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A need for others

U-M commencement speaker faced hurdles after accident

(Port Huron, Michigan) Times Herald

April 29, 2007

By Bill Chapin

No one ever told Jolene Bricker Pemberton she would never walk again. They didn't have to. She knew.

She knew before she got to the hospital, while her twisted body was still lying in the field, her organs ruptured and bleeding, her very survival in question.

She knew when she realized it felt like she was still riding the four-wheeler, even though she had been thrown more than 60 feet from the vehicle. She knew when she reached down to touch her thigh and instead felt the back pocket of her jeans.

When she was released from the hospital about three months later, Pemberton knew something else. She knew she needed to prove to everyone - her family, her friends, herself - that the accident hadn't changed her. She knew she needed to go back to college and graduate. On time.

"I wanted to show ... that I was still the same person," the Fort Gratiot native said.

Not only did she complete her bachelor's degree in psychology and social work from the University of Michigan, she was able to share her story with all the other graduates. Pemberton was chosen by the university to deliver a short speech at Saturday's commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.

On Friday, Pemberton, 21, said the prospect of addressing more than 7,700 students and their families - not to mention sharing a stage with keynote speaker former President Clinton - was "slightly daunting."

"I'm trying not to think about it a whole lot," said Pemberton, a graduate of Port Huron Northern High School. "When I start thinking about it I get really nervous."

Pemberton was riding a four-wheeler with a friend at a baby shower in Fort Gratiot in June 2004 when the driver ran into a ditch and lost control.

The accident ruptured Pemberton's spine, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. Her lung was punctured, she lost a kidney and her spleen wouldn't stop bleeding.

She said the first thought that went through her head was, "Wow, that really hurt."

"There was a nurse there. She held my head, so I was talking to her," Pemberton said. "I realized I couldn't feel my legs and that I was probably paralyzed, but I was trying not to" think about it.

Her father, Keith Bricker, said doctors told him it was only because Pemberton - who had been a member of the swim team at Port Huron Northern High School - was in such good physical shape that she survived.

"They told me if it had been me, I'd have been dead there in the field," he said.

Her recovery at the University of Michigan Health System's Trauma Center was the subject of a Discovery Channel show that followed several seriously injured patients.

Pemberton was back attending classes by the winter of 2005. She managed to make up the missed time, twice earning straight A's, and graduated with honors and a 3.5 grade point average.

She also found time to get married to her boyfriend, Jeffrey Pemberton. The couple had been dating since before the accident.

Her 1.5-minute speech Saturday was about how the accident changed her concept of success and emphasized the importance of friends and family.

"We're pretty proud of her, needless to say," Bricker said. "She's been the ultimate example of tenacity. This has been a tough transition for her, ... but she has just done amazingly well."

She plans to attend graduate school at the university in the fall.


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