A Second Chance at Life

For the last several years on July 23rd, I have received a message on my voicemail. The message is always the same, “Hi Tammy, this is Jeff Hensel. Today is the anniversary of my accident, and I am just calling to thank the crew from Flight For Life for saving my life. If it weren’t for a lot of people that took care of me, I would not be here today.”

This year the call came a little late, not because he forgot, but because Jeff was in Madrid, Spain, on a month-long study abroad program, a journey that never seemed possible four years ago. 

Jeff is another one of those “miracle patients.” The fact that he is alive is a miracle. It is even more amazing that he just finished his second year of college and will be transferring to the University of Illinois in Springfield in the spring. He even made the Dean’s list this past semester! Jeff and his family have shown that it is the courage, dedication, community support, and unwavering commitment to “recovery” by everyone involved that has gotten him to where he is today.

It was July 23, 1999, and 17-year-old Jeff was on his way home when he swerved to avoid something in the road and hit a tree. The Lincolnshire-Riverwoods Fire Department responded to the call, and while en route, they requested Flight For Life-McHenry to the scene. Jeff had a severe head injury and remained in a coma for almost two months at Lutheran General Hospital. After many months of therapy, he finally got to go home just before Thanksgiving. His parents, Nancy and Bill, said it was like having a 6’2’’, 170 lb newborn baby in the house. They even used a baby monitor at night to “listen” for any calls for help or attempts to get out of bed, as Jeff was still restricted to a wheel chair. He had to learn to walk and talk all over again, regaining his coordination ever so slowly. His short-term memory was almost non-existent. 


Today Jeff is a shining example of perseverance and so are his parents. This past June, Jeff rode a bicycle for the first time since the accident.

Playing the drums is a passion that has helped him to regain his coordination. He does volunteer work with children and seniors, working toward his goal of becoming a social worker when he graduates from college. His short-term memory is slowly recovering, but it is a very frustrating process. Because of the optic nerve damage he suffered, he also must adapt to his impaired vision. Testing in college is done orally to accommodate his vision and memory problems. Tutors, hard work, and coaching from his parents have enabled him to steadily improve his grades. 

Kathi Knop, the flight nurse who transported Jeff, and I paid a visit to Jeff and his parents to catch up on how things are going. Over glasses of ice tea and lemonade, we marveled at Jeff’s accomplishments. Each time Jeff comes back home from school his parents see positive changes and improvements in his memory and coordination. During breaks, they help him to get a head start on his next semester with flash cards and repetitive study. The strides Jeff has made are nothing short of a miracle but that does not mean that the road to recovery has been an easy one. For Jeff and his family, it has been a very long and difficult journey, and it is nowhere near over. The doctors say that his recovery could take up to 10 years. But as Nancy so aptly said, “We are thankful to still have Jeff as there are many parents out there who have lost their kids to other tragic accidents.”

Making a difference

During our visit, Jeff talked about school and how the other kids always ask about his accident. He takes them to his room and shows them the photos and articles he proudly displays.

Then he tells them the story of all the people who made a difference in his outcome, the ones who helped to give him that second chance. It was later in our visit that Kathi shared with Jeff that he was the highlight of not only her time at Flight For Life, but of her entire nursing career. It is not often that patients return to thank those who have made a difference in their life, but Jeff and his family are one of the few who have made that effort. For those who are in the field of EMS, it validates the work that they do every day.

Looking back on our visit with Jeff and his family, one thing that Jeff said stood out above all others. He spoke of his appreciation for all that was done to make each day possible.

Then he said to me, “I wish that all of you could be there when I can do something I could not do the month, week, or day before. I wish you could share my successes with me."

Well it seems that Jeff has shared his successes with us, if only in a brief visit and that yearly phone call. Thank you to Jeff, Bill, and Nancy. You have no idea what that means to those who do this job.

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