Mom's love helps woman wake from coma after 5 years

Jennifer Flewellen was in a life-threatening car accident in 2017.

Mom's love helps woman wake from coma after 5 years
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation
February 16, 2024, 4:04 AM

Jennifer Flewellen was driving to work on Sept. 25, 2017, when her life changed forever.

Flewellen, then 35, had just dropped her three young sons off at school when she became lightheaded while on the phone with her husband, according to her mom Peggy Means.

"She just veered off the road and she hit a pole, and from there, everything changed," Means told "Good Morning America." "I was at work ... and the phone just kept ringing and I answered, and she'd had an accident."

Means said she and Flewellen's then-husband rushed to the hospital, where they learned Flewellen was injured and in serious condition after the accident.

Flewellen was quickly transported to a larger hospital, where she was placed on life support and put in a medically-induced coma.

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her three sons prior to the 2017 car crash that left her paralyzed and in a coma.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her three sons prior to the 2017 car crash that left her paralyzed and in a coma.
Peggy Means

Means said doctors told her they did not think her daughter would survive.

"They encouraged me, by like day two or three to take her off [life support]," Means recalled. "I said, 'No, not as of today, we're not going to do that.' And then each day, they kind of encouraged me more, and I'd say, 'No, it's in God's hands.'"

Maintaining hope against the odds

For the next five years, while Flewellen remained in a coma, defined medically as the state of being unconscious and unresponsive to stimuli, Means maintained her belief in her daughter's ability to recover.

'We have no room for negativity.'

"I remember one respiratory nurse, she told me, 'Well, you know, she'll only get worse,' and I told her, 'Don't you ever say that to me again, and never say it around my daughter,'" Means recalled. "I'd say, 'It's very easy to be negative, but we have no room for negativity.'"

Means estimates that over the five years that Flewellen remained in a coma, she was transferred to at least five different hospitals and long-term care facilities.

With each transfer, Means said she fought to make sure her daughter received the best care possible, including everything from physical therapy to medical care.

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen, now 41, was in a coma for five years following a car accident.
Jennifer Flewellen, now 41, was in a coma for five years following a car accident.
Peggy Means

When she was trying to get Flewellen into one long-term care facility that came highly recommended, Means said she called the facility's admissions office monthly for two years.

"I called once when the lady that does admitting was on vacation, and it was a different lady, and I got [Flewellen] in," Means said. "So that was a big, big accomplishment because it was a better place."

Means said she also fought for insurance coverage to maintain Flewellen's needed level of care, all while working a full-time job as an industrial sewer.

"I would work 10-hour days, and in the beginning, I could only go [see Flewellen] three days a week," Means said, adding that eventually, her employer let her sew from home. "When they let me take my machine home, then it was on. I could sew in the morning, I could go see Jen and then I could come home and sew."

She continued, "That's when I started [seeing Flewellen] every day, and I think that was a big part of helping."

A mother's loving care

Means said that as the distance grew from the date of Flewellen's accident, she often felt like her daughter was "forgotten."

"Your friends quit coming," Means said, adding that Flewellen's husband and sons coped by moving on with their lives. "For the boys, it was very hard. It was like [their] mom was gone."

She said for many years, friends, family members and even doctors and nurses questioned why she was still so hopeful for Flewellen, who showed no signs of progress.

"People would ask me, 'Does she know you're there?' and I'd have to say, 'I don't know,'" Means recalled. "I always felt as though she was in there. I just felt it. But no, she didn't acknowledge me."

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her mom Peggy Means at their home in Dowagiac, Mich.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her mom Peggy Means at their home in Dowagiac, Mich.
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation

Even as Flewellen lay in a bed comatose, Means, a widowed mother of two, visited her nearly daily for five years.

On Sundays, the one day of the week she did not visit, Means said she spent the day caring for Flewellen's sons because she knew that is what Flewellen would want to be doing herself, if she could.

