ROAD TO RECOVERY
back to a
By JACK CHAMBERLAIN
Sometimes, Jason(top) becomes rigid with
frustration when his physical therapist, Sherry
McNaught, works with him at the Kluge Children's
Rehabilitation Center in Charlottesville. His father,
Greg (middle photo) makes the trip to be at his
son's bedside most weekends. Jason seems to
really need the touch of his mother, Fran (above)
SPECIAL TO THE ROANOKE TIMES
-- Last summer, Greg and Fran Rooker of Pulaski County snatched their
only son back from death. Now, with the prayers of family, friends
and strangers, and the caring skills of professionals, they are trying
to guide him back to a meaningful life.
No one knows how long it will take. No one knows how far they will go.
The road to recovery from severe brain damage is not clearly mapped.
It is often wrought with barriers, detours, potholes, dead ends.
Glacial progress, painstakingly gained, suddenly reverses, without apparent reason.
Through it all, Greg and Fran Rooker, their lives and family torn
by a tragic moment, maintain a positive outlook. Their faith, their
family, their friends, and encouraging cards and letters from strangers,
have sustained their courage, their spirit and their strength. People
in churches around the state and nation are praying for Daniel Jason
"People are just reaching out. Perfect strangers," Fran
Rooker said. "Their praying for him and praying for us is what
helps us do this every day. It's better than medicine and therapy."
"I think the response has been the energy to keep us going,"
said Greg Rooker, owner of the Southwest Virginia Enterprise in
Wytheville and two other
weekly newspapers. "I am surprised
by that. I've always been a cynical newspaper person. Independent.
I didn't need anybody. I think one of the things I have learned
is that in situations like this it's devastatingly difficult to
find the energy. A hug gives you energy. I guess we don't feel like
Fran Rooker, 46, is at Jason's bedside at the University of Virginia
Hospital's Kluge Children's Rehabilitation Center almost continually.
Nearly every day, eight or 10 hours a day. Jason needs his mother's
voice. He needs his mother's touch. He needs changing.
"This is going to go on two, three, four years," Fran
says. "If we're lucky, we'll have a year here."
Imagine a prettier sister of TV's Rhea Pearlman, the witty waitress
from "Cheers," the feisty student on "Pearl."
That's Fran Rooker, 5-foot-3 of energy. Almost always smiling. Often
joking. Often laughing. Sometimes on the edge of tears. Her son.
So near, yet far out of reach. His two older sisters, Jennifer,
16, and Stephanie, 14, more than 200 miles away.
"I wish I could be back with my daughters," Fran says.
"I know we'll be back together again. I just don't know what
type of family we'll be."
Fran is alone with Jason. He is unhappy, but he can't say why.
His mother is chattering to him about "Free Willie" on
the VCR. "Is he a mean kid, or something, Jase?" Always
chattering. Always trying to get through.
"I know Jason is in there," Fran says. "I hope there
is some way he can connect with us."
Room 1008 is Jason's home. A typical hospital room. Bed. Sink.
Rocking chair. Straight chair. Two small chests of drawers. TV with
VCR. Machine that pumps nourishment through a tube in Jason's nose.
Jason's family has surrounded him with familiar things. His Braves
baseball cap on the window ledge, next to the Kenmore window air
conditioner. His Rawlings glove under the cap. Left handed. Cal
Ripkin Jr. model. Jason's an Atlanta Braves fan, but he loves the
Baltimore Orioles' Iron Man. In basketball, Michael Jordan's the
Jason is wearing red shorts and a black Chicago Bulls shirt with
Jordan's number 23. "That's his favorite," Fran says.
"He saved his allowance to pay for half of that shirt last
Big action posters of both players dominate the wall at the foot
of Jason's bed.A montage of family photos is taped to the wall.
Jason in his baseball uniform. Jason in his white karate outfit.
His sisters. The family dogs, Miracle and his mother Abby, mixed
black Labs. Calvin, the cat Jason brought home from Cub Scouts last
"Get Well Soon, Jason," says a white cloth banner with
a red border on the wall. It's from the kids at last summer's vacation
Bible school at Dublin Church of God.
