Girl overcomes adversity to graduate with her class
In most ways, Rhonda Jones is a typical teenager. She loves to shop and has a special place in her heart for shoes. She loves watching movies, especially comedies. She enjoys listening to all kinds of different music from Eminem to Tom Petty, but she has no tolerance for country music.
But Jones acknowledges that in a very real way she is different from her friends since a car accident took her ability to walk.
The accident caused Jones to miss an entire semester of school. But through persistence and dedication, last week Jones met her goal of graduating from high school alongside her classmates.
On Dec. 6, 2003, Jones was riding in a car driven by her boyfriend, Bobby Kurtz. Eudora residents Zeb Titus and Tiffany Nixon were also in the car when Kurtz drifted into the passing lane and overcorrected on Kansas Highway 10, near mile marker 11. The car hit a ditch on the north side of the road and rolled several times, ejecting everyone but Kurtz from the vehicle.
"I remember a lot, actually," Jones said.
She remembered hitting her head on a window and hearing screams inside the car, but didn't remember why it happened.
She woke up on the ground, but didn't feel any pain, she said. Kurtz was the first person that she saw.
"That was probably when I realized that I was hurt," Jones said. "He told me not to move."
Jones said in the hours that followed she had no concept of time and that nothing that happened seemed real. She was transported by helicopter to Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., sharing the helicopter and trauma room with Nixon.
"I remember seeing my dad," she said. "I just remember him telling me I was going to be OK."
Jones had broken three ribs and fractured her sternum. But her most serious injuries were two crushed vertebrae in her spinal cord.
"They think that was from the impact from hitting the ground," she said.
Jones spent the next month-and-a-half in the hospital, where she was told that she would likely never again have feeling from her chest down.
"That was probably one of the weirdest things, to be stuck in a hospital bed for so long," she said.
Jones said she wanted to go home two days after her accident because she felt like she would be able to deal with everything better there.
"It was hard for people to come and see me at the hospital," she said. "It's just a really depressing place."
But during her entire hospital stay, Jones had the constant company of one or both of her parents, John and Karen Jones. One of whom was with her at the hospital at all times.
Jones said she was anxious to recover, and started physical therapy at KU Med within a week of her accident.
Eventually she began going to therapy at Lawrence Memorial Hospital Kreider Rehab, where she said she made the most progress toward recovery. She said her therapist, Becky McClure, made a big difference in how she approached her injury.
"My physical therapist was great," she said. "She didn't believe what the doctors said. She would try anything."
Jones continued physical therapy until earlier this year when a change of employment in the family resulted in the loss of medical insurance. Now her injury is considered a pre-existing condition and is not covered by her parents' insurance.
"We're still trying to figure out what to do about that," she said.
In the meantime, Jones said she can make some progress on her own at home, using the knowledge she gained from the work she had done so far.
"I can feel everything," she said. "It's not a normal feeling. It's kind of a dulled sensation, almost like when your legs are asleep and they're in the process of waking up, but without so much tingling."
She's also learned to move her hips and some of her leg muscles again.
"I actually have quite a bit of movement that I've gotten back," she said. "Much to the doctors' surprise."
After missing a semester of her junior year and having to relearn a new way to do almost everything, it was not easy going back to school.
"I think the hard part was in my head, having to go back and being in a wheelchair," she said. "Not that it's embarrassing, it's just -- it's just high school."
Jones said her most difficult struggle was giving up some of her independence.
"I feel different, I guess just because I am different now," she said. "It was really, really frustrating at first."
Her father said having to rely on others was a change of pace for Jones, who was accustomed to doing everything on her own. She had even purchased her own car and had a job for two years before the accident.
"She's always been real responsible," he said.
Her mother said Jones' willingness to work played a key role in the progress she had already made, and she believed that would continue.
"Whatever she plans on doing, she's going to accomplish, and she's going to succeed because she's got that drive and determination," Karen said. "We've seen that more so now, really more than we ever did before."
John said he admired his daughter for her persistence in getting to school so she could graduate with her class. It was important enough to her that she attended a semester of summer school in 2004.
"There were a lot of days when she was really sore and hurting," John said. "But she's really strong. She even stayed on the honor roll."
Jones' hard work paid off Sunday when she accepted her diploma along with the rest of the class of 2005. A special ramp was built for her so that she could be presented on stage, just like everyone else.
Jones plans to take a semester break before going to Johnson County Community College to study teaching or writing. And if she ever gets all of her strength and movement back, she hopes to become a physical therapist.
"That way I could help people get better," she said.
Jones said the events of the last two years had taught her that anything could happen, but she wasn't going to let that get in the way of enjoying life.
"I'm not going to be afraid of things. I'm not going to live my life in fear," she said. "I'm going to live it to the most I can."