On the other days, once she arrived to visit Flewellen, Means said her first priority was to clean and care for her daughter, and then to get her in a wheelchair and out of her room.

"Everybody always knew me and Jen, cruising around," Means said, adding that she always spoke to Flewellen as if she was alert. "I'd tell her what the kids are doing, what we've been doing, and I tried to encourage her."

Means said she purchased extra supplies so she could give Flewellen "spa days," during which she would style her hair and massage her hands and feet, which became more tightly clenched the longer she was comatose.

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her mom Peggy Means at their home in Dowagiac, Mich.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her mom Peggy Means at their home in Dowagiac, Mich.
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation

In the hours she was not with Flewellen in-person, Means said she was still a "mama bear," advocating for the best care.

"There was times we would butt heads, and then they realized I'm just trying to be her mom," Means said of the staff at Flewellen's care facility. "I'm just wanting the best for my child."

With the odds stacked against Flewellen's recovery and no end in sight for Means' caretaking duties, she said she just took each day as it came.

'I have so much love in my heart for you.'

"I remember a lady at work said, 'How do you do it?' and I just said, 'I do what I have to do,'" Means said. "I would tell Jenn, 'I have so much love in my heart for you,' you know, it goes without saying. You just do it."

One laugh that changed everything

On a sunny day in August 2022, Means said she took Flewellen outside, following their normal routine of sitting in the warm sunshine while Means talked to her daughter.

This time though, when Means relayed a joke made by her boyfriend, she said Flewellen, for the first time in five years, responded.

"She started laughing," Means said, noting that the sudden response from her daughter "scared" her at first. "I started to wheel her up to the building, and then I thought, she's laughing, so I stopped and got my phone out."

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured the first time she showed alertness in August 2022 after being in a coma for nearly five years.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured the first time she showed alertness in August 2022 after being in a coma for nearly five years.
Peggy Means

Means said she was "overjoyed" to see a reaction from Flewellen, but said it was short-lived, describing her alertness as just a "moment" before Flewellen slipped back into a coma.

Over the next few days, Means continued to bring Flewellen outside, where she continued to respond to Means for brief moments at a time.

"I would ask her questions about the boys and stuff, and she couldn't she couldn't speak even a sound, but she could shake her head yes and no," Means recalled. "I said, 'Jen, am I your dad,' and she made a face like, no. And then I'd ask about the boys, I'd mix up their names, like one middle name to another one.'"

When Flewellen kept correctly answering yes and no to her questions, Means said she said to herself, 'Oh my gosh, she's answering me.'"

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured laughing at a joke made by her mom, Peggy Means, after being in a coma.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured laughing at a joke made by her mom, Peggy Means, after being in a coma.
Peggy Means

Means began recording those moments so she could show them to Flewellen's medical team, who at first did not believe she was fully alert because the moments were so brief.

As Flewellen's moments of alertness grew longer, Means said she fought to get her therapies so she could continue to improve.

"I said, 'I need speech therapy,' and they're like, 'Peggy, she can't make a sound,'" Means recalled. "And I said, 'I know, that's why we need therapy.'"

Over the next few weeks, with the help of speech therapy and Means' encouragement, Flewellen went from making a small whistle sound to making grunt sounds to being able to say vowels.

"It's incredible," Means said. "She can spell. She remembers schoolmates. She remembers her first car. She doesn't remember anything about the accident or anything around there, but before that, she does."

Defying the odds to try to walk, talk again

There aren't many statistics on patients recovering from a long-term coma because it does not happen that often, experts say.

For someone like Flewellen, who was in a persistent vegetative state for multiple years, just 2% to 3% of patients may come out of their coma, said Dr. Ralph Wang, a physiatrist who cared for Flewellen at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Making Flewellen's case even more unique, according to Wang, is that she not only woke up, but is alert and regaining skills like talking.

"She still has a lot of potential," Wang told "GMA," noting that while doctors can't always pinpoint why a person does or does not wake up from a coma, Flewellen had several advantages on her side.

