Jill Foster survived five brain aneurysms. Why should she be normal?
She surveyed the room with calm authority and zeroed in on the stranger. Smiling real big, she walked over, and extended her hand. “Oh, hi! I’m Jill. It is so wonderful to finally meet you.”
Two sentences later, her flaws were showing. She has a marked speech impediment. Why is it that we are drawn to imperfect people? She has trouble reading too. How then did she write a book? The right side of her body is paralyzed, which escaped this stranger’s notice for a while. How does one walk when half their body doesn’t work? With those imperfections, or maybe because of them, she became something more than normal. She was intriguing.
Prior to her aneurysms in 1989, Jill Foster was the manager for all of Boeing’s worldwide Workman’s Compensation Departments. Three weeks out of four, she spent in Washington, but the remaining week would find her wherever Boeing operated, be it California, Pennsylvania, Texas, or Saudi Arabia. She spent a lot of time for the company in Olympia too. As a lobbyist for Boeing in 1988, Jill presented HB 1396, which revised the states industrial insurance disability benefits. Jill found her career with Boeing fascinating. “Wow. I, with no higher education than high school, had conceived and presented before the State House of Representatives, a Bill that had every chance in the world to be passed and enacted into law.”
By the time she turned 35 in June 1988, she was on her second marriage, and had five children, ages four through 16. In order for her to accomplish the demands necessary to be a mother and a career woman, she hired a full time nanny. Then her husband lost his job. “No problem. I could handle that.” Well, that was the problem. She could. It was something the couple would have to work through.
Jill discovered a discrepancy on the paper work within the Boeing’s Workman’s Compensation department records. Although a huge percentage of the Boeing employee’s hospital admittance forms stated their accidents happened during off-work hours, the common practice of hospitals around the U.S. was to charge their bills to Workman’s Compensation / the Department of Labor and Industries, instead of billing the employee’s personal health insurance company. This was because The State paid their bills monthly, whereas private insurers sometimes took up to nine months. This practice caused Boeings L & I insurance rates to go up. She arranged for the employees, when at all possible, to go see their family physician first. That way, the physician’s would do his or her own, more ethical billing. Some hospital administrations were upset about this temporary loss of instant revenue.
It was snowing in Seattle that January morning in 1989 when she boarded her flight to Lake Charles, Louisiana. She looked forward to the warmer climate. She scheduled meetings with private practitioners in the Lake Charles area, intent on “Banging out a state of the art program for employee coverage.”
By January 25, the meetings that Jill and her Boeing colleague’s: Lisa from Seattle and Dr. Tilton from Wichita, had with a Dr. Looney went better than she expected. The four were just finishing lunch at an up-scale restaurant, celebrating the beginning of what promised to be a great working relationship between Boeing, its employee’s and the doctor of Lake Charles.During the after lunch conversation, Jill stopped talking in mid-sentence in sudden and intense head pain. “It hurts so bad.”
Dr. Tilton said, “Jill, are you going to be all right?”
“No. Aneurysm. I’m going to be dead.”
Tilton looked into her eyes. One pupil was very dilated, while the other was extremely small—a sure sign of a brain aneurysm. “I went to stand up. He said, ‘No.’ He laid me down back onto the chair and held me.”
“I could hear Doctor Looney saying, ‘Call an ambulance.’”
Usually the ambulance has to drive you to the nearest hospital, but in her case, Dr. Looney knew a Dr. Pittman, a specialist in this type of emergency, who worked at the hospital a few miles further away. “Dr. Looney was telling someone, ‘She has to go there.’ Then, Doctor Looney personally called Dr. Pittman.”
This hospital’s administration might be a little hostile to Jill because of Looney receiving Boeings contract. Looney anticipated this and was confidant that Pittman, a man of rare character, could be counted on—regardless.
Curious restaurant customers watched the medics strap her to a gurney and rush her out the doors. Jill reflected on her family back home, in Washington. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to die and no one is here with me. Then, with the shutting of the ambulance doors, I, Jill Foster mother of five, married, enjoying a high paying and fascinating career that I loved, at age 35, was dead”
(Doctor Pittman, her co-worker, and Dr. Looney filled in this story gap.)
The hospital administrator and another doctor were looking over Doctor Pitman’s shoulder. “She’s flat lined, Dr. Pittman!”
Pittman blocked their voices; “She’s not dead until Dr. Pittman says she’s dead.”
The administrator raised his voice, “Pittman! Notate the time of death and sign off.”
Disregarding his supervisor’s orders, Pittman kept working on her, muttering the same line repeatedly, unwilling to give up on her.
During the operation, the surgeon, Dr. Ruggio, did his best to ease the cranial hemorrhaging and was able to remove the aneurysm. There were, he thought, two more aneurysms on the other side of her brain but these would have to wait for a later surgery. To take them now would overly traumatize her. To not upset Jill, no one told her about these aneurysms.
According to Doctor Pittman, the hospital administrator wanted to allow Jill’s death so that it could be blamed upon Dr. Looney, because Looney was with her before she arrived at his hospital. Perhaps then, Boeing would renew their contract with the hospital. “Thankfully, Dr. Pittman was one of those physicians who embraced the Hippocratic oath and took it to heart.”
Boeing flew her family: parents, husband, and all five children, down to Lake Charles. Her family gathered around her bedside. One day, the on duty physician, a substitute for Dr. Ruggio, walked in. He stepped up to her bed and turned to her loved ones, “Don’t get too excited folks. She’ll never come out of this. She will be a vegetable for the rest of her life. Don’t get too happy. Think of what she and you will have to go through.”
