“Was I Always This Happy?” Ensign, Dec. 2004, 31
Until her sophomore year of high school, Emily Anne Jensen was what she terms a “typical teenager.” But her family and friends say she was never that. She played basketball and took ballet. She served in the Church. She worked hard in school and earned A grades in hopes of someday becoming a doctor. Emily also devoted much of her time to visiting the elderly, reaching out to those who were lonely at school, and volunteering at a camp for children with disabilities.
But everything changed at seven in the morning on 17 April 1999, when 16-year-old Emily was driving to a state high school drama competition and was broadsided by a 15-passenger van. Rescue workers arrived on the scene and began to cut away the top of the mangled car. They expected to extract only a body, but instead they found Emily, barely alive, with severe brain trauma and numerous other injuries. She was in a deep coma, hovering between life and death. They rushed her to the hospital, expecting the worst.
A few days after the accident, as the reality of Emily’s condition sank in, Emily’s mother, Terri, dropped to her knees and begged Heavenly Father to let her daughter live. Emily’s father, Larry, and sisters also pleaded with the Lord in heartfelt prayer. Sister Jensen says, “We offered again and again our broken hearts to our Father in Heaven, all the while trying to muster the courage and trust and faith to say, ‘Thy will be done, whatever that is.’”
While Emily lay in a coma, family, friends, and ward members rallied around her, giving up their time and sleep to be with her. Some medical professionals believed Emily would remain in a coma for life, but those who loved her still hoped and asked the Lord for her coma to end.
Three months later, Emily began the slow process of awakening from her coma. Sister Jensen explains, “Emily didn’t even have a baby’s reflexes when she came out of her coma—she couldn’t even swallow. She’d been lying on a bed so long they had to put her on a board and raise her just a few inches at a time to get her body used to being in an upright position. She breathed through a tracheostomy and was fed through tubes. It took her months just to learn to hold her head up. She had to learn to sit and crawl and stand and walk.”
But Emily was determined. She says, “Once I had made up my mind to gain my life back, the Spirit enveloped me so that the pain was less, and I had a sense of being on the mission the Lord had sent me here to perform.”
One of Emily’s doctors and a close friend from her ward, Vera Frances Tait, compares Emily’s hard work during her long rehabilitation process to “a cognitive and physical marathon” that she has had to fight daily. Dr. Tait says of her patient, “Throughout this terrible ordeal, she has maintained hope, discipline, a love of learning, and a sense of humor. In 20 years of working in rehabilitation, I have rarely seen anyone as determined and hardworking as Emily.” But Emily is quick to give credit to the Lord for her recovery. She points out, “From the beginning the Lord was with me. I am nothing without Him.”
After six months in the hospital, Emily returned home and started school again during her junior year. Because fatigue is a major problem for people who have traumatic head injuries, the doctors encouraged Emily to stay at school for only two hours a day. But she felt an urgency about education. On her first day back at school, Emily told her mother, “I’ve worked too hard to get here. I don’t want to leave early.” Speaking, writing, and walking were difficult for her. Even though she was still going to therapy for several hours every afternoon, Emily persevered and went to school full-time.
Sister Jensen attended classes with her daughter every day for six months to assist her. At first Emily needed to be pushed around in a wheelchair. As soon as she was able to walk at all, Emily refused to ride and would have her mother sit in the wheelchair while she pushed her from behind, using the wheelchair for support.
An aide helped Emily at school during her senior year, and Emily graduated with her class on 31 May 2001. As she slowly walked across the stage to receive her diploma, those in the audience rose to their feet and gave Emily a standing ovation. Everyone clapped. Some cheered. Many cried. Emily realized that afternoon that her faith and determination had already touched hundreds of lives.
Emily has gone on to LDS Business College, where, with substantial help from teachers and fellow students, she is studying to become a recreational therapist. Her goal is to be able to help people, especially young people, who are going through challenges similar to her own. As Emily says, “Therapy is the one job I can do where my disability is an advantage, not a disadvantage. I can help people see that they can make it. If I can, they can.”
Emily’s family and friends agree that therapy is a good field for her. Sister Jensen says, “Emily’s disabilities give her a lot of credibility in dealing with other people who suffer. They listen when Emily talks to them because they know she knows what they’re going through.”
But getting through school will be a difficult journey for Emily. In order to get ready and to school on time, she wakes up at four each morning. She dedicates herself to her schoolwork, often studying up to 10 hours a day. The effects of trauma to Emily’s brain make it hard for her to read and almost impossible to write. But Emily will do whatever she can to get through school. Already she has taught herself to type on a computer. Though it is still a slow process—one finger at a time—she is grateful to again have that avenue of communication.
Each day presents challenges as Emily works to gain her life back. She tries to remain positive and put her trust in the Lord, but there is much that she and her family still struggle to accept and overcome. Sister Jensen comments that oftentimes when people talk about their struggles, they conclude with a fairy-tale ending. “But that’s not how it is,” she says. “There have been so many days when I’ve wondered how we’d ever survive. I think people who struggle with challenges need to know that the battle goes on every day and must be fought with courage and honor and faith. We need to remind ourselves that God is allowing our faith to grow as we reach and stretch for Him.”
Emily’s speech is labored and often unclear; she longs to be able to share her thoughts and be easily understood. She explains, “It’s really hard because in my head I hear my normal voice, but when I speak it doesn’t come out the same—and I have so much to say!” She also longs to be able to play the hymns on the piano again. But Emily says her greatest challenge is probably loneliness: “People often treat me like I’m not a real person because I can’t talk or walk ‘the right way.’ They don’t see that I’m still me.”
And yet, as those close to Emily testify, she just keeps on trying. Her mother says, “Emily doesn’t let the experiences of life defeat her or break her heart or soul or spirit. She gets right back up every day and goes at it and does what needs to be done with heart and determination, courage and faith. What makes Emily unique though is that she does this all with great sensitivity to and compassion for her fellowmen.”
Even as Emily has struggled daily to regain her physical and cognitive abilities, she hasn’t let herself become self-absorbed. Her compassion for others has grown as a result of her trials, and as soon as she was physically able, she began devoting time each week to performing service for others. While still in high school, she visited with struggling children and their families in the hospital, spoke at fund-raisers for medical institutions, prepared and served food to the homeless, and helped collect necessities for several nonprofit organizations. She is continuing this pattern of service in college. Although school, therapy, and visits to doctors consume much of her time, Emily is determined to live up to her goal to live every day as if she is on a mission—“not the two-year or the 18-month kind—the life kind,” she says.
For Emily, the trials she has struggled through have been lessons in patience, love, and the importance of an eternal perspective. She has learned to trust in the Lord and to be grateful for the blessings in her life, large and small. She says, “By not being able to do simple things—by wearing diapers and having feeding tubes in the hospital, by not being able to walk or talk—I learned that I can do nothing without the Lord. I have felt the Lord’s love so real, so near. It is incredible. I don’t know how I can ever repay that kind of love.”
Through her challenges, Emily has come to understand the more important things in life. A short time ago she asked her father, “Dad, was I always this happy, or did it take the accident to help me realize it?” Emily recognizes that her positive outlook is a result of living close to the Spirit and acknowledging the Lord’s hand in her life. She also finds joy in loving and serving others and says, “I think life is all about one word: love. We have it, and we need to give it away.”
At the four-year anniversary of her accident, Emily sought the opportunity to receive her endowment in the temple. She says the greatest desire of her heart is to give back all she can in service to the Lord for His generous blessings and for the countless ways He has helped her and her family since her accident.
Emily says, “I once read, ‘You can be greater than anything that happens to you.’ And with the Lord’s help, I believe that is possible.”