Article from http://www.sfgate.com/
Putting the pieces back together
Sunday, October 10, 2004
© 2004- The Chronicle
Jill Mason closed her eyes as she sat in the living room of her parents' spacious home in the Sierra foothills town of Grass Valley, the memory of her days as a high school track star flickering in her mind.
She was what they call a "four-stepper" in the 300-meter hurdles, meaning she took one more step between hurdles than most of her taller opponents.
"She was a four-stepper who could whip any three-stepper," said her father, Larry Mason, proudly recalling the glory days.
Times were good then, but the memories now bring pain.
Mason's gazelle-like legs can no longer support her. It is a struggle simply to move around, to talk, to think. She sits in a wheelchair under 24- hour supervision, tragically aware that a drunken driver nearly killed her and, despite an otherwise miraculous recovery, permanently changed her and her family's lives.
Jill Mason cannot even remember that fateful Easter Sunday five months ago when she and her boyfriend were run down during a bicycle ride in Sonoma County. But she is painfully cognizant of what she used to be, what her father believes she can still be in mind, if not in body.
So she closes her eyes and listens to him talk.
"She played lacrosse, too," he said, rushing to the bedroom to bring out a photograph of his daughter leaping into the air over an opponent, a lacrosse stick clutched in her hand.
"You remember what they called you, Jill?" he asked, his eyes brightening. "Do you remember it?"
The car hit Mason so hard that her spine snapped and her head smashed on the ground as she somersaulted off the bicycle. She was in a coma when she arrived at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. She would not open her eyes for five days. She could not speak for two months. Although her memory is coming back, she still cannot recall anything about the accident or the six months preceding it.
But she can remember running like the wind on the lacrosse field at Nevada Union High School, leaping above everybody else for the ball.
"Forrest," she replied without enthusiasm, her eyes opening now to reveal her pain. "Like Forrest Gump." Then, after a pause, "Because I was so fast."
She lost her boyfriend, Alan Liu, that day. Liu, 31, a talented engineer at Applied Materials in Santa Clara who was being groomed for an executive position, was the head coach of the Mountain View Masters Swim Team. He had also started water polo and triathlon clubs for team members. Mason and Liu met when she joined the swim team.
Mason had graduated from Santa Clara University and went on to receive a master's degree in mass communications from San Jose State University. After graduation, she lived in Cupertino and took a job as marketing director at Lowney Associates, an environmental and geotechnical engineering firm in Mountain View.
She was an experienced triathlete -- someone who participated in swimming, bicycling and running races. Within a month of her joining the team, Liu and Mason were dating. Six months later, they decided to go for a training ride on that brilliant Easter Sunday morning in Sonoma County before spending the holiday with Liu's mother.
By the time they set out, Harvey Hereford, a 69-year-old Santa Rosa lawyer, was already drunk. By 11:20 a.m., he was in his car, driving on an expired license. Witnesses said they saw his Nissan Sentra weaving along Highway 12, near Oakmont. Suddenly, the car lurched onto the shoulder.
Father and daughter fell silent, their thoughts of glory and tragedy colliding in Jill's neat childhood home. Feeling her pain, Larry Mason edged closer to his daughter.
"We'll get through this," he said softly. "We'll get through it, Jill. I have confidence in you."
Doctors did not believe Jill Mason would live.
"After the first night, they pulled us in and said, 'It doesn't look like she's going to live and if she does, she'll be in a vegetative state,' " said Larry Mason, an adaptive physical education teacher for disabled students in the Grass Valley-Nevada City area. Jill's mother, Joanne, is a school counselor at Union Hill School in Grass Valley.
"We just hung around the hospital in a devastated state," he said. "The next day, they told us it wasn't as bad as they thought."
Jill was in the intensive care unit for a month, undergoing back surgery and fighting off one infection after another, all the while being fed through a tube. Just when she was ready for rehabilitation work, the shunt in her head became infected, forcing her back into intensive care, this time at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
"That was scary," Larry Mason said. "The doctor was very pessimistic."
The emotional roller coaster continued for Mason family as Jill Mason learned anew how to breathe, eat and speak. Then one day in June, she said "hi" to her father over the phone. He claims things steadily got better after that.
Jill Mason still looks the part of the athlete, with her hair cut short and running shoes on her feet. Her recovery has, by all accounts, been astonishing.
"Her mind is coming back every day," said her father. "She's e-mailing and reading. She's doing things that no one thought she would be able to do."
Still, she must endure intensive daily physical and cognitive therapy sessions. She is steadily regaining movement in her arms, learning how to use a wheelchair and trying to fill in the huge gaps in her memory.
As of now, she can remember as far back as her birthday on July 9.
"I remember eating, opening presents, taking lots of pictures and being outside," she said. "There were lots of friends and family there.
"It was good that my whole family helped me," she said. "It makes me feel really loved. I wonder what people do who don't have families like mine."
But it has been grueling, according to her father, who, with his wife, son Dan, mother-in-law Mary Carbone and other family members, has had to juggle jobs and round-the-clock care for Jill. He said his daughter gets disability checks from her work, but he and his wife have to pay for several uncovered medications, a current health insurance policy and future outpatient care.
"This has definitely changed our lives," he said. "My wife gets home at noon from work and takes care of Jill until she goes to bed. At this point, we can handle it, but at some point, the funds will dwindle. And we've got a long way to go."
Jill Mason has not yet had a chance to deal with Liu's death. She was told that he had died, but it was not until last month that she could remember anything about him.
"I feel for Alan's family," she said.
And as bits and pieces of memory return, she gets angrier and angrier.
Hereford had a blood alcohol level of 0.29, more than three times the level at which a person is presumed to be too intoxicated to drive. He subsequently pleaded guilty to drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced Sept. 27 to eight years and eight months in state prison.
Although she can't remember the accident, Mason made a point of confronting Hereford at the sentencing hearing in Santa Rosa, only days after her release from the hospital.
"I never thought I would be where I am today," she told Hereford from her wheelchair. "My life's goals are very different now. Harvey Hereford, you've changed my life forever and taken Alan's away."
Wheeling into her bedroom, Jill Mason looked around at the familiar white teddy bear on top of a pile of stuffed animals, the pink draperies and embroidered bedspread. She is back home, building a life again out of the ruins, running this time against the winds of fate.
"My parents tell me every day to work really hard," she said. "It's hard because I know what I used to be able to do. I think I had a pretty good life going for myself, and now it's all different, and my parents' lives have changed and my brother's, too. Anyone who drives drunk is so stupid. I played lots of sports in college and high school, and now I can't do anything."
Jill Mason Trust
A trust fund has been established for Jill Mason with the money to be used for all areas of her continuing care, including therapy treatment, care providers and rehab equipment.
Contributions should be sent to the "Jill Mason Trust," Bank of the West, c/o Laura Gish, 2801 4th St., Santa Rosa, CA 95405.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.