SEQUIM — Five months after an accident put 53-year-old Sequim High School literature teacher Jon Eekhoff in the hospital with a brain injury, he and his wife Cheryl continue to feel the community’s love and support.
“Whenever we see people or when we were in the hospital they’d say ‘we’re thinking about you’ or ‘praying for you’ and my response has always been — ‘I feel it. It’s around us all the time,’ ” Cheryl said.
Looking back, Jon said he has no memories of his incident or the following four weeks.
On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, Jon climbed a ladder to clean moss off his roof. He lost his balance and fell about 20 feet onto the sidewalk.
Cheryl was in the shower readying for the day and didn’t hear the fall. Neighbors did though and called 9-1-1.
Eventually, Jon was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where he was treated for bleeding on the left side of his brain and a broken leg.
“The neighbors who found Jon, the fire department, the medics and EMTs, all saved Jon’s life,” Cheryl said. “We’re so lucky and I know these people don’t get recognition like they need to.”
In Seattle, Jon saw various teams of doctors, he said, but his first four weeks were a blur.
“When I got to the fourth floor (recovery rehabilitation) I had assumed all of these people had something new,” Jon said. “I assumed four weeks hadn’t happened.”
Cheryl said she saw signs of recovery about three weeks into treatment when he began to greet her in the mornings and soon thereafter share his feelings and how well he slept.
“He also became more aware on the fourth floor of time going by, and student test dates going by,” she said.
Cheryl, a 10th-grade English teacher at Sequim High, was able to stay with Jon during his hospital stay thanks to shared leave from colleagues who donated days off. Jon had some leave days of his own, too.
The Eekhoffs took the remainder of the school year off.
Once Jon went into recovery rehabilitation, he worked in six to eight sessions six days a week on physical and mental recovery.
Cheryl said at that point it was frustrating for him because his ability to write, speak and read were “someplace else” for him.
Jon said he struggled with hallucinations too, imagining that one of his roommates was doing things purposefully against him when actually he was not.
“It turned out, it was all made up, and I eventually realized that after coming home,” he said.
Cheryl said he didn’t share the stories with her until he came back to Sequim.
“It was a combination of becoming more aware and coming off some medications,” she said.
Due to his head injury, surgeons performed a cranectomy where they removed part of Jon’s skull to reduce swelling, freezing the bone and replacing it later. From March 17 to June 28, Jon wore a helmet to protect his head.
“Now with his skull back, he’s like any other guy,” Cheryl said. “He can run into doorways and all that.”
During his stay in the hospital, Cheryl encouraged family and friends to send him stickers to put on his helmet. The couple received dozens of letters and cards from students, including a personalized picture frame from former Seattle SuperSonics player Jim McIlvaine.
Jon was able to show off his stickers at Sequim High School’s graduation last June where he and Cheryl sat with fellow teachers who all wore bike helmets in honor of him, too.
The Eekhoffs said they wanted Jon’s skull back as soon as possible so that he could have the summer to recuperate and go back to teaching this September.
“(Doctors) helped us come to this realization that you don’t rush this,” Cheryl said. “You get one chance to put this skull back.”
This summer, he’s experienced some odd moments during his recovery at home, such as his senses kicking into overdrive.
“About three times a day I’ll smell all kinds of stuff,” he said. “At first, I thought it was other people’s smells.”
Some things have come quickly back to him while others return slower than he’d like.
One of his plans is to continue to write, particularly about his experiences on the fourth floor and the stories he made up in his mind.
“I feel it’s important to write some things down,” he said. “Whether published or not, it doesn’t matter.”
He also wants to focus more on relationships and better helping students reach their goals.
With school set to begin on Wednesday, the Eekhoffs have been preparing their classrooms for the school year. Jon, who taught juniors and seniors last year, plans to teach freshman English.
“We’ll write and read things and we’ll talk,” he said. “It should be good.”
A fund, the Jon Eekhoff Medical Fund, started by Melee Vander Velde and Shenna Younger at First Federal, helped the Eekhoffs cover most of their medical expenses.
“People have been amazing to us,” Jon said.
“We’re coming to the realization of all the kindness and generosity given to our family and not only this time but also when Dylan (their son) had cancer (non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2015),” Cheryl said.
“It’s humbled our entire family and helped us realize what’s really important. It isn’t test scores, or all of those lofty goals we have to reach, but more relationships and taking care of each other.”
Following the support they’ve received, Cheryl said she hopes, “We can turn that around and help somebody else.”
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].