Carolyn Thompson, Windsor Star
The bones in her face are so broken that she’ll need reconstructive surgery. Where once were two glittering blue eyes, one is now blind and the other a swollen haze through which doctors don’t know if she will see at all.
In her skull, doctors carved a hole to let her swelling brain push through. When she mumbles words, they seem familiar but her family doesn’t know whether they’re a sign she’s coming back or just whispers of memory.
In the split second that Jessica McCracken’s silver Infinity collided with a moose on a stretch of northern Alberta highway, the lives of all her family were changed.
“We always worried about her out there, because it’s just so far from home, and then something that you really never imagined happens,” said her sister Heather Ledoux.
Hitting a moose isn’t rare in Alberta – in fact it’s a common fear along the dark lanes of Highway 63, which runs north to Fort McMurray. Just a few weeks earlier Jessica sent a message to her sister saying she almost hit a mother bear and two cubs. “Terrifying,” she texted her sister at the time.
Most people don’t survive a collision with a moose. In that sense, Jessica is lucky, her brother says.
The moose came up on the right side, where Jessica sustained much of the damage. When a car hits a moose it pushes forward the tall, thin legs, throwing the heavy upper body directly onto the people inside. Jessica’s body is fine. It’s only her head that sustained damage.
The moose careened over the car, pulling the roof off and splitting into two pieces. A car driving behind Jessica ran over a part of the animal before stopping to call 911.
Her cell phone was dead when police found it. They charged it, found a number in the contacts labelled “mom,” and made the dreaded call to a tightly-knit family in Essex.
Terry and Gaye McCracken immediately travelled to Alberta, where they’ve stayed since the accident happened on July 7. At first they were paying for a hotel room beside the hospital. Soon they’ll move into an apartment building that rents month to month, lowering the cost slightly.
A few friends have made the trip, and McCracken’s brother and sister visited for one week. The cost of a flight means it will be hard to visit frequently as the months of recovery go on.
“It’s so hard because it’s so slow,” Ledoux said.
The family is hoping to have McCracken transferred to a facility in Toronto, where family and friends can visit more often. The transport cost ranges from $20,000 to $30,000, and neither Alberta nor Ontario would cover the expense.
McCracken is the adventurous one of the three siblings. She travelled the world, and makes friends wherever she goes. Ledoux said she was always on the phone – chatting with friends across the country.
The 32-year-old has been working as a cook, bartender, and housecleaner on the oil fields for about 10 years. On the night of the accident, she went out to grab a burger. She sent her siblings a message that it was delicious just before getting on the highway to drive back to work.
It’s been three weeks. Things are slowly getting a bit better.
One day, McCracken’s father walked in to the hospital room to see her chatting away holding the emergency call button as if it were a cell phone.
On another occasion, a friend played her favourite song, Kid Rock’s Roll On, and McCracken swayed her body to the music, dancing from under her restraints.
On the phone with her siblings, she’ll occasionally drop a childhood nickname or say hi as if she recognizes the voice.
Each moment is a small spark of Jessica.
“It’s like, wow, she’s in there. We hadn’t seen much of her, and that was her,” Ledoux said.
The rehabilitation process is expected to be long, and difficult. Doctors still don’t know how much brain function she’ll recover, and whether she’ll see again. But her family remains optimistic.
“It’s like although she’s doing all these things, she’s not there,” Ledoux said. “Thirty seconds, and then she’s gone.”
“But when you talk to her sometimes, she’ll be right there with you,” her brother added.
Family and friends have been looking for ways to help. They’ve launched a website where people can donate funds to take away some of the stress on McCracken’s parents.
In August, a pasta fundraiser will add to the pot. Jamie McDermott, a family friend and McCracken’s mom’s employer, is organizing a golf tournament fundraiser in September.
“This makes a difference in our lives,” Ledoux said, blinking back tears. “It’s not easy, but it makes it easier.”
Those wanting to donate directly can do so at www.gofundme.com/c0fai4.
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