Student finds purpose after near-fatal accident
Nov. 1, 2013 at 11:01 a.m.
Updated Nov. 2, 2013 at 11:02 a.m.
WHO: Caleb Jentsch suffered near-fatal brain injury while skiing in Colorado.
WHEN: Jan. 5, 2012
DAYS IN COMA: 13
HOSPITALS: St. Anthony, Denver, Colo.; Hermann Memorial, Houston; Touchstone Neurorecovery Center, Conroe
SCHOOL: Texas A&M University
GRADUATION DATE: December 2014
The crisp air of the Breckenridge, Colo., snowy mountainside blew past Caleb Jentsch's face with fury.
He bent his body forward, gaining momentum down the slope.
Skiing an intermediate run with college friend, Kyle Baldock, who was riding down the same snowy hill inches from Jentsch's poles, the men skied toward the end of the slope.
Enjoying the adrenaline rush, they never realized their skis were about to cross paths.
Neither could have predicted that they were about to share a moment on the slopes that would result in life-altering tragedy - a moment that nearly ended Jentsch's life and altered his future forever.
A year and a half later, he has mostly recovered.
The Victoria native relearned how to walk, talk and drive, though his speech is sometimes thick-tongued. He's returned to school with most, but not all, of his cognitive abilities intact.
But he's more determined than ever to show people the way to Christ, using what he calls "a perfect opener" to talk to strangers about his faith - "Hey, you want to hear about how I almost died?"
In the quiet of Jentsch's College Station bedroom, a closed-in garage converted into man cave of Texas A&M memorabilia, Post-it notes and textbooks, the 22-year-old pulls up a photo of himself on his MacBook.
He's in a coma; half of his skull is removed to prevent swelling of the brain.
His throat is trached and he's breathing through a spaghetti intersection of tubes and wires keeping him alive.
"I don't remember anything from the accident," he said, mentioning his ski trip misfortune on Jan. 5, 2012. "Sometimes, I think it's probably better that I don't remember."
While skiing down the slopes, Jentsch said his skis somehow entangled with Baldock's, which sent him off course, head first into a tree.
"I was unresponsive, but Kyle notified the ski patrol" he said. "At least that's what they tell me. I don't remember."
A short helicopter ride later, he was fighting for his life at St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver, where he stayed for nearly a month.
The nurses of St. Anthony's autographed a Texas flag with black Sharpie marker for their favorite patient, which now hangs in Jentsch's bedroom on the wall above his bed.
"I'm sure I've read all of them, but I don't remember," he chuckled. "The nurses were great to me there."
The coma lasted 13 days, but his path to recovery would be long and frustrating.
For more than a year, Jentsch has been battling his body and mind to return his mental and physical faculties to their original state.
"The most difficult thing for me now is that it's hard for me to remember things. I have to make notes for everything. My short-term memory is gone," he said, pointing to the many Post-it notes that litter his walls and desk. "Everything else has basically come back. It's not exactly the same, but it's almost there."
In the college junior's kitchen, above each light switch, are color-coded indicators for what each light turns on in the room.
"If I don't put the notes here, I'll forget," he said, his speech somewhat dragging.
After leaving St. Anthony's Hospital, Jentsch was transferred to Houston Memorial Herman Hospital where he spent many weeks continuing his recovery.
He again was moved to a hospital in Conroe, the Touchstone Neurorecovery Center.
"After I woke up from the coma, it was a hard time for me. I couldn't remember anything. I couldn't do anything," he said.
"When I finally started coming around and remembering, I started questioning God."
A Christian struggle
Jentsch was raised in the church.
He committed his life to Christ in middle school, while faithfully attending Northside Baptist Church.
He was good kid, he said, with real ambitions to serve the Lord and his people after college.
"All I wanted was to make disciples of Christ," he said.
Jentsch had taken a handful of mission trips abroad, and was considering another international mission trip before the accident.
"That was one of the hardest things for me after the accident because everything was so hard, and I was in a lot of pain. I didn't understand why God would want me to go through something like this. Why did he want to end my life when I wanted to give my entire life to him?" he said, mentioning that he had to relearn every basic function, such as eating, drinking, walking, speaking and showering by himself.
"I struggled with my faith for a long time after that because I was one of the good ones, I thought."
After more than a year of therapy and stubborn willpower, Jentsch has made peace with God.
He said he understands now why God saved his life.
"He's using my story to reach others. He saved me - literally - from death and I'm still here to tell you about it," he said. "The fact that I'm able to sit here and have this conversation and walk around right now is a miracle. I was supposed to die."
Back at A&M
Two days a week, Jentsch attends a racquetball class at the university's recreation center.
It's an elective, he said, but he is intentional about its purpose.
"I do it to stay limber," he said. "It's not exactly like physical therapy, but it's sort of for that reason."
Behind the glass, classmate, Kyle Taylor, asks why the Advocate is taking photos of Jentsch.
"He plays like everyone else," Taylor said. "I would have had no idea he was in an accident."
Taylor looks on in awe as the agile Jentsch hits the ball around the court.
Taylor, who is also a Christian, is moved by Jentsch's story of recovery.
"He's a living testament," Taylor said. "He should be a vegetable or dead right now, but he's on Court 3 playing racquetball with the top dogs."
A few weeks ago, Jentsch was also enrolled in a volleyball elective, where he asked his coach Scott Wright, 44, if he could address the class about why he may not move as fast as the other players.
"He's got a great attitude. He's limited physically, but in his mind, he doesn't see that. He just plugs along the best he can," Wright said. "As far as his racquetball goes, he's got some good shots."
Just before Jentsch dropped his volleyball class - because it turned out to be too strenuous for him - he became friends with another Christian in the class, John Bundren.
"I thought it was really cool how he shared his story with the class, and I'm sure he just wanted to make sure people knew why he talked a little slower and couldn't maybe run as fast," Bundren said. "He's handled everything so well; he's not bitter or upset. He uses his story to bring glory to God."
Bundren said Jentsch's recovery and uplifting attitude left a lasting impression on him.
He said Jentsch's intense faith is a positive model for other believers who may be dealing with struggles they don't understand.
"A lot of people in his situation would be bitter and give up. But instead, he chooses to honor and glorify God. That has definitely made an impact on me," he said.
Back on the slopes, back in the church
About a year after the accident, Jentsch returned to Colorado.
He was asked to talk about his experience and recovery, and he was quick to thank his doctors, nurses and the ski patrol for saving his life.
He also visited the site where he wrecked - where he almost died.
"I love skiing, and I plan to ski again some day," he said, mentioning that he broke off a branch from the same tree he struck to craft together a crucifix.
In December 2014, he will graduate a semester late from Texas A&M.
"I already have a job lined up, so right now, I'm just focussed on graduating as soon as possible."
Next year, he'll officially accept a position with iGo Global, an international Christian mission organization that partners with local churches and sends students abroad to serve the Lord.
"I thought I was passionate about God before the accident. Now all I want to do is make disciples of Christ. I finally have my purpose in life, and I would have never found it if I hadn't almost died," he said.