On Jill Mason’s Web site, www.jillmason.com, there is a quote from Willa Cather: “Where there is great love, there are always miracles.” What a way to describe Jill Mason ’99 and her journey since April 2004.
On that clear and bright Easter Sunday morning, Jill and Alan Liu, her significant other and training partner, were bicycling on Highway 12 near Oakmont, when 69-year-old Harvey Hereford, a Santa Rosa attorney, struck them from behind in his car. Liu was killed instantly. Mason sustained severe head and spinal cord injuries and nearly died. Hereford’s blood alcohol level was almost four times the legal limit.
Doctors warned Mason’s parents that she might be on life support for the rest of her life. Mason spent five months in the hospital, undergoing several major surgeries, followed by months of rehabilitation during which she regained some motor skills, her ability to speak, and some of her memory. The healing continues today with many kinds of physical therapy and tremendous support from family and friends.
An athletic recovery
Jill was always a phenomenal athlete. She played lacrosse for four years at SCU and loved to run, ski, swim, bike, and even compete in marathons and triathlons. She thrived on the rigors of training and loved pushing herself to achieve a physical goal.
Becky Crozier ’99, a close friend and lacrosse teammate, says, “Jill was the player you always wanted on your team.” Crozier recalls a mini-triathlon she did with Mason, and mutual friend and lacrosse teammate Veronica Villalobos ’99. “Jill was much better than both of us, so she finished way ahead of us,” Crozier remembers. “But she didn’t just sit back and wait for us. She went back on the course and found us, to encourage us and help us finish up the last bit. That’s a true friend.”
“An amazing athlete” is how Villalobos describes Mason. “I’m looking forward to seeing what athletic competition she’ll conquer in her future,” she adds.
Mason says her training as an athlete before her accident is a tremendous help now. “I have that mindset—this is what I want to be, and these are the steps I need to take to get there, and so I start on my journey,” she explains. “I am still a very determined person,” she adds, “but it took me at least a year to get that back. For so long…I was just in a fog.”
The injury to Mason’s brain still plagues her today. “It is so frustrating, having to learn how to do things again, not remembering the best way to do it,” she says. For instance, she will figure out the easiest way to move herself from her wheelchair to the car, and then a few days later, she will forget what she figured out.
Anger and hope
Crozier is inspired by Jill’s fortitude. “She never seemed to feel sorry for herself,” she says, “and she never gives up. I remember seeing her in the hospital having to relearn to do the simplest things and thinking that if I were her, I would just want to quit. She never did.
” Villalobos says she is amazed by Mason’s progress. “She has come so far so fast when you consider the accident was only two years ago. It doesn’t surprise me that she is still optimistic…and a hard worker—that was her at her core before the accident.”
Mason concedes that she is angry about what happened. “But I have gotten less angry over time,” she insists. “And there is too much good left to do. So I am really trying not to let my anger rule my world. It is just hard, because I used to run when I was mad, and I was not mad very often…. I am still working on trying to find a way.”
One way Mason has found to cope is by sharing her story, both online, through a detailed blog about her recovery, which was started by her brother and recently taken over by Mason, and through talks she gives at local schools and clubs. In her presentation, Mason says she tries to “teach kids about what drunk driving can take away from someone.”
“I really feel like it is important to tell them at that age. They are new drivers, and they need to make the right choices. And, by seeing me, someone who is…younger, it will teach them they are not invincible,” she adds.
Telling her story has helped her in many ways, she says. “It is nice to be able to reach out to people.” Plus, she says, “the audiences’ reactions are just incredible…. When I am done, the kids are just silent. They really hear me…. They really seem to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to be careful.’”
The road ahead
Mason has lots of plans for the future, including more athletic competitions, a relaunch of her career in marketing, and a move out of her parents house, where she has lived since her accident.
Mason is hoping to move back to the South Bay, find a roommate for about 6 months to a year, while she continues searching for a home to buy. She plans to continue giving her PowerPoint presentation about drunk driving and also work part time in marketing or public relations like she did before.
Mason says she is excited about the move, and a little sad, too. “It will be different,” she says, saying she will miss friends and family. “But I think it is something I need to do to learn how to live again.”
—Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly is the contributing editor of Santa Clara Magazine.