Two ribbons from the Chautauqua Youth Art Show hang on a wall.
Third place last year for a colorful oil of butterflies. Second
place in 1994 for a still life of a bottle. Both paintings are on
display in Room 1008, along with another of ducks in flight.
"This was the last one that he did," Fran says. "He
finished it last spring."
Anne Dawson, a patient care assistant, takes a turn at flexing
one of Jason's legs, trying to calm him. "One, two, three four,
one, two three, four," she says.
"She can't get past four!" Robert Grey, another assistant,
jokes with Jason, trying to provoke a laugh or smile. "I don't
know why. I told her she has 10 fingers."
"What kind of a day is this?" Fran responds to their
question. "So far, pretty good. Thing is, you can get several
days in a row that are pretty good days. Then, all of a sudden ...
You think you are past the bad days. And you're not. I just don't
know what makes the difference."
Outside the window, two crippled boys are playing with a nurse's
aide, tossing a basketball through a tattered net hanging by two
strings. The man in the green uniform lets the kids win most of
The week of Jason Rooker's 11th birthday, Nov. 7, was not the best
of his first 20 weeks at the center. Jason, who once played left
field for the Radford Recreation Department "Braves,"
who once was learning karate and who once painted prize-winning
oils, is locked inside himself. He cannot speak. He cannot control
his hands, arms or legs. He cannot control his bodily functions.
But he is aware.
During good times, he smiles. He laughs at things young boys think
are funny. His dad's bathroom jokes. The nerd in "Angels in
the Outfield" who sits on a paper plate of cheese nachos. The
movie is a baseball fantasy with lots of slapstick. One of Jason's
"We're going to get some nachos and have dad sit in them and
he can be nacho butt," Fran jokes with her son. Jason laughs.
"He started laughing on Sept. 14," Fran says. "He
laughed at Homer Simpson burping." A Bart Simpson inflatable
doll is taped to the window.
And those eyes, gazing under heavy dark brows and long lashes.
Deep brown eyes. Soulful. Penetrating. Making contact. Jason seems
to be in there. But he can't get out.
During bad times, and there are many, Jason vents his frustration
and distress the only way he can -- mournful cries and uncontrolled
rigidity. Arching of his head, back and legs. Routine bodily functions
seem to be agony.
During these times, his eyes are tightly closed. There is no reaching
him. His mother, sometimes with a nurse or therapist, hovers over
his bed, working his legs, flexing his rigid knees, trying to soothe
The boy is strong. The work is hard.
During these times, speech and physical therapy are useless. Jason,
who once loved to swim at his home on Claytor Lake, missed most
of his therapy swims during his birthday week.
But Jason seems to like the physical therapy room, a world of soft
mats and big, colorful, inflated balls. When he won't tolerate his
wheelchair, a nurse and a therapist cradle him in their arms and
carry him like a rolled-up rug. Jason smiles and laughs when they
pretend to be marching down the corridor and around the corner.
Father Jim Grealish, minister of St. Jude's Catholic Church in
Radford, where Jason had just started as an alter server, and Carol
Bobzin, minister of religious education and Fran's good friend,
dropped by on their way to Richmond.
"I think they're doing a great job as a family, holding it
all together," Father Jim said.
I think Fran is a very, very strong person," Bobzin said.
"I think that's a major strength she has... People want to
help, and I think it's great that Fran and Greg have allowed that.
Some people just go inside themselves."
Father Jim prays over Jason. He gives mother and son holy communion.
He and Carol give Fran a hug.
"I don't feel like I'm a strong person," Fran says after
they're gone. "I'm just doing what I have to do."
"Oh, we got a big surprise this morning," Fran exclaimed
to a visitor on Jason's birthday. A big box from DSM Engineering
Plastic Products, Inc., in Wytheville. It contained many gifts,
including videos, big fuzzy bear slippers and a card with two 20s
and three five-dollar bills.
A letter, businesslike on company letterhead, signed by the plant
manager and 26 employees, said the company practices "continuous
improvement" to make things better.
"You are proof positive that sometimes continuous improvement
means struggling day after day in the face of adversity, but through
effort, faith, determination and the love and support of those around
you, you are well on your way to reaching your goal."