"A lot of it was probably Jenn's natural biology ... and Jen's age also really worked for her too, on top of her mom really taking good care of her," Wang said of Flewellen, who was 35 when she went into the coma. "And there is an aspect of someone's fight, drive, resiliency or spirit, whatever you want to call it, that definitely plays into it ... Jen's drive and her mom's drive."

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her mom Peggy Means at their home in Dowagiac, Mich.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured with her mom Peggy Means at their home in Dowagiac, Mich.
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation

Last July, less than one year after waking up from a five-year coma, Flewellen came home to live full-time with Means, who was able to retire in May at age 60 and become a full-time caregiver to her daughter.

At home, Flewellen reunited with her three sons, who are now in their late teens and early 20s, and learned she is a grandmother to a 1-year-old girl. Flewellen's oldest son came to live with her and Means as well.

"He comes through and says, 'Hi, mom,' and she likes that," Means said.

Last fall, Flewellen was well enough to attend her son Julian's high school football games, a dream come true for a mom who enrolled her sons in sports early on and attended every game and practice when they were young, according to Means.

"She loved it," Means said of Flewellen's reaction, including being able to attend Julian's senior night game. "Towards the end of the game I said, 'Jenn, it's really cold, do you want to leave early?,' nope, we had to stay through the whole thing."

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured attending her son Julian’s senior night football game in October 2023.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured attending her son Julian’s senior night football game in October 2023.
Peggy Means

The moment was also a dream come true for Julian, who said after the game that his mom's recovery is, "everything that I could have asked for."

“About a year ago, I had it in my mind that she was going to come to my game, she was going to come to my senior year, senior night and things like that,” Julian told WBND-LD, an ABC affiliate station in South Bend, Indiana. “I've talked about it for a while, and I dreamed of it and prayed for it, and it happened.”

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen is pictured attending her son Julian’s senior night football game in October 2023.
Jennifer Flewellen is pictured attending her son Julian’s senior night football game in October 2023.
Peggy Means

In Flewellen's recovery, both she and Means have maintained the same sense of determination that got them both through the five years she was in a coma.

From November through January, Flewellen, now 41, completed dozens of hours of physical, speech and occupational therapy as a patient at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, where Means also learned new skills to help her as an at-home caregiver.

Wang described both women as "heroes" in the ways they've overcome the odds stacked against them.

'It's really a story about her mom too, as an unsung hero.'

"This is a story about Jenn, but it's really a story about her mom too, as an unsung hero," Wang said. "A lot of times people don't do well in nursing homes or even at home because their caregivers get burned out or they get busy. In this case, her mom really drove everything, especially while Jenn was comatose. It's a lot of work."

In addition to ongoing therapies, Flewellen is scheduled to have several surgeries to help loosen her contracted joints, which should help make her more independent.

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen of Dowagiac, Michigan, is pictured leaving Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Jennifer Flewellen of Dowagiac, Michigan, is pictured leaving Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation

Means described the fact that her daughter is awake and living with her at home as a "dream come true."

Both Means and Flewellen continue to work towards big goals. When asked whether she and her mom are a team, Flewellen nodded heavily and said, "Yeah."

"We have a lot of work to do still, so we stay busy," Means said. "I want her to walk. I want everything, as much as possible, and we don't know what's possible, so we just have to keep doing it."

PHOTO: Jennifer Flewellen of Dowagiac, Michigan, is pictured during a physical therapy session at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Jennifer Flewellen of Dowagiac, Michigan, is pictured during a physical therapy session at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation

Motivated by the progress Flewellen continues to make, Means recently started a GoFundMe with the goal of renovating a bathroom to be wheelchair accessible and purchasing a wheelchair accessible van so she can take Flewellen to doctors' appointments and activities.

"Jenn had a nurse practitioner once that said, 'You have to imagine it, you have to dream it and you have to believe it,'" Means said. "And so that's what we've tried to do."

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