The Roanoke Times, April 17, 1997
by Mark Clothier

Eric Brady/ Roanoke Times

JASON ROOKER HAS A SMILE on his face as he watches his sister Jennifer jump on the trampoline, and as his mother gives him some milk at lunch. Jason nearly died when he accidentally hanged himself with a toy lasso at his Claytor Lake home 10 months ago. His parents revived him; he was flown by helicopter to Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital, where he was in a coma for nearly three days. He was transferred to Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville for nine months. Now he's home, where his parents, Greg and Fran Rooker, will work with him to retrain undamaged parts of his brain to take over physical functions he lost - chewing, swallowing, talking, using his hands and legs - in 10 or so minutes his brain went without oxygen. Jason's plight has brought his family closer together. "This has taught us what one individual of the family means," said his 15-year-old sister, Stephanie. "It's shown us how important we are to each other. And it's opened my eyes to what's really important. I think we're stronger, and I think we're closer. We can get through anything now."

Like every 10-year old, Jason Rooker likes to lie on the floor to watch cartoons. After the show his parents, Greg and Fran Rooker, pick him up to put him back in his wheelchair for a trip outside.

10 months after accidental hanging, Jason's home
His eyes speak
for his broken body

On a sunny afternoon after school, sisters Stephanie(left) and Jennifer play with their brother at the family home at Claytor lake

It's like having a newborn: Jason needs constant supervision. He needs to be fed. His parents have to get up with him twice a night.

RADFORD- You can tell by looking at Jason Rooker's brown eyes what he understands and what he doesn't.

When the 10-year-old accidentally hanged himself, the 10 or so minutes his brain was without oxygen cost him control of his arms, his legs and almost everything except his eyes.

So when he was brought home in a wheelchair this month from Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville, his parents, Greg and Fran Rooker, looked to those eyes to see what registered.

They hit the jackpot when Jason was wheeled into his bedroom. There, on the bed that replaced his twin bed lay his pillow: the one that matched the comforter his parents brought to Kluge; the one with the sports motif.

"When we brought Jason into his room," Greg Rooker said, "he looked around like he knew the place but when he saw his pillow, his eyes just bugged out."

The pillow is one of the few things in Jason's room that has stayed the same. His twin bed is in the garage for the time being, replaced by a $1,750 hospital bed. His closet was taken out and a wall removed to make a wide doorway to the adjoining bathroom. And to make room for Jason's wheelchair, his bedroom doorway was widened and most his toys were boxed and put away.

Having Jason back home is a lot like having a newborn all over again. He needs constant supervision. He needs to be fed. And his parents have to wake up twice during the night: once to change him and once to give four-times daily medication that makes his joint muscles less likely to stiffen.

To ease the transition, Greg Rooker took April off from his job running his newspapers, the Southwest Virginia Times in Wytheville and two others.

He goes back to work next month, leaving Fran and Sandy Hill, ther formerly part-time housekeeper who now works full time for the Rookers, helping out.

"Time just evaporates, " Greg Rooker said. "All the things you want to do don't get done. We want to reorganize the house. Spring's coming, and I like to work on the yard. But it took one and a half hours just to feed him today."

Less tangible changes also occured in the Rooker house in those 10 months.

A traumatic event can steal a family's gravity: it can send things in any direction. For the Rooker's family, it sent things inward. It tightened their knit, family members said. It brought them closer.

"This has taught us what one individual of the family means," said Jason's 15-year-old sister, Stephanie. "It's shown us how important we are to each other. And it's opened my eyes to what's really important. I think we're stronger, and I think we're closer. We can get through anything now."

It's brought their community a little closer, too. Through newspaper stories and word of mouth, awareness of Jason's plight spread

A south african nun read a news clipping and passed it on to other nuns at her catholic school. They've asked their students to pray for Jason, ". . . which means that the lord would have to listen to the prayers of hundreds of children. And we know that the prayers of children are always answered," Sister Pascaline August wrote.

A woman from Florida, the wife of Jason's Bethel Elementary School guidance counselor, came to Jason's Charlottesville hospital room. Karen Murphy is a nurse on a heart surgery team and has written a book on healing touch. She heard about Jason from her former husband. Robin Murphy flew up at her own expense to try her technique on Jason.

And then there's Susan Frye, the Radford women who would have been Jason's fifth-grade teacher at Bethel this year. Frye and her students kept an ongoing video record of what would have been jason's fifth-grade year: scenes of the playground, the cafeteria, math class. Greg Rooker stops by every so often to pick up the tape and play it for his son.

"Jason's always had such a sweet smile and his eyes kind of sparkled. You knew there was a lot going on there," Frye said. "And I think I wanted to keep in close contact with Jason and let his parents know that, even if he isn't here, he's still a part of this class.

This particular slice of life, the way tragedy tends to trigger the food in people, was a revalation to Greg Rooker, a 30-year self-described cynical newsman.

"It's been amazing, the response. It really has," he said. "People are just a lot nicer than what you read about in the papers.


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