finding his limits

Finding His Limits, Pushing Beyond

Jayme Severance '13 is a bit of a dreamer.

In his waking hours, the New Hampshire native dreams of being a writer while working toward his goal of graduating as one of Colby-Sawyer's first Creative Writing majors. He carries a notebook, reads his work with flair at Open Mic Nights, and, as author of a memoir and novella, is looking for a literary agent.

At night he dreams he's still at the Château de Pourtalès in France, starting college as part of Colby-Sawyer's first Global Beginnings Program, or about his senior year of high school, or his future as a teacher.

There was a time, though, when Jayme had different dreams. And there was a time when Jayme didn't have any dreams at all.

Death of a Dream

In fall 2006, Jayme was a successful high-school senior who ran cross country, but he didn't feel he was good at anything in particular. College seemed a financial impossibility, and without a specialty on which to focus, he discarded the idea of college in favor of joining the Army. On Oct. 29, Jayme was minutes from home after an afternoon of playing paintball with his older brother, an aspiring Marine. They decided to stop for a cheeseburger, the last solid food Jayme would have for more than three months. Turning left out of the restaurant, his brother at the wheel, Jayme bore the brunt of the impact when a pickup t-boned them. Though wearing a seatbelt, he suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury, lacerated liver, and fractured ribs and pelvis.

Jayme was hospitalized, comatose, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. After starting to wake up, he was transferred to Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center (CMRC) in Greenfield, N.H., where he was admitted as minimally conscious on Dec. 13.

“It's important to know,” says Jayme, “that even when I woke up, I woke up vegetative. My eyes opened, but…nothing going on.” When Jayme speaks, it is deliberately and softly. The hole from his tracheostomy has healed, but the procedure affected his voice. He remembers nothing from being in the coma, but everything after he woke up.

“Ev-ery-thing,” he emphasizes. “Especially the way I was treated when I was vegetative.” He pauses for a long time, and a sadness surrounds him about which he won't elaborate.

What is it like to be in a vegetative state? “It's like this,” Jayme explains. “Turn your head. Now keep it there. Now imagine you cannot move anything. Not even your eyes. You can still think, but you can't do anything else. You would just stay like that for an entire day. Ahhh, can you imagine?” After just half a minute, staring at a doorknob becomes infuriatingly boring. The prospect of looking at nothing else until someone decides to shift you is terrifying.

On Jan. 2, Jayme started communicating again by shaking his head to indicate yes or no. A fit 140 pounds before the accident, Jayme's weight had dropped to 96 pounds while he was in the coma. With intensive occupational, physical and speech therapies, and glasses to correct the double vision of his once-fine eyes, Jayme got to know his new body and mind. Always independent—he describes himself as ambitious, reserved and studious—Jayme found himself in a new level of aloneness.

There are, he maintains, two Jaymes: the old Jayme, and the brain-damaged Jayme, the one he believes some people see as retarded. “I have a lot of deficiencies, most of which can't be named because I don't know them,” he says. He does know that his injury disinhibits his behavior, and that his reasoning abilities have been affected to the point where his math ability has dropped to a fifth-grade level. His brother, with whom he was very close, has grown physically distant since serving on the USS New York and in Afghanistan, and he has grown emotionally distant in what Jayme assumes is a self-protective posture after making that devastating left turn.

In the solitude of a time when his existence was focused on rebuilding himself and wondering for what future he was preparing, Jayme, who thought he had no specialty, began to discover that he did when he found a way to express all he had lost.

“I wasn't always a writer,” says the aspiring poet and novelist. “But because I was so bored at the rehabilitation center, I turned to writing as a way to escape. I'd write for hours on end. Looking back—no, in retrospect,” he edits himself, “a lot of the poetry I wrote was expressing my sentiments over missing my senior year.”

Jayme made attending senior prom with his girlfriend his top priority. On Feb. 8 he stopped using a wheelchair and walked without any support devices. After five months and 23 days at CMRC, he was released on May 11.

“I was focused entirely on getting to the prom,” Jayme recalls wistfully. “And I made it, with about 20 days to spare.”

The prom was everything he'd hoped for, but asked if he's in a relationship now, Jayme says, “That's a painful question. I haven't been in a relationship for years. It's a great sadness. But she didn't break it off, I did. I was trying to save myself the heartache I knew would inevitably follow if I didn't.” It was, he concedes with a sigh, the right decision.