"That's so sweet," said Ann Rooker, who had baked two
dozen chocolate cupcakes, Jason's favorite. She hugged her sister-in-law
Susan Frye, who would have been Jason's fifth-grade teacher at
Bethel, called and the whole class sang Happy Birthday while Fran
held the phone to Jason's ear. Soon after the school year began,
Frye had made a video of get-well wishes from Jason's classmates:
Luke, Heather, Kevin, Sheila, Derek, Ashley, Dusty and many more.
Fran answers the phone again.
"It's Stephanie!," she tells Jason. "She wants to
sing Happy Birthday to you with her friend."
Room 1008, cupcakes aglow with candies, is jammed with seven visitors.
Family and staff, including Polly Tarbell, Jason's speech therapist.
Jason responds to a cupcake. He licks the chocolate icing.
"I'll tell you, that looks better than I've seen him do in
a couple of days," Tarbell said. Before a virus two weeks earlier,
Jason had been eating vigorously.
"One of the first things Jason started eating was chocolate
ice cream," Fran said. "Then my mother's applesauce. He
must have gone through three quarts of applesauce."
Now he had a tube in his nose. Everyone was concerned that he was
throwing up more than he used to. He needed constant care.
"He's very visually attentive," Tarbell said as Jason
gazed at her. "That's his strong point right now. He's come
a long way from 24 hours of screaming."
Jason's medical care and therapy at the rehab center cost about
$1,000 a day. TRIGON Blue Cross-Blue Shield, the medical insurer
for Rooker's newspapers, stopped paying on Oct. 30. TRIGON says
the center's "services were not medically necessary."
It is considering the Rookers' appeal.
"This is a very serious situation," Fran said of Jason's
plight "I don't want to have to think about this" insurance
crisis. "I just don't need that stress. I'm just a little bit
"He was just hanging. He was just hanging," Fran
Rooker said. "His face was gray, his lips were blue, his tongue
was blue. His eyes were barely open."
On Thursday, June 13, school was out for the summer. Jason Rooker
was home from his karate class by 6 p.m. The next day he would go
to his grandparents' home in Draper on the other side of the lake
for a few days. Then he would spend seven weeks of camp at Oakland
School in Keswick, a year-round school for learning-disabled
-- ironically, just a few miles east of Charlottesville.
Fran says times are hardest when her son is so near, but yet seems so far out of reach.
Years earlier, Jason had been diagnosed with attention-deficit
disorder, which was why he was enrolled at Bethel Elementary in
Montgomery County, where his special education needs were met.
"The last time I saw him he had his lasso," Greg Rooker
said. "He was trying to lasso the fence."
Greg was mowing on his lawn tractor. Fran was planting onions.
One of Jason's sisters was raking leaves. An elderly neighbor was
whacking weeds with a Weed Eater. After mowing the grass, Greg changed
the oil in his tractor.
"I was going for a swim," Greg said. "Fran said,
'Before you do that, find Jason. He has to come in for dinner.'
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him standing on the column,"
a stone post of the fence. "I thought, 'Darn him, his mother
is calling him and he didn't come."'
Greg was not yet aware that his son was hanging next to the fence.
He didn't run. He walked toward Jason.
"Then I started screaming, calling for Fran. I was holding
him up. I ran to get a knife. I really thought he was gone."
Fran said they couldn't get to him at first. They had to drag him
up and over the fence. The noose was around his neck. The other
end was looped three or four times around the knob of a sawed-off
Jason's father figures his son had been rendered unconscious almost
immediately. The boy had made no attempt to save himself. Conscious,
he may have been able to grab or climb back on the fence, barely
two feet away. Conscious, he likely would have clawed at the noose.
Jason had no scratches on his neck, only the awful wound from the
"Oh, it looked like hamburger," Greg Rooker said. "It
looked like cube steak."
Five months later, Jason's throat still shows a pale pink wound.
About two years earlier, Greg Rooker had made a CPR course available
to his newspapers' employees. He and his wife also took the course.
During their frantic moments, Fran said, "I didn't even think
about the CPR course we took."
"I don't think, in our minds, [performing CPR] was to save
him," Greg said. "We just did it."
