When Jacqueline Gilbert first arrived at basic training for the Army National Guard, her drill sergeant would motivate her by promising to “smoke the weakness out of her.”
It’s safe to say he accomplished his goal. Or perhaps there never was any weakness.
Since the sergeant’s promise on Labor Day 2009, Jacqueline (born and raised in Philadelphia) has received her bachelor’s degree from Shippensburg University in criminal justice. She’s pursuing a second degree in psychology, all while becoming a trusted member of the Army National Guard and rising to the rank of Sergeant of her unit in Johnstown, PA.
But it’s what Jacqueline has overcome in reaching these accomplishments that makes her story remarkable.
On May 5, 2012 Jacqueline was involved in a serious car accident that would leave her in a coma for 15 days. She sustained over a dozen fractures to her ribs along with a broken collarbone. When she arrived at Magee Rehabilitation, however, it was her traumatic brain injury that received most of the attention.
“Basically, I was being rebuilt,” Gilbert says. “[My therapists] were getting me back to walking, back to talking… I needed a feeding tube.”
Once Jacqueline was talking again, the focus became talking in complete sentences. All the while, she struggled to come to grasps with the lasting impact of her accident.
“I was learning to walk and talk—but I was also learning what had happened, and what it all meant for me and for the rest of my life,” she recalls.
14 months later, Jacqueline’s focus has turned from ‘walking and talking’ to ‘returning and completing’—returning to active duty with the Army National Guard, and completing her second degree in psychology. She expects to do both by the end of 2013.
“I’m a very determined individual,” she says. “I wouldn’t accept that I had any limitations, or that I couldn’t accomplish certain things. The reason I was able to do that was the motivation my drill sergeants had given me all the way back in basic training. They’d gotten any weakness out of me—and I was going to do the same with my injuries.”
Every day at Magee, Jacqueline showed up ready to run, ready to use weights, ready to tackle speech therapy. “The military believed in me enough to enlist me,” she reasons. “I wanted to be good enough to live up to their faith in me.”
As she reaches the final stages of her recovery, Jacqueline wants to be there for the next person who faces a challenge like hers. She enjoys counseling her fellow soldiers during trying time, and has begun volunteering in the cafeteria at Magee. After completing her degree later this year, she doesn’t rule out pursuing a master’s or doctorate in the future—while remaining a member of the Army National Guard.
Even with everything she’s been through in a little over a year, Jacqueline knows how lucky she is, and says she won’t forget it.
“With everything I’ve seen, and everything the doctors have told me… I probably shouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now,” she says. “But I made it. I made it for a reason—and to me, that reason is to be able to help other people during their hard times. I want to show people that with perseverance, they can get through anything.”
She hopes to do so by counseling soldiers heading out on or returning from deployment. “I want to help them mentally prepare for the journey, and then mentally recover from what they’ve been through,” she summarizes. “A lot of things change during that process, and both the soldiers and their families can use that support.”
After her own journey, no one can better offer that support than Jacqueline Gilbert.
‘Believe in a Way Back’
Jacqueline is one of 32 contestants in Magee Rehab’s “Believe in a Way Back” photo contest. The idea was for Magee patients or ‘graduates’ to submit photos of themselves participating in activities they thought wouldn’t be possible after their illnesses or injuries. Throughout the month of July, Facebook members can vote for the most inspiring candidates. The field will be narrowed from 32 to 8, then down to four and ultimately two finalists, with a winner declared on July 29.
To vote for Jacqueline Gilbert’s photo (seen above) visit facebook.com.
To learn more about the contest, visit mageerehab.org.
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