Hope in the face of hardship
Jodi Graham has always been at the centre of her family’s world. Now, she is also in the centre of their home. Open the door to the Grahams’ bungalow on Larose Avenue and there is Jodi, her hospital bed occupying most of the former living room.
Welcome to Jodi’s battleground. Every day she fights to regain another small piece of her life, this beautiful, thoughtful, vivacious woman of 25, an innocent passenger in a horrific car accident in Nepean six months ago.
To understand how this tragic story — every parent’s worst nightmare — is also touching and hopeful, it helps to know Jodi and her spirit, to know the Grahams and their circle of family and friends, to know what’s possible when the minor hockey community wraps someone in its arms.
It helps to appreciate the magical healing power of a mother’s unconditional love and a soldier’s prayers.
Cheryl Graham was too stubborn to accept the possibility of her only daughter dying that night, and she remains convinced that Jodi can recover, with the grace of God.
“ She’s so tough and strong,” says Cheryl, also the mother of two strapping Ottawa West hockey players, Ryan, 21, and Colin ( C. J.), 14.
“ If it was one of the boys I’d be really worried,” Cheryl says, “ but not Jodi. She’s going to be OK.”
Even the Canadian Forces are going to battle for her.
Sgt. Bob Beaudry works at the Department of National Defence, where Cheryl keeps health records but is on leave to care for Jodi.
Sgt. Beaudry has a blessed scapular, twin pieces of holy, rectangular cloth on a necklace, that he carried with him overseas when he was a medic in the Gulf War and Bosnia among other tours. When he heard about Jodi’s accident, he rushed the scapular over to the Grahams. It clings to a pole next to Jodi’s bed, casting a slight shadow on the source of all this good intention.
Multiple priests have visited share their blessings.
“ With all the connections,” Cheryl says, “ I think there are prayers for Jodi from around the world.”
Jodi Graham was a gifted soccer player. A sweeper in the Nepean Hotspurs system, she delighted in setting up, nurturing other players — which was also her manner off the pitch. Her pain tolerance was so high she once played through what turned out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee, an injury that required surgery and cut short her enrolment on an athletic scholarship at the University College in Cape Breton in 2001.
She returned to Ottawa and worked for Agriculture Canada and Canada Post, continuing to play recreational soccer.
On a drizzly May 18 evening, Jodi and a teammate were on their way to a ladies league game when their Chevrolet Cobalt, making a left- hand turn into a parking lot, was struck by an oncoming SUV on Fallowfield Road. Jodi bore the brunt of the crash while the two drivers escaped serious injury. As the car was struck and slammed into four other vehicles in a mini- mall lot, the side and front air bags activated, probably saving Jodi’s life.
Not that doctors at the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital were conceding that point. When Cheryl and husband Ray rushed to hospital, they weren’t given a lot of assurance or detail. Instead, they received a one- word suggestion: “ Pray.”
The impact of the collision caused the type of brain injury that medical people often refer to as “ shaken baby syndrome.”
An MRI also showed spots on the brain stem, which may be signs of damage, or could be less serious bruising.
Bodily injuries she has had to rehabilitate include a double fracture of her left arm and a broken clavicle. Her right side has not yet awakened. Daily physiotherapy has helped her regain movement in her left arm, but lately it has been restricted somewhat, raising the possibility that the shoulder bone may be cutting into muscle.
Though she has always breathed on her own, Jodi was given a tracheotomy to ensure there were no breathing issues. She continues to be fed through a tube.
After the accident, Jodi spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit and six weeks in the Trauma Unit. Her mother rarely left her side, sleeping on waiting room couches. When the early reports were stark, Cheryl chose to ignore them and went with her heart instead. She looked at Jodi and saw hope, as only a mother could.
Dr. Richard Moulton, chief of neurosurgery at the Civic, took special interest in Jodi. As usual, there is a hockey connection. Dr. Moulton’s son, Sean, who wears the colours of OsgoodeRideau, has played with and against Jodi’s brother, Colin.
“ It was a bad injury,” Dr. Moulton said, “ but she has made good progress. She obviously has a very devoted family and they have done a lot for her.
“ It’s only been six months. Recovery from injuries like this can take 18 to 24 months — it’s a long haul.”
Every day Jodi makes some small progress. On a good day, she gives a swift kick to the miniature soccer ball, hanging in a mesh bag above the foot of her bed — a gift from soccer pals Gina, Sandra and Michelle.
Jodi’s eyes are open, but she does not track a visitor’s movement across the room.
She does not speak, but communicates by snapping fingers on her left hand for “ yes,” and clenching a fist for “ no.” She squeezes the hand of loved ones. Her friends say she can also be very effective with the use of her middle finger. On her birthday, Nov. 1, Jodi stunned witnesses by holding up two fingers, then five, to show her age.
The hope is that the baby steps grow into bigger ones, once Jodi is accepted at the “ Slow to Recover’’ program of Hamilton.
The program has only six beds and Jodi is on a waiting list. Patients stay three to four months on average and can make significant strides.
Though Cheryl would love the wait to end “ tomorrow,” a placement is more likely in the new year. Cheryl will temporarily move to Hamilton and Ray will visit on weekends.
Teri Czajka is a clinical specialist with Hamilton Health Services, an umbrella group that takes in the “ Slow to Recover’’ program.
“ The focus is on quality of life,” Ms. Czajka says. “ A lot of our clients have significant physical and cognitive needs.”