There's no way to know for sure, but Greg Rooker figures his son
had been hanging for as long as 10 minutes. He was not breathing.
He had no pulse. His mother breathed life into his lungs while his
father compressed his chest.
"You're supposed to count," Greg said. "I didn't
remember what to count."
Jason started to breathe. He coughed. Color returned to his face.
"To be honest, I didn't think there was any chance he was
alive," Greg said. "Everybody says we were so cool. But
I pretty much thought he was gone. We didn't think about it. We
just did it automatically. If someone had told me I had two minutes
to save my son, I don't know what I would have done."
Through it all, the neighbor continued whacking weeds. The whir
of the whacker, Greg and Fran speculate, had covered any sounds
Jason may have made when he fell.
"I remember seeing the bush move," Fran said. "I
thought a bird flew out of it. I wonder if that was him failing
into the bush ... Sometimes I think back, but you can't change a
thing. You can't change a thing."
When police and sheriff's cars and rescue vehicles arrived, the
neighbor came over. What's going on? he asked.
Another neighbor, Regina Cook, a Realtor and registered nurse,
had rushed over with her medical bag. She took his blood pressure.
It was good. That's when State Trooper J. D. Roark gently led the
By 8:25, Jason was in a Pulaski County ambulance on his was to
Carilion Radford Community Hospital. By 11 p.m., he was on his way
by helicopter to Carillon Roanoke Community Hospital. Jason would
remain in a coma for nearly three days.
"We've had doctors tell us Jason is going to a vegetable,"
Greg Rooker said. "We've had doctors tell us he would be fine."
Both parents said they were shocked, but not really surprised by
Jason's accident. He was not fearless, but adventurous. He sometimes
acted without thinking of the danger, like starting out to a friend's
house five miles away on a hazardous road. They had feared a water
accident on the lake. A car wreck several years from now.
"Jason has hung himself several
times -- by the foot,"
Greg said. His father would have to get him down. "I'd tell
him, 'Never tie a rope to yourself."'
Jason receives physical therapy from Emily Berry(left) and
Sherry McNaught. Watching (from left) are aunt Linda
Angelelli, grandparents Frank and Mary Vickers and mom,
Fran. Jason's doctor, Richard Stevens, associate professor of
padiatrics at UVa Hospital, says Jason has made "clear
improvement...We just don't know how far he'll progess."
Jason's injury is known as anoxia, total deprivation of oxygen
to the brain. Unlike specific damage caused by a blow or a stroke,
anoxia affects the entire brain. The longer the brain is deprived,
the more profound the injury. Once dead, brain cells rarely regenerate.
"I think he's better than he was in August," said Jason's
doctor, Richard Stevenson, associate professor of pediatrics at
UVa Hospital. "I've seen clear improvement. It's been slow
-- frustratingly slow. But I feel optimistic that he hasn't plateaued,
that he will continue to progress. We just don't know how far he'll
Jason has one big thing going to him, his doctor agrees. Normally,
the brain continues to develop into early adulthood. Jason was only
During the week, Greg Rooker, 49, maintains the family business
and cares for their daughters, typical active teenagers. They recently
won places on the district choir. They call their mother often on
the center's 800 number.
"How did your math test go?" Fran says on the phone.
"Be safe. I love you."
Greg calls Fran two or three times a day. He spends most weekends
in Charlottesville. One week a month, Greg and Fran switch roles.
To ease physical and emotional stress, they have a therapeutic massage
once a week.
"I can feel the knots under your thumbs," Fran tells
her masseuse, Daniel Comarovschi, a pediatric nurse at UVa Hospital.
"I know we'll be
again. I just don't
know what type of
family we'll be."
When both parents are with Jason, friends in Radford help fill
the void for their daughters. One stood in for Fran during a girls'
basketball game. Members of the church prepare meals once a week.
Greg missed his son's 1lth birthday, but he arrived the next afternoon
carrying a big balloon poster from the fifth graders at Bethel Elementary.
Fran and Greg read Jason each kid's birthday message.
He also has brought more videos, including one called "Bach
"Broccoli gives me gas!" father exclaims to son. Jason
smiles and laughs.
