This is the fifth article in our new 7-week series called “Her Story,” stories of ordinary women experiencing, overcoming, or choosing to do extraordinary things. This week’s story is from Jill Stigman, as told to Kathy Banta, who writes about Jill’s struggle to overcome physical and spiritual challenges following a life-changing car accident.

I met Jill over 20 years ago through church, when we were both newly married. She’s one of those people you meet and quickly sense a kindred spirit. Her demeanor is confident and joyful. When chatting with her, I often find myself sharing thoughts and stories I swore I’d keep to myself. Jill is strong physically and in spirit. I think that is part of the reason I find her so intriguing. We all want to think that if we are faced with a defining moment, we’d stand strong and graceful: pushing through. Jill has been tested, and her character has stood beautifully strong.

Jill is the third of seven children, growing up on her family’s Iowan farm. She has always been social, and as a teen took part in school plays, played the saxophone, and was competitive in basketball and volleyball. In 1986, Jill was 16. On a Sunday morning in September, she rode with her sister to church, leaving just a few minutes before the rest of her family. They drove along on a county road towards town, surrounded by tall ripe fields of corn, passing driveways and gravel roads along the way. That’s all Jill remembers of that day before waking up, lying in a field. A pickup truck, blinded by the height of the corn fields, had ignored its stop sign and hit Jill’s side of the car straight on, driving 55 miles per hour. Jill flew through the windshield, over the road, over a fence, and into a corn field – unable to move. She told me how she could hear her sister yelling, “Jill, are you okay?” and yelling back to her sister, “I’m not okay, I can’t move! You’ve got to go get help!” Her parents, who were traveling just minutes behind them, came up upon the accident. Jill shared, “I knew when I was lying there that I wasn’t going to walk again. I said, ‘Mom, I’m paralyzed.’ I don’t know why I felt I needed to voice it, but I did.”

Jill spent almost three months in the hospital learning how to live life paralyzed from the waist down. One of her first questions to the doctors was, “Can I still be independent?” They assured her she could, and Jill began to build an I can beat this way of thinking. But when she returned home from the hospital, the reality of how much her life had changed began to sink in. The freedoms she had known before the accident were gone. Her family home was reworked to provide access to the house and bathroom. The small town where she had grown up did not have accessible sidewalks and doorways to businesses, and friends’ homes were not wide enough for her wheelchair. Jill felt trapped and began to dream of going away to college in a big town where there would be other people like her; where sidewalks and buildings would be manageable for her and her chair.

Jill went off to college and while there met her husband-to-be, Peter. He was a Christian who challenged her beliefs with discussions of faith, purpose, and God’s love. They married and her dream of being a mother, in time, came true. Her days became busy and full with motherhood. She leaned over the side of her chair and scooped a baby up while twisting to reach a toy for the other. As she went about her days, her body and the rods in her back were getting a workout like never before. A problem began to develop within her. The structure that had stabilized Jill’s injured back was wearing down. In March of 2009, Jill went in to see her orthopedic doctor and, after looking at her x-rays, he told her that her L1 and T12 vertebrae were disintegrating and her L2 was cracked. Her body was shrinking down onto her internal organs. She needed surgery. She hated the thought of it and put it off. The following fall, she couldn’t take the pain anymore, but by that time her L1 and L2 were completely disintegrated and her L3 was cracked. She had to have the surgery soon. It had been 24 years since her original surgery. She prepared herself mentally for the body cast she’d wear for six weeks and told herself, I can do this. I can handle this. But, could she? Once on the operating table the doctors discovered the original structure in Jill’s back was no longer attached and was floating loosely inside her. They would have to add to and rebuild a stronger, more secure structure.

Waking from the surgery, Jill was overwhelmed with emotions. What had happened? This was not what she had planned or prepared for. She had so many questions: questions about her future and what it would look like. They had few answers. They didn’t know. She cried from the  pain pulsating through her body, pain from the loss of control, and pain from exhausted emotions. Anger welled up within her. She no longer wanted to live like this. “This wasn’t living,” She said, “I hadn’t signed up for this.” During the day she collected herself and at night she’d cry and yell at God.

On the third night following her surgery, a nurse came in to correct the paperwork that said, “Do not resuscitate.” Jill didn’t want it changed. The nurse argued with her, reminding her that she had two children and was only 41. Jill didn’t budge. She had hit rock bottom. Every two hours nurses would come in to flip her from one side to the other. On the fourth night, as she waited to be flipped. She cried to God, “This is not my choice of living; let me be done.” At that moment she sensed God like she’d never sensed him before and heard the words, If you want to die and be done, why aren’t you willing to live and be done? She’d never thought about life that way. If she could live and let God handle the expectations, the pressure was off of her. It was up to God. This was the changing moment for Jill’s recovery and her choice to live.

Jill’s recovery moved from the hospital to home care and
months of rehab. Her strong will argued Rock Bottom Recoverywith God, but the message she had heard that night in the hospital came back to her, are you willing to live and be done? Philippians 1:20 (NIV) challenged her even more. It says, “For I live in eager expectation and hope that I will never do anything that causes me shame, but that I will always be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past, and that my life will always honor Christ, whether I live or I die.” Jill was not afraid to die, but if God was choosing to let her live, she would “eagerly expect” that God’s help would be sufficient.

Jill began to write a blog sharing her journey. Since then, she’s had opportunities to share her story and the down-to-earth message of embracing the moments we are in, to just be has been her passion. This is not the life story Jill would have chosen for herself, but her life and the spirit in which she lives are inspiring to those who have the opportunity to spend time with her. As she told me the details of her last surgery and shared how much harder it had been than the original surgery years ago, she so passionately spoke about the beauty we so often miss because we are either living in regret of our past or planning for our futures instead of experiencing the now. Jill has recovered from her 2009 surgery and is a peer mentor for spinal injury patients at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Her rock bottom changed the way she looks at life and has spurred her to step out and try new challenges, such as blogging and speaking.

To learn more about Jill’s journey and read her blog here.

To read other articles in our “Her Story” series, click on these titles: The Best Lemonade Maker by Tabby Finton, Full Circle by Carol Battista, The Art Show by Shari Harris, and Rock Bottom Recovery by Kathy Banta