The day the weather changed

egrisamore@macon.comMarch 8, 2009 

Jeanetta Jones remembers the weather that Thursday morning in 2006. It was clear and a pleasant, late-November cool. The sun was hanging like bright wallpaper above Cobb Parkway in Marietta.

There wasn’t much traffic on the road because of the holiday. It was Thanksgiving Day, and most folks had already gotten to where they were going. Since she had to work, she and her family celebrated their Thanksgiving meal the night before.

Jeanetta left her home in Smyrna for the 15-minute commute. She was almost at her office. Of course, she remembers the weather.

It was her job.

For 20 years, she had worked at The Weather Channel. She would stand in front of bluescreen weather maps surrounded by cameras, cables and monitors. Between smiles, she could tell millions of viewers the barometric pressure in Bakersfield and the wind chill in Chicago.

In an instant, she saw the other vehicle racing across the corner of her eye. It flew through the traffic light and struck her Mazda Tribute on the passenger side.

The rest of what happened is like deleted files she can no longer recover.

Her small SUV flipped several times. Because she did not hit the brakes, the air bags never engaged. Although she was wearing her seat belt, her head still went through the windshield.

She was conscious when she dialed her cell phone to call her husband, Lenny, and daughter, Rebecca. A woman who had stopped to help told her not to move for fear her neck might be broken. Someone recognized her as being that gal from The Weather Channel.

There was glass in her face, even pressed against her teeth on the inside of her mouth. The rescue team used the Jaws of Life to pry her from the vehicle. They told her they usually only saw wrecks like that when the weather was bad.

But the weather was fine. She remembers that.

The emergency room was packed. The flu was going around. They took some X-rays and sent her home.

"I kept telling them my head was killing me," said Jeanetta. "They said I would be fine and that I would probably be back at work in a few days."

It has been 836 days, and Jeanetta still hasn’t returned to work.

It has been 29 months, and she is still finding slivers of glass in her skin.

Jeanetta grew up in Macon, the daughter of Tommy and Barbara Jones. Tommy is celebrating his 50th year as a local minister. She graduated from Stratford Academy in 1978 and received her journalism degree from the University of Georgia. She worked at both WMAZ in Macon (1982-84) and at a TV station in Spartanburg, S.C., before being hired by the Atlanta-based cable network.

Jerilyn Leverett was among the first to notice something wasn’t right with her older sister.

Jeanetta’s behavior was not normal. She was forgetful. Even the simplest tasks would frustrate her. She was transposing numbers in her checkbook.

"We were watching the show '24,' and she couldn’t remember who Jack Bauer was," said Jerilyn. Nobody who watches the popular drama on Fox would ever forget the name of the show’s hero.

Jerilyn, who is executive director of Disability Connections in Macon, has a form of muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. She often deals with clients who are suffering from brain injuries. So she began to suspect Jeanetta might have suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. She suggested to her sister that she consult a doctor and undergo testing.

Jeanetta went down a checklist at The Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Difficulty concentrating? Yes.

Difficulty processing information? Yes. Irritability? Paranoia? Fatigue? Ringing in ears? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

"I had thought I was going crazy," she said. "It was frustrating doing simple tasks, like putting on my makeup. I couldn’t do anything fast. I was so tired that I was taking three naps a day. I went down the symptoms on the list and flunked every one of them."

Soon, a parade of therapists were tracking through her living room like a storm on Doppler radar. Physical therapy. Occupational therapy. Speech cognitive therapy.

She no longer drives. She has to have help chopping food because she is afraid to be around knives. She doesn’t leave the kitchen when she’s cooking, either. She is fearful of forgetting to turn off the stove.

The injury has been debilitating. She walks with a slight limp. It has wreaked havoc on everything from her balance to her depth perception to her ability to sit down and read.

"It has affected every aspect of my life," she said. "My brain tries to process everything, but it’s like all my filters are broken."

Inner-ear problems have kept her away from crowds. And that’s not easy for a "people person."

She used to love to shop with her 13-year-old daughter but now stays away from malls. It is difficult to attend church, go to the movies or have lunch with friends in a busy restaurant.

"It’s like having vertigo all the time," she said.

March 18, Jeanetta will be one of seven speakers at a seminar called "Living With a Brain Injury" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Rosewood Ballroom at 170 College St. The event is sponsored by the Pilot Club of Macon and Disability Connections.

The accident was on Thanksgiving. Despite her difficulties, Jeanetta remains thankful.

"I’m so grateful my life was spared," she said. "I wake up every day and thank God."

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or gris@macon.com.

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