A New Start –A Global Beginning

Finally graduating high school in 2008, Jayme again faced his future. His brother was a Marine by then, but Jayme's old dream of joining the Army was as impossible as the idea of college once had been. In the time since his original senior year of high school, Colby-Sawyer had added a major in Creative Writing. This new option, combined with the college dropping its SAT requirement, and with funding possibilities available through the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the New Hampshire Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, opened a new path for Jayme. After all, the budding writer had already created a 500-page memoir. “Colby-Sawyer was everything I was looking for,” says Jayme. “I need individual attention and what do you know—Colby-Sawyer specializes in individual attention. It was looking pretty perfect.”

A few months after being accepted, Jayme received an email about Global Beginnings and the opportunity to spend his first semester either in Florence, Italy or Strasbourg, France. “I wanted to expand my horizons and there was really no question,” says Jayme. “I jumped in with both feet. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity.”

In choosing France as his Global Beginnings site, Jayme landed in the orbit of Professor of Natural Sciences Bill Thomas. In him, Jayme found a father figure and a life model.

Professor Thomas knew he would have a student with some limitations. “I assumed they were somehow mental limitations, but from his e-mails it was clear he could put ideas together,” he recalls. “Jayme's mode of communication was a little stiffer than that of some of the other students. I learned later that he was older than the others, so that contributes to it in part; he's more mature, in some ways, than the peers he had around him, less in others.”

Almost from the beginning, Jayme kept close to Professor Thomas, asking questions and sharing stories. “He didn't articulate very well at the beginning of the program, so I really had to focus to understand all of what he wanted to say. And he had to work to figure out in advance what he wanted to say and then say it clearly, so the combination made conversation a bit difficult,” says Professor Thomas.

By October, when Jayme stood before his classmates to present on Greek warfare, he spoke deliberately and confidently. When a link to a YouTube video failed, he remained calm and drew diagrams to illustrate his point instead. Instructor Petra Christov complimented him on the most articulate presentation so far with well structured sentences, and said he certainly knew what he was talking about—if anything, his individual project was too detailed.

“I admire him a lot. He's made a really interesting existence for himself out of what was, and could have continued to be, a disaster,” says Professor Thomas. “In so many situations you have so little control. So many events just happen to slide by with no impact. Jayme's a good example for the other students. He has a very good heart.”

Jayme's roommate, both in France and back on campus, Greg Degrosseiliers of Delaware, said that though he and Jayme are opposites in many ways, they get along well. “I really like the guy, he's really nice and definitely a character,” said Greg. “He's great to have as a roommate.”

Zelest Caraballo, another Global Beginner from Connecticut, connected with Jayme in France and the two remain close, watching movies and hanging out together on campus. “I would say our friendship has progressed a lot because I get him, I understand him and how he feels about being different because of his accident,” she says. “I can tell him anything. I really respect Jayme because he goes on with his life with so many challenges but then overcomes them. He's a strong person, a great guy with a great future.”

As the third anniversary of the accident approached, Jayme dismissed the notion that it was a tough day to face. “If anything, I should celebrate,” he said, walking through Strasbourg's Place Kléber. “Without the accident I wouldn't be in France or have met these fantastic people or have the friends I've made.”

Six months later, almost to the day, since that statement in France, Jayme remains positive about the impact of the accident and maintains that in the long run, it is better that it happened. “Time, it mends everything,” he says. “I've had a lot of time to think about it and I made a list—the pros outweigh the cons. I'm in college. I've gotten to travel. I'm learning to play the piano, which Professor Thomas encouraged me to try. I'm reading my poetry at Open Mic Nights. I'm here.” And he's a winner of a James Duane Squires Book Award, which recognizes and honors students who have performed academic accomplishments above and beyond expectations. Professor Thomas nominated Jayme for the award this spring. “Jayme rises to challenges and has a thirst not only for life but for opportunities,” says Professor Thomas. “He fights to make the most of every moment. He personifies the idea of carpe diem and doesn't squander the gift. He's stepped beyond the struggle.”

With solid grades at the end of his first year, Jayme has a plan for the future: he wants to be like Bill Thomas and teach. He plans to attend graduate school and would like to teach creative writing at his high school. He has no doubt that he'll accomplish these new dreams and says that Colby-Sawyer is the ideal place to pursue them. “Jayme can be a good teacher; he has a good mind and can explain things,” says Professor Thomas. “His goals are reachable, but it won't be easy. His only limits are at the edges of his effort, but he doesn't shy away from hard work. He takes suggestions and embraces the possibility.”

The young man who's gone from coma to college, who almost died at 17 but turned 20 in Paris, has one other wish. It has to do with what he would most like people to know about him. “I'd like people to know that I'm not what I seem to be,” he says, expressing a universal longing for understanding. “And that's all I'll say, for reasons that I only dictate in my journal. But Clint Eastwood said, 'A good man always knows his limitations,' and I do. I know what I can do, but I also know what I can't do. And I think that's a wonderful thing.”

-Kate Dunlop Seamans