SEATTLE — The first time Jessica Owen spent a day in a wheelchair was in second grade.
Her mother wanted her to know at a young age what it was like to struggle doing the simplest things — getting dressed, shopping, playing outside — because she wanted her to know that others constantly overcome greater problems than her own.
Now, some two decades later, that life lesson is helping the former sixth-grade teacher navigate the turn her world took three months ago when a falling tree on Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass killed both her parents and left her, her sister and her brother-in-law with devastating injuries.
The three were sitting next to one another in the middle seat of the family’s SUV when the massive tree came down on them four days before Christmas.
Owen, 27, spent more than two months at Harborview Medical Center before joining her sister and brother-in-law, Jaime and Steven Mayer, both 25, at a Northgate nursing facility that is now her home.
Jaime, who has progressed to using crutches, was discharged from the facility two days ago. Steven is still there with her sister, both still in wheelchairs and facing more surgeries.
Only the sisters’ 22-year-old brother, Jeremy Owen, was able to walk away from the accident scene, though he, too, bears scars — his more emotional than physical. Together, they’re pulling each other through a healing process they say only their parents could have prepared them for.
“You just don’t know how you’re going to act until the situation is in front of you,” Jessica Owen said. “It’s push on or give up, and you make a choice for yourself.”
Physically, the athletic and sports-loving Owen is the most challenged, suffering a partial spinal-cord injury that’s left her with very limited control over her limbs.
Her sister Jaime, a Seattle University law-school student, and brother-in-law Steven, who works at Microsoft, can use their arms to get around in regular wheelchairs. Doctors expect both to walk again, though Steven might be able to do so only with a cane.
Jessica Owen’s chances of walking on her own are less certain. She does walking-simulation exercises using a walker, and with therapists supporting her feet with every step. But except for that, she has moved around in a motorized chair she directs with her chin, only recently starting to use a hand-controlled joystick.
She has pursued physical challenges her whole life, including coed wrestling in high school. Later she started her own running club. Now, “rehabilitation gives me purpose,” she said.
“If I don’t have purpose in my life, everyone around me is going to be miserable, so I’m giving myself a direction and pushing into it.”
But learning how to do simple things again like washing her face, that’s a different story, because to her those challenges are more personal than physical.
“It’s really hard not to be able to do those things because they’re part of being human,” she said. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to work at it because it takes away my dignity.”
Most of Owens’ rehabilitation expenses are being paid through donations from friends, family, Bothell, Wash., residents and others who have followed their accident and recovery through a blog, LoveTheOwens.wordpress.com.
Alexa Vaughn writes for The Seattle Times.