Jason's had a bad day, Fran says.
"You've been Giumpo the Grumpo!" Greg says, maintaining
a constant banter of bathroom humor and rude noises for his son.
Jason, eyes glued on his father, laughs.
The boy's rigid right arm pops when his father tries to straighten
"My knees snap, crackle and pop, because I'm getting old,
fat and bald," says Greg, whose hair is gray and ample. Jason
"Can you blink at me?" Greg asks. "Blink your eyes
"Who knows what that means," Fran says softly.
Later, down the hall in the parents' lounge, Greg says:
You know, I would dance naked in the room to make my son laugh.
You can't be jovial all the time. It's almost like being a professional
comedian. It's hard work."
On Aug. 27, nearly 11 weeks after Jason's accident, a letter
from Radford was delivered to Room 1008. Postage on the small, bulging
envelope was two "Love" stamps.
"I know you probably don't remember me. My name is Donna Mills,
the custodian at Bethel Elementary. I should have wrote this letter
early. I did not know what to say. But I waited on the Lord. The
Lord will heal. Read this to Jason."
Donna Mills, in hand-printed letters on six pages of school notebook
paper, had copied 29 verses of 11 Kings, Chapter 4. Elisha, a holy
man, heeds a Shunammite woman's pleas. He prays and brings her dead
son back to life.
"The actions of both Elisha and the Shunammite woman in this
incident provide illustrations of the importance of faith and persistence,"
Mills wrote. "P.S. Give Jason a kiss for me, please."
Of the hundreds of cards and letters Jason and his parents have
received during the last five months, Donna Mills' letter is among
the handful with special meaning. Maybe it was mere coincidence.
Maybe it was more than that.
The vigil over Jason had continued into Father's Day, Sunday, June
16, at Carillon Community Hospital in Roanoke. Carol Bobzin, Fran's
close friend from the church, was with them.
"Carol shouted, 'Fran! Fran! Come here!" Fran recalled.
Jason, who had been in a coma, had opened his eyes. It was 10:12
a.m. At that hour, during Mass at St. Jude's some 50 miles away,
a woman was reading a Bible passage for Jason. She was a substitute
reader, the Rookers were told later. She had read the wrong passage.
It was from II Kings.
"I couldn't believe Donna wrote that," Fran said of Mills'
letter written nearly three months later. "She doesn't go to
my church. She had no idea what was said."
The Rookers have received hundreds of cards and letters, especially
since Greg's column about Jason appeared in the Roanoke Times' New
River Current last August. They offer prayers, hope, rides to Charlottesville
and help with the laundry.
"I honestly want to help," wrote a friend from Radford.
"If I can drive you or your daughters anywhere, even to Charlottesville,
A Wytheville woman whose 5-year-old son accidentally hanged himself
on a clothesline 19 years ago said he recovered the same night.
"I knew, everyone knew, that we had just experienced a miracle,"
A Tennessee woman wrote on stationery from the Peaks of Otter Lodge.
Her son, Justin, 10, had recently died, 18 days after Jason's accident.
He had climbed the roof of his father's house to retrieve a Frisbee.
The lodge in the mountains, she said, was sanctuary.
"I know you and your family are going through a very hard
time right now," she said. "I will be praying for you
and your son and hope that Jason will make a full recovery and that
God's grace and tenderness will touch each of you."
Another mother's daughter, Christina, spent 7 1/2 months at the
Kluge center after an auto accident three years ago. She has progressed
from a coma to a wheelchair. Last year, she said her first word
since the accident: "Mom."
"Progress is slow," the mother wrote, "but she is
a happy 12-year-old now."
"It's going to be a long, slow recovery" Fran said. "Whatever
is God's will, that's what we will live with. I just try, as much
as we can, to take a day at a time."
Greg Rooker arrived just in time. The Team Meeting, held every
two weeks to evaluate Jason's progress, was about to begin. The
parents are on the team with the nine professionals -- doctor, nurses,
therapists, psychologist, nutritionist.
The Good news is that jason has made slow progress and recently
made more eye contact- Faster "Look at me!" responses.