To emphasize his point, he picked up Jill’s arm then dropped it like a wet noodle, and walked out the door.
Angry at his manner and prognosis, Foster’s parents called four other physicians. They all agreed: Jill was not only comatose, but she was a vegetable and would always be one.
What none of the people surrounding her knew was: by day17, Jill was no longer comatose, and she was frustrated. “I could not see. I was like a mummy. I could not move, and I was mad that I could not do these things.”
The right side of her entire body was paralyzed. However, she was listening. She heard the doctor’s prognosis. Her mind was clear and focused when her husband came in to her room and said, “I can’t handle being married to a vegetable.”
Around this time, she feebly began to communicate. “I’m back. More aggravating than having half your body paralyzed is not having the ability to speak.”
She attempted to tell those around her that she heard them—that she was not a vegetable. This feisty Boeing executive and mother of five was determined to prove just how wrong those doctors were.
February 13, just three days after being completely out of her coma, she practiced lifting one leg over the other on her bed, and progressed to sitting up. Finally, she accomplished placing both legs on the floor and stood up. “It was around 2:00 a.m., I fell to the floor, and since the nurse had just come in to check on me, she would not come back in for hours. So, I grabbed the blankets off my bed to use as a pillow on the floor and just fell asleep there—because I could not speak.”
On February 17, Boeing arranged for a Leer jet to fly her to Seattle. It was a special jet equipped as a small, flying ICU. The jet had to fly at extremely low elevation so the altitude pressure would not affect her remaining two aneurysms.
A short time after Foster arrived in Washington, the hospital in Lake Charles fired Dr. Pittman. Even so, he made it a point to inquire frequently on how Jill’s recovery was going.
The medical community considered Jill Foster a hopeless case. Because of this, there was little rehabilitation therapy for Jill. After one month, the therapists wrote her off and therapy stopped. She realized that what ever she would accomplish physically, she would have to do on her own. Number one on her list was to smile. Because the right side of her face was paralyzed, she could not. Her children needed a mother’s smile. Using her left hand, she lifted her right cheek countless times a day, exercising those smile muscles and practicing, as well as she could, the vowel sounds.
She remained hospitalized for three and a half months. When she was being discharged, her Tacoma doctor offered her a wheelchair. “I nodded my head, ‘Yes,’ while I am thinking, ‘I know I’m lying, Lord, but I want to walk again.” Jill felt that if she accepted that wheelchair she would never accomplish walking.
Once back home, she walked every day. “Neighbors would stare at me from out their windows and say, ‘Hey, isn’t that Jill? She can’t do that!’ My right side was still paralyzed and I could not feel anything. So I’d fall a lot!” Her leg would get bruised and bloody. “But, since I could not feel pain, I’d get right back up again and keep going. Within two months I was walking three miles a day.”
By June, she was able to give her children a big grin. By now, Jill and her husband were separated and had hired attorneys to proceed with the divorce. One day in September, her soon-to-be ex showed up and said, “We don’t have to get divorced because you’re going to be dead!”
He told her about the other two aneurysms, the secret everyone knew but her. “I cried for three days.”
Shortly thereafter, Jill retained legal custody of her five children. “Thank God nanny Shelly stayed on.”
Almost one year from her original surgery date, Jill was being prepped for her second surgery at University of Washington. Dr. Mayberg was scheduled to perform it. Foster, because of her line of work, knew that it was typical practice for students to perform the actual surgeries. She communicated to Mayberg that she wanted him to personally perform the surgery and what’s more, she knew they recorded all the surgeries. It took effort but she told him, “If you don’t screw up, I want the tape.”
She watched it. The first aneurysm was as big as his thumb and he worked over five hours to extract it. He almost fainted when he realized that there was not one more, but three more to remove! She still has that tape.
During the first four and a half years following her aneurysms, she could not hear herself speak, which was strange considering she heard everyone else. Various people attempted to gain control of her life, family, and financial assets. She determined to put a stop to it and regain control. She had to. Seven long years passed before she could speak sensibly.
No one would have believed it possible back in 1989 that Jill would ever walk and talk again—no one but Jill. She aimed to make it count. Representative (and later Senator) Bob Oke encouraged her to get back into politics.
Jill continued her work as a lobbyist, testifying at the Washington State Legislature and later the House and Senate for Senate Bill SB5935. She spoke at the National Hearing and Speech Conference in Seattle in 1995.
Since then, she has been honored by the 1997 Washington State Legislature and chosen by Mike Lowery to help light the Washington State Christmas tree in the Capital rotunda. The Medical Rehabilitation Coalition thanked her for her efforts on keeping the Health Care Reform Bill alive. She spoke at the 2000 National Hearing and Speech Conference in Seattle, and at the Lakewood City Council for Head Injury Awareness Month in 2000. In 2001, Governor Gary Locke appointed her to serve on the states Rehabilitation Advisory Council.
Jill continues to enjoy attending the Governor’s ball every four years.
She recently finished the manuscript of her life story. In it, she describes her experiences while dead and comatose. Dr. Pittman contributed to her book. Her right side remains paralyzed, but she walks and drives anyway. A huge part of her communication technique involves expression. Her eyes, hands, and voice inflection help connote what she has trouble verbalizing. Now 55, her extraordinary animation and enthusiasm for life is contagious.
When asked what she thought about the title for this article she replied, “I love it! Perfect! Sometimes I laugh at people’s perception of my obvious speech difficulties. It is a perception of stupidity. But,” she laughs, “God never intended Jill to be stupid.”
Without her imperfections, her story would not be as credible. Because of them, she is enabled to motivate us beyond mere aspiration, into that place where even we can succeed.