it seems just about perfect.
Jennifer Bell, 18, a rising senior at Westlake who has every intention of graduating alongside her friends as a member of the class of 2000, returned to her Waldorf home June 10 after a 4 1/2-month stay at the Washington Hospital Center--where she was in a coma for about six weeks--and the Inova Mount Vernon rehabilitation hospital.
The scars on Bell's throat from her tracheotomy already are beginning to fade, and she undergoes one-on-one speech, occupational and physical therapy for 45 minutes to one hour, five days a week.
"It's just still so good to be back home," said Bell, a former member of Westlake's volleyball team and the statistician for the basketball team.
Bell will attend Westlake's volleyball meeting with her sisters on Aug. 11 in hopes of finding a new role with the team. Though she will of course be unable to play, she would like to stay involved by serving as the team's statistician, a role she also hopes to maintain when basketball season rolls around.
"Her writing and everything is good," said her mother, Sallie Bell, who has taken a leave of absence from work to care for Jennifer, the second of four daughters. "She justs wants to see what capacity she can fill for the team."
Jennifer said she has been overwhelmed by the support not only of her family, but of her friends and classmates at Westlake. From the many fund-raisers that were held in her name to the get-well cards and phone calls that flooded her hospital room, Jennifer said it all has helped in her recovery.
Unlike the old days when the Bell sisters bickered the way most siblings do, they now spend much more time laughing together, finishing each other's sentences and never forgetting to say, "I love you."
"Ever since she got sick, all we've wanted to do was help her get better," Meredith said. "We tell each other we love each other now, much more than we used to."
"Yeah," Leigh said, jumping in. "We get pretty mushy sometimes now."
A Morning of Terror
"What's the number for 911?"
Sounds like a joke, but that's the type of thing that was being yelled amid the panic of Jan. 25--and no one was laughing. Meredith and Leigh found their sister crying--and then unconscious--on her bed before school.
"She doesn't remember any of it. She even asked us one time what she did or said that made us call the ambulance," Leigh said. "We told her, 'You were unconscious.' And that's when all sense went out the window."
Still, it was their quick reaction that morning that helped save Jennifer's life. And there's been plenty of laughter since--that's what has helped Meredith and Leigh try to block the memories.
"Oh, I love it all, even when she gets cranky," Meredith said. "And, man, does she get cranky when she gets tired! But I love it when she's like that, or even if she's pushing me around like a big sister should, because it lets me know she's coming back to us."
Jennifer Bell insists that she has not experienced any of the depression doctors feared would be an after-effect of returning to the home--and the life--she knew before the illness but is now much less able to maneuver in.
"I'm not depressed," Bell said. "I don't have time to be. I just want to walk. There's no time to feel self-pity."
Jennifer has an arteriovenous malformation on her brain that ruptured, taking some of the blood supply from her brain. The congenital disease is curable, but Jennifer will undergo a procedure Aug. 17 at Georgetown Hospital to try to dry up the malformation and prevent it from rupturing--or bleeding out--again. It is possible the treatment will do the trick, but it is also possible Jennifer could have to undergo the procedure once a year or undergo surgery in the coming months to tame the malformation.
Jennifer awoke gradually from the coma over a four-week period, first opening her eyes, then shaking her head, moving her fingers, then her arms, and so on. Her voice, which continues to strengthen, has been present since mid-April. The muscles are very weak on the left side of her body despite her daily efforts to improve her strength.
Lately, Jennifer has been begging her mother, Sallie Bell, to take her to the gym to work with weights--a step in her recovery that is not far off. In an attempt to help Jennifer regain some of her strength, her father hides dollar bills inside a lump of stiff putty so that she is forced to manipulate the putty with her hands in order to fish out the cash.
"I'll never take any of this for granted again, I'll tell you that," Jennifer said as she eased herself through the kitchen under the careful watch of Sandra Haskins-Ali, her physical therapist. "I've learned a lot from this, too. Mostly patience."
Working Her Way Back
Jennifer Bell is now able to pick out her own clothes and dress herself in the morning--that's one of the things physical therapy has helped her with.
But Bell--who is relearning to walk and balance her lanky 5-foot-11, 105-pound frame--tires easily. She snapped, 'I am T-I-R-E-D' at Haskins-Ali after about 15 minutes spent on her feet exercising. "You got that spelling right," was Haskins-Ali's response, which drew an uncharacteristic, "I had a brain injury, I'm not stupid," comment from the usually sweet-tempered Jennifer.
But who can blame her for being frustrated? There were brief lapses in the hospital when she would recognize her family one minute and then, for an instant, forget who they were the next.
"I did that?" Jennifer asked, reaching her right hand out to her mother as Sallie retold a story with tears in her eyes about returning to Jennifer's hospital room one day only to have her daughter say, "I wish my mom would come visit me."
"Oh, mom, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it," Jennifer said.
Jennifer still has problems with short-term memory--Sallie posts daily signs in her bedroom and on the refrigerator reminding her of the day and date--but every day becomes more independent from the dedicated family who stood vigil by her bedside.
"She is always surprising us," Sallie Bell said. "One Saturday morning she didn't have any therapy so I was going to let her sleep in. I was in my room reading the paper, and all of a sudden she was at the door peeking in. She got gotten herself out of bed and into her wheelchair, then wheeled herself to her walker and walked down the hall. It was amazing.
"Yesterday, she about gave me a heart attack again when I told her to wheel herself over by the bottom of the steps and wait for me for a minute. When I came back, the chair was empty, and there she was standing at the top of the steps. In one respect I'm so happy to see her doing things for herself. In another, it scares me to death that she could have lost her balance and fallen."
Westlake has offered home schooling to Jennifer, but Sallie said she thinks it would be good for Jennifer to return to Westlake in the fall, even if on a half-day schedule to accommodate her lack of endurance and shortened attention span.
And Jennifer Bell wants desperately to be there for her sisters, rising juniors who both will likely play varsity volleyball and basketball next season for the Wolverines.
"All of this has made us appreciate each other, appreciate life, so much more," Meredith Bell said. "It has helped all of us to realize how fragile life really is. How much it means to have each other around."