The centre helps patients connect with their environment. Communication is paramount.
“ We get them to participate in their own care,” Ms. Czajka says.
The centre is just as concerned for the well- being of families. They have to be healthy, too, if the patient is to progress fully. If needed, patients can return for a “ tune- up.” Always there is follow- up.
“ I’m their contact,” Ms. Czajka says, “ for life.”
According to Dr. Moulton, the Hamilton hospital was one of the first in the country to work with patients on the low end of the brain injury recovery scale. This has since become a growth area in medicine.
“ It’s a challenging process,” said Dr. Moulton. “ Patients with these types of injury not only have to relearn what they already knew, they have to learn how to learn again.”
“ Radiant” is the adjective best friend Elisa Ferrarin uses to describe Jodi, her pal since they were two- year- old neighbours.
“ She’s the life of the party,” Elisa says. “ She lights up a room. Jodi is spontaneous, energetic, and she’s not a quitter. She’s not someone who ever gives up on anything.”
For many sisters, little brothers are a pain. In the Graham household, Jodi is the glue that binds. Big sister has driven Ryan and C. J. to their hockey events, wouldn’t miss a big game, even if it was in Pembroke or beyond.
If a work commitment got in the way, she’d encourage Ben Hiscock, the love of her life, to go.
“ It would mean a lot to C. J.,” she’d say.
Those who know her best find it hard to see her bedridden. She is usually the source of comfort.
“ If this had happened to anybody else she was close to, she would be the one standing beside her, doing whatever she could,” says Ben, his voice breaking.
Ben’s grandfather is Howard Riopelle, a legend in the Ottawa athletic community and a former Montreal Canadiens player in the late 1940s. Howard and wife Marjorie are among the many who have lovingly signed the house guest journal on Larose. “ Jodi is cool.” “ Jodi Rocks.” “ Princess Jodi.” These are the covers of get- well cards that line the walls and doors of Larose Avenue, from some of Jodi’s youngest admirers. Jodi Graham always was a pied piper for kids. When Ben would visit his little nieces, Jodi was the one who brought gifts. They have come to adore her for her attention and care.
When Jodi is wheeled for a walk in the neighbourhood, “ a train of children appears.”
It’s not the only train in the Grahams’ lives since the accident. Within days, the hockey moms of the Ottawa West Hockey Association, led by Judy Majic, Kathy Egan and Nancy Nadeau had set up a “ meal train” that delivered hot, ready- to- eat dinner to the Grahams’ door between 5 and 5: 30 p. m. nightly. That train would still be rolling if Cheryl hadn’t finally blown the whistle to stop it.
Farming families in the Ottawa Valley know this kind of support. The hockey world is similarly close.
Ray ( Slim) Graham is one of the most beloved men in the puck community, a longtime coach and hockey dad who calls everyone “ Slim.” A roofer by trade, Ray continues to battle his frustration and anger over the accident.
Cheryl, a famous hockey mom, is given to warm bear hugs. If she’s weary from providing ’ round- theclock nursing care to Jodi, it doesn’t show in this remarkable woman.
Colin was a member of the Ottawa West novice A team that won the 2002 International Silver Stick championship. Ryan was part of three Eastern Ontario Jr. B. titles with Ottawa West.
Ben was also a captain and champion with the Jr. B Knights and is now coach of the minor midgets.
Dozens of Ottawa West players are wearing ‘‘ J. G.’’ patches on their sweaters this season in her honour — the dots after the initials J. G. are in the shape of hearts.
Ottawa West families are among the regular visitors to the Graham household, but so, too, are parents from the bantam Ottawa Sting team, which has several players who have played with Colin.
Therapists who come into the home daily say they have never seen anything like this sustained support for six months.
Cheryl can’t turn around without finding another shoulder on which to lean. Her sister, Teresa, is in from the Windsor area for a second lengthy stay and is a source of strength.
Jodi’s cousin, David, stops by every morning and could have a second career as a massage therapist. Ben is there every night after his teaching day is over.
“ It was scary when she first came home, very scary,” Cheryl says. “ But there’s always a mom here. I don’t think I’ve been alone.
“ The support has been unbelievable. We are surrounded by people who are so loving and caring. They’re all so positive. They say, ‘ you’re looking great, Jodi, you’re getting so much better, Jodi.’”
Ottawa West and the Jr. B. Knights have organized a benefit night for Jodi — Nov. 30 at Barbara Ann Scott Arena. The Knights play the Ottawa South Canadians at 7: 30 p. m.
Brian Kilrea, the Ottawa 67’ s Hall of Fame coach and general manager, will drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff.
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Brendan Bell, a former 67’ s captain who played his minor hockey at Ottawa West, has donated a team- autographed Leafs sweater and a Mats Sundin hockey stick, among the many items available in the silent auction between periods.
Tickets to the game are $ 5 and available through all Ottawa West team managers. For more information, contact Ottawa West treasurer Bob Scaini at 613- 728- 9879.
The hockey association has also set up a trust fund in Jodi Graham’s name. Donations can be made at any Canada Trust branch. Though the family has health insurance to cover most of Jodi’s needs, there are bound to be extra expenses down the road.
If possible, Jodi will attend the benefit game with her mom and dad, another small step for the Comeback Kid, who continues to make believers out of her biggest fans.
“ I think deep inside she knows she has to do this, not just for her,” friend Elisa says, “ but for everyone else who has been here for her.”