Summer Jefferson, back row center, is back for her senior year at Ole Miss, thanks to nursing students, front row from left, Marlee Watts and Carson Luke, and back row from left, Kimball Beck, Mary Brooks Thigpen, Emily Hennigan and Jessica McIntosh.
Summer Jefferson, back row center, is back for her senior year at Ole Miss, thanks to nursing students, front row from left, Marlee Watts and Carson Luke, and back row from left, Kimball Beck, Mary Brooks Thigpen, Emily Hennigan and Jessica McIntosh.
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After accident, Ole Miss senior back in school, thanks to SON students

Published on Thursday, November 7, 2019

By: Kate Royals

Summer Jefferson, a senior at the University of Mississippi majoring in biochemistry, is a planner and a self-described “type A” personality.

Her plan last summer was to take the medical school admissions exam and return to the University of Mississippi to finish her senior year. But a week and half before she was scheduled to take the MCAT, a bad car accident and spinal injury threatened to derail her carefully laid plans.

Jefferson, a native of Cumming, Ga., was driving home from Oxford one day in July when a pile of debris in the road caused her to lose control of her car. She does not remember the car flipping three times or at what point one of her vertebrae was fractured.

She regained consciousness when the car landed in a still position. The first thing she remembers is getting out of the car and someone had stopped to help her.

“Coincidentally, it was a nurse who stopped to help me and called the ambulance,” Jefferson said. “I got out of the car and she told me to just lay down on the grass.”

Summer Jefferson's vehicle after the car wreck that threatened to keep her from returning to Ole Miss for her senior year.
Jefferson's vehicle was a tangle of glass and steel after the car wreck that threatened to keep her from returning to Ole Miss.

As soon as she lied down, Jefferson, who had dealt with scoliosis all her life, knew something was not right with her spine.

“If someone was trying to kill me, I could’ve gotten back up. But I knew something was wrong with my back,” she said.

Paramedics picked her up and put her in an ambulance, which drove her to a small emergency room in Hamilton, Ala., where she had the wreck. Jefferson told the doctor he needed to look at her spine as soon as he could, and after checking for head injuries, a basic X-ray revealed she was right.

She had fractured her L2 vertebra and needed to go to Tupelo 45 minutes away to get a back brace. Her friends from Ole Miss drove her there while her parents started the trip from Cumming.

“I was on pain medication for two weeks I think. Then basically I was like, ‘I have got to stop this, I need to start getting ready for school and transition off of this,’” she said. 

Luckily, Jefferson did not need surgery to repair the fracture – but the road to recovery was still a long, and often painful, one. She spoke to her neurosurgeon and asked what she needed to do to be able to return to school.

“I was in a back brace and by the time school started I was still in a lot of pain. I wasn’t immobile, but I am usually a very fast-paced kind of person and I was really kind of limping along,” she remembered. “She (my neurosurgeon) said ‘Honestly, I don’t know if you’re going to be able to go back.’”

But Jefferson was determined: she transitioned off the pain medication and eventually was taking only regular doses of Advil. She and her mother got to work figuring out how she would get help with regular activities since her mobility was extremely limited. She wouldn’t be able to drive until her spine healed, and simple activities like blow drying her hair and making breakfast would be impossible to do without assistance.    

With no family in the Oxford area, they began calling home health agencies to ask about caregiving services for her. Every company had the same response: no.

“It was really, really heartbreaking because I really had to go back to school,” she said.

Portrait of Dr. Neeli Kirkendall

With five days left before the semester started, Jefferson spoke with a neighbor in Cumming whose daughter, a college student, has cerebral palsy and receives help from students in the nursing school at her college. Jefferson reached out to Dr. Neeli Kirkendall, an assistant professor in the UM School of Nursing’s Oxford branch.

Kirkendall remembers getting the phone call from a distraught Jefferson the week before classes began. After hearing her story, Kirkendall sent out an email to all the students in the Accelerated Bachelors of Science in Nursing program, a 12-month, three-semester program that allows people with a bachelor’s degree in another field to receive their BSN. Kirkendall, who directs the service learning activities for the program, immediately got several responses, and one student, Carson Luke of Oxford, created a Google Document to organize the schedule. 

Jefferson made it back to Oxford two days before classes began, a change from her usual arrival a week before the school year starts to take part in various activities for clubs and groups she belongs to.

Beginning on the first day of classes, a pair of nursing students went over to Jefferson’s house to help her make breakfast, put on her make-up and blow dry her hair. Their presence also fulfilled one major requirement of Jefferson’s neurosurgeon: that someone always be in the house when she showers in case of a fall. Once she was ready, they drove her to class.

In all, eight nursing students worked together over the next several months to help Jefferson in the mornings.

“There’s never, to my knowledge, been a day she needed care and wasn’t cared for,” said Kirkendall. “We had not even taught the students skills such as how to do Foleys or IVs, but they were already showing those intrinsic characteristics of care and compassion. Those are character traits you cannot teach.”

Luke, along with fellow students Kimball Beck, Sarah Brouchaert, Katherine Fowlkes, Emily Hennigan, Jessica McIntosh, Mary Brooks Thigpen and Marlee Watts, were all eager to help.

Watts, who is from Brookhaven, entered the Accelerated BSN program with the goal of becoming a pediatric nurse.

“I think when Dr. Kirkendall was telling us about Summer … I just kind of went back to my senior year, it’s such an exciting time and I was ready to do all these fun things. I put myself in her shoes, like (thinking) ‘How would this affect me?’” said Watts. “I would feel so helpless. Once I did that, there wasn’t even a hesitation. Carson Luke and I were like ‘Yea, we’ve got to do something.’”

Luke and Watts would go together in the mornings and developed a routine. Luke would make breakfast while Watts helped Jefferson get ready. The first day of school, Jefferson had pictures she needed to get ready for, so Watts curled her hair.

“The first few weeks in nursing school we were learning how to take care of people and still give them their dignity. It was really beneficial to actually experience that and have a way to actually do it,” Watts said.

The nursing students were also learning about therapeutic conversations at the time, and Watts said her interactions with Jefferson helped her to understand their value.

“We’d always talk to her and ask how her classes were going and what the hardest part was and what she struggled most with (in relation to her injury),” she said. “I don’t think she realized how much she helped us learn, especially in the first few months we were in school putting all the pieces together. It’s really easy to be stuck in the books and reading and really forget it’s not just about the test and the books, these are real people we’re taking care of.” 

The setup was a win-win: Jefferson said without the nursing students’ help, she would not have been able to come back to school. Between their help on weekday mornings and her parents alternating weekend visits, Jefferson managed her classes, was released from her neurosurgeon in mid-October and is currently weaning off the back brace. She is scheduled to take the MCAT over Christmas break.

“I’m very, very grateful,” Jefferson said. “The girls were so kind, so helpful, and compassionate. When you imagine someone (you would want) going into the field of health care – these girls are the epitome of it. If they had not been able to come and volunteer, I would not have been able to come back to school and finish my year.”