Jesse Leaman: Winter


Jesse in Lehigh Valley’s shock and trauma unit. /Leaman Collection

Writing By Brad Rassler

East Stroudsburg, PA is one of a chain of a boroughs located near the Delaware River, where it courses by the hardwoods of the Kittatinny Mountains, en route to Schellenbergers Island and the Water Gap. Most Americans have heard of these peaks — the Poconos – a range better known for kitschy resorts than for its soaring skylines. The town, which has of late become a bedroom community for Manhattan-bound commuters, was still smallish and tightly-knit in 1996 – the kind of place that embraced its heroes and comforted its stricken. The locals made sticky buns for school bake sales, and the PTA played a vital role in the school district. And Jesse, the soccer phenom, the tennis player, the ski instructor was, by all accounts, one of the town’s shining lights.

So within a day or two of Jesse Leaman’s fall, the entire town seemed to know about it. Standing in line at the Weis Market, you’d hear people talking about the Leaman boy, and they’d cluck their tongues and shake their heads. Whether they said so or not, it was difficult not to compare Jesse to Icarus, the golden boy, who flew so high and fell so far.

But unlike Icarus, Jesse was alive, if barely. As he lay broken and battered in the shock and trauma unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital, his airway crowded with a ventilator and with a feeding tube inserted in his abdomen, his family stood vigil. And when he emerged from the fog, and was transferred to a private room, he began to understand the extent of his injuries. It wasn’t long before his mind strayed to his future — and what kind of future would that be, with his body mute from the neck down? Wasn’t that the definition of a quadriplegic?

Too little was known to draw any conclusions for the moment — he would soon engage in intensive rehabilitation — and besides, everyone was optimistic. His father, Rick, broached resuming his life as soon as possible. His many friends and fans, both from school and the community, created a banner, which now hung behind his bed, “Help Jesse, Our Fallen Star.”

Whatever be his fate, Jesse — who was accustomed to calling his shots and wildly succeeding — would certainly not resign himself to a life not fully lived. At least his autonomic nervous system was intact; he could breathe, drink and eat. His speech was entirely unaffected by the accident. He could move his head with a kind of shrug. And when he was transferred to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown, Jesse funneled his considerable energies into recovering as much use of his body as possible.

What no one doubted — even Jesse — was that life would be profoundly different than its former trajectory.

“I realized that I could vegetate in some institution or go home and start a new life,” Jesse said after the accident. “I was determined not to spend the rest of my life hiding away from society, surviving from month to month on welfare checks. Instead, I would try to live as normal a life as possible.”

And though normalcy would never equate to the same kind of physical life Jesse had once enjoyed, his rehabilitation would resemble a kind of monomyth; a hero’s journey.

“It’s like having a new life,” said Rick, in a 1996 interview with The Morning Call. “It’s a strange kind of rebirth.”