Tonawanda News — In 2007, Jackie Jackson suffered a brain aneurism. Over a month later, she woke up from a coma and didn’t know how to speak, walk, read or write.
The doctors held up a picture of a hammer and a nail on that first day. She had no idea what they were.
Her doctors told her she had about six months to know if she’d ever regain feeling on her right side, which was paralyzed. When she accidentally ran over her right foot with her wheelchair six months later, she said she didn’t feel a thing.
That did not alter Jackson’s perseverance.
The 56-year-old North Tonawanda native used to travel the country opening new restaurants as a Denny’s certified trainer. She’s an army veteran who always hated staying inside and never imagined she’d end up stuck in her own home. But she doesn’t dwell on what she’s lost. Instead, she said she’s motivated by how far she’s come and now uses her experience to encourage stroke victims in recovery.
Jackson’s aneurism was caused by medicine that helped terminate her breast cancer. Today, she speaks clearly but a bit slower than she used to. She can get up from her wheelchair and walk if she’s holding onto something — she’s shaky, but she’s come a long way. Her goal is to one day get a job again, and she wants North Tonawanda residents to know that if they are impaired, it doesn’t have stop them from enjoying life.
She spent the first three years after her aneurism trying to learn how to talk, spell and walk through a lot of physical and occupational therapy. Because she’s seen betterment, Jackson, a mother of one and grandmother of three, keeps going to therapy.
”I started feeling things are coming back, then I go back into therapy to kind of focus on that part that’s getting better,” Jackson said. “Part of living life, it is what it is. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep a positive attitude and sense of humor.”
On Mondays and Wednesdays, she goes to occupational therapy and on Thursdays she takes a computer class that helps with speech, reading and comprehension.
Within the first year, she wasn’t able to get out of her wheelchair at all. After two years, Jackson was able to stand up. By the fourth year, she could walk longer distances with a straight cane if someone brought her outside.
But having literally no way to leave her home without someone’s help left her feeling extremely trapped.
She could only go outside if a family member, an aide or a neighbor was around to help.
For four years, in fact, she watched North Tonawanda residents walk outside, play and enjoy the sunshine through her front window.
She wanted to get a ramp installed at her door that she could use to get in and out of her house, walk her dog, go to the store and attend outdoor concerts as she pleased.
But the North Tonawanda officials would not allow it. City officials at the time said it protruded onto the sidewalk, which is against city code, she said.
Jackson considered moving out, but it was important for her to stay in her North Tonawanda house, which used to be her mother and father’s grocery store. When they passed away, Jackson and her brother inherited the property and the two have lived in its separate apartments ever since.
She said she called First Ward Alderman Russ Rizzo, and he worked with a city building inspector to approve a ramp system at her door.
”If nobody was around, she couldn’t leave her apartment because there was no way she could get the ramp down by herself,” Rizzo said. “So I immediately knew that this was a hardship that needed to be taken care of.”
Now, if Jackson wants to walk her dog, Chance, to go to the corner store or Gratwick-Riverside Park, she takes her remote control and clicks a button that opens her door and leads her to her steel ramp.
”I can do whatever I want to do,” Jackson said. “I can go to the store, go to the plaza, take my dog for a walk, watch the sunset down by the river. I can visit with my neighbors, I can go to yard sales. ... Maybe some day I’ll work again.”
Speaking of walking her dog, If it wasn’t for Chance, Jackson said she wouldn’t have survived at all. As she fell on her bedroom floor at 3 a.m. on an August night in 2007, her dog threw a fit, she said. He barked and ran up and down the stairs, waking up Jackon’s brother, who lived in the downstairs apartment. He ran upstairs and found his sister having a stroke.
As her condition has improved, Jackson has also reached out to other stroke victims to show there’s hope. For the past year and a half, she has been going to Kenmore Mercy Hospital almost every Friday to talk to stroke patients.
”I don’t like to dwell on what I can’t do, it’s depressing,” Jackson said. “So I dwell on what I can do, and one of the things I can do is be an inspiration to other stroke victims.”
She said she tells patients that it’s hard to be told by doctors to “go home and deal with it,” as she was. But she emphasizes they must find something within themselves to get better.
“I had a car, I had a motorcycle, I had money in the bank,” Jackson said about her past. “But I survive, and I’m doing well. It’s not like I sit here and say, ‘Oh, poor me.’ I could, but it’s not me.”
One thing that makes Jackson feel happy is rock and roll music. It takes her about 10 minutes to get to Gratwick Park in her wheelchair, where outdoor summer concerts are held each year.
Being outside with people and listening to music in the park brings her back to what life was like before her aneurism. If she can feel the right side of her body now, she can feel fresh air on her skin — and she can feel happiness.
It may not be the same as it was, but Jackson said that’s not going to put her down.
”A lot of (stroke victims) say that they see how far I’ve come and they’re encouraged by how far I’ve come, so there is hope,” Jackson said. “A lot of hope.”