The Rancho Los Amigos Cognitive Functioning Scale ranges from 1,
coma, to 8, alert and oriented. In five months, Jason has progressed
from 2 to 4, confused and agitated.
Jason has hundreds of cards in his room, this
one recieved after his recent, 11th birthday.
Bad news. Not eating. Increased agitation and arching. Needs more
medication. Needs continual nursing care and monitoring. Everyone
agrees that Jason should stay, despite the insurance company.
The meeting was over in 25 minutes.
"It wasn't one of the most up ones we've had," Fran says
of the meeting. "But I was encouraged they saw improved eye
control, improved head control."
"We're going to stay here," Greg says. "We're not
going anyplace. It's just a matter of who's going to pay for it."
Despite their circumstances, the Rookers consider themselves fortunate.
Unlike many of the parents of the 17 children at the Kluge center,
they don't spend endless nights in an empty motel room. Greg's brother,
Dennis, and his wife, Ann, and their two teen-age daughters live
"We're just really glad that, of all the places Jason could
have been sent, it was Charlottesville," Ann said. "We
try to keep home normal, to give Greg, Fran and their daughters
"If there is a silver lining in every cloud," Dennis
said, "this has resulted in our families being closer."
Another bit of good fortune. Greg Rooker's brother is a lawyer,
specializing in media. Among his clients is Greg's Family Community
Newspapers. Dennis is handling the insurance crisis.
"Obviously, the situation is one of the biggest strains on
a family possible," Dennis said. "A significant addition
to that strain has been the uncertainty of insurance coverage --
literally from week to week."
TRIGON wants Jason in a sub-acute care facility, such as a nursing
home, that costs less than half than the Kluge Center. On Oct. 31,
the day after TRIGON stopped paying the center, the insurance carrier
told the Rookers that its doctor "has reviewed the provided
medical information and agrees with the previous physician consultant's
decision that services were not medically necessary."
"Keep in mind," Dennis Rooker said, "the [TRIGON]
physician has never taken a look at the patient."
"To Whom It May Concern," Jason's neurologist, Dr. Thomas
J. Spicuzza of Fishersville and the UVa Medical Center, wrote on
Oct. 29. "It is my strong feeling and recommendation that [Jason's]
intense acute level rehabilitation program be continued for as long
as sustained progress is being made. It is also my strong feeling
that discharge to a lower level of care will be detrimental to his
health and his recovery process."
Since Jason's accident, Fran has read everything she can about
brain damage. Mainstream medicine. Alternative medicine. Intuitive
Twice a week since Sept. 23, and without charge, Jody Forman from
the nearby Dogwood Institute performs acupuncture to stimulate Jason's
scalp. It's an ancient Chinese treatment for stroke. Jason doesn't
like the needles.
Karyn Martin-Duri, the Angel Lady of Charlottesville, heard about
Jason and came to conjure up his guardian angel.
"I'm able to see angels and communicate with angels,"
she said. "God can work through doctors."
Fran says Jason's doctors don't mind. No harm. Might help.
"Who knows?" she says.
Everyone is hoping for Jason's full recovery. Everyone is praying
for a miracle. Greg and Fran Rooker hope and pray, too. But they
are trying to take it as it comes.
"First, I wanted him to live. Then I wanted him to smile,"
"I'm hopeful. I would say prayerfully hopeful..." His
voice trailed off. "That Jason will be able to...." Greg
paused again, marshaling his thoughts.
"My first wish is he would be able to get some enjoyment out
of life. It is my hope that we can rehab him enough here that we
can pick it up at home. I would like Jason to be independent someday,
because Fran and I are not going to be here forever. I would like
him to be somewhat independent, that he could live in an assisted
situation, that he could give something back, that he could be of
service to somebody else."
Fran said, "I just hope that Jason will be able to communicate
with people in some way, will be able to get around by himself in
some way, by wheelchair or whatever. I would like to see him do
something in his life that will make him happy. I just know he'll
be doing something that will teach other people.
"He's doing that now."
Jack Chamberlain, former reporter and writer for the Roanoke Times,
was assistant editor in the New River Bureau when he retired in
1993 after 30 years with the paper. He lives in the Northern Neck
and is president of the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the Virginia Writers