Sunday, 07 January 2024 04:28

‘Miracle’ mom wakes from 5-year coma

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When she actually found out our ages and things like that, it broke her heart,” Jennifer Flewellen’s son Julian, now 17, tells PEOPLE

It's a miracle — and it all started with a joke.

As Jennifer Flewellen, of Niles, Michigan, lay motionless in a hospital bed last year, stuck in a nearly five-year coma caused by a car crash, her mother Peggy Means told her a joke. Then the impossible happened: Flewellen, 41, laughed.

"When she woke up, it scared me at first because she was laughing and she had never done that," Means tells PEOPLE. "Every dream came true. Today's the day I said, 'That door that was closed, that kept us apart, had just opened. We were back.'"

The August 2022 breakthrough was just the first step in a long battle for Flewellen, who is working hard to regain her speech and mobility after being in a cocoon state where time ceased as her brain slowly healed.  

“She woke up, but she didn't completely. She couldn't speak, but she was nodding,” Means, 60, says. “She would still sleep a lot right at first, but then as the months would go by, she would get stronger and be more awake.”

“This is so rare,” Ralph Wang, her physician at Michigan’s Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, tells PEOPLE. “Not just waking up, but making progress. Maybe 1-3% of patients wake up and make progress this far out.”

The feisty mom reached another big goal in October when she was able to participate in a senior night football celebration with youngest son Julian, 17, at a Niles High School football game.

“She was my biggest supporter,” says Julian, who was 11 when his mom fell into a coma. “So to have my biggest supporter back on the sidelines cheering me on, it was a surreal moment."

After news hit about her attending her son's football game, Flewellen was able to secure additional therapy through Mary Free Bed, a local rehabilitation hospital.

In a PEOPLE video interview with her mom from the rehabilitation hospital, an animated Flewellen, who can only string a few words together, nods yes and no to questions and sits up almost straight in a portable hospital bed.

Flewellen's nightmare-turned-miracle began with a typical morning on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Then a 35-year-old wife and mother of three young boys in the small town of Niles, Flewellen had just dropped off her three sons at school and was heading to work at Bittersweet Pet Resorts.

It was the last typical morning she would have.  At 8:23 a.m., she hit a utility pole, according to a news report from local radio station WSJM. (Neither speed nor alcohol appeared to be factors in the crash that left her unresponsive.)

Flewellen remained in a coma for almost five years, during which time her mom Peggy — who only recently retired from her job — stayed by her side, visiting almost every day in the chance that her daughter would one day respond to her.

When it finally happened, Means recorded the moment and quickly sent the video to family and friends. The next day, Julian and his brothers went to the hospital.

“I told her I was Juju and her eyes lit up like, 'Wow, it's my Juju bean,'" Julian says, noting his nickname. “But when she actually found out our ages and things like that, it broke her heart. She started to cry.”

Julian says it wasn’t easy for his mom to learn he was a junior and that his brothers Skylar, now 21, and Daeton, 19, had already graduated from high school.

“We've talked about the time that she's missed, and we try not to, because it makes her upset,” Julian says. “But my grandma always tells her, 'You can't sit here and be sad because being sad is not going to get you moving forward.'"

Although Flewellen wasn't aware of her mom's near-daily visits, Means says that her during her daughter's recovery, she played her an audio book about a woman who had been in a coma and described it as a euphoric, peaceful and calming place.

“Jenn cried and said that’s how she felt, so that was nice to know,” Means says. “There were times I wanted to believe she knew I was there, but something just told me this was what I’ve got to do.”

At first, most friends and family didn’t believe Means when she said her daughter had come out of the coma. Worse, she says, were the hospital staff who didn't think Flewellen would progress much past simply waking up.

“I asked for therapy and they thought I was crazy, but she got speech therapy,” says the persistent mom. 
“You have to be a strong advocate,” she adds.

At first Flewellen couldn’t make a sound, but with the help of a little whistle, she was able to bring air up.

Next were vowels. Last Christmas, while her daughter was still living at the hospital, Means gave Flewellen a kitty named Huey “because it was vowels,” Means says with a smile as her daughter also grins.

This is just the beginning of Flewellen's new, post-coma life. Even though she still needs assistance in "almost everything," Dr. Wang says she's already exceeded expectations.

“If she can take a few steps, feed herself and communicate more, those would be huge wins,” Wang says. “Both she and her mom are wonderfully driven. In six months, if she was a 10 before, if we can get her to a four or five. That would be tremendous.”

Means believes her daughter will be walking soon and making up time with her boys.

When she's told that she looks ready to take on the world, Flewellen replies, "I am."

 

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