Jason Blakeslee used to rev his motorcycle with his right hand. He’d grasp his drumsticks to pound percussion for a classic rock band.
But on the evening of July 20, 2015, as the then-43-year-old Jason rode his motorcycle home from his job as an engineer, tragedy struck.
“He was stopped to turn left and was waiting for opposing traffic,” said Rachel Blakeslee, Jason’s wife of 14 years. “A pickup track slammed into him.”
Rachel got the call while dining at a restaurant with her siblings near the couple’s Rockford, Michigan, home.
“It was the sheriff,” she said. “He told me what was going on, that he might not make it. I went into emergency mode right then and there.”
“He was in the trauma bay,” Rachel said. “They had worked on him for an hour to revive him. He had a pelvic fracture, ruptured rectum, ruptured bladder. He got out of surgery at 4 a.m.”
Doctors discovered Jason had also suffered a traumatic brain injury. They removed part of his skull to relieve the pressure.
For the first two weeks in the hospital, Jason teetered between life and death.
“He was up and down,” Rachel said. “There were two weeks when Gift of Life was kind of waiting for him. We didn’t really know where this was going to go or if he would make it.”
But Jason’s will to live, and the love of Rachel and their now-11-year-old son, Lucas, triumphed over injuries. He gradually improved. After two months in a medically induced coma, he moved into the Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation Center on Kalamazoo Avenue in Grand Rapids. In May of 2016, he transitioned to the Spectrum Health Neuro Residential Care.
Jason can’t express himself like he’d like to. He has trouble finding words and putting sentences together. But ever so slowly, he has regained use of his right hand.
About six months ago, he started painting with the Spectrum Health Expressive Arts program. On a recent weekday, Jason sat in his power wheelchair in the art room as art therapy coordinator RaNae Couture mixed paints on a palette.
He picked up a paint brush with his right hand, dipped it in a blob of blue, and started stroking the canvas with its bristles.
“Any time he uses that right hand is just awesome,” Rachel said. “We’re excited about his progression. It’s beautiful to see.”
Couture said she’s impressed with Jason’s progression, too.
“He’s got a good eye for art,” Couture said. “He really does. He’s got a music background. He likes to listen to Modest Mouse. We play that when he paints. I can see a lot of music in his paintings. You can see how it moves out from the center.”
Couture said Jason’s paintings are becoming less abstract and his shapes are becoming clearer.
“You can really see the transition,” she said. “This one, he put dark in the middle, which I really find interesting.”
When Jason first joined the painting class, he could barely pick up the brush.
“It was quite a challenge,” Couture said.
Spectrum Health occupational therapist Kari Ondersma worked with Jason to help him learn how to hold a brush.
These days, he’s painting on his own.
As she watched Jason paint, Ondersma wiped paint off the artist’s power chair and fingers.
“Artists get dirty,” she said, laughing. “When Jason first came to the residential program, he couldn’t use his right side at all. He literally is the highlight of my career. He is three years out from his injury and is still making monthly, measurable gains.”
Ondersma ordered a power wheelchair for Jason.
“It felt like a crazy idea, but I wondered if he could drive a power chair,” she said. “I put him in one and he was a rock star.”
Jason’s model is a standing power chair.
“His wife can stand on the front so they can dance together,” Ondersma said. “His son can stand on the back so Jason can take him for a ride.”
Ondersma placed the controller on the right side of the chair to encourage Jason to use his right hand.
“It’s cool to see how motivated Jason is to use his right arm,” said Ondersma, who works with Jason three times a week.
In September, Jason was able to attend a family wedding in his power chair.
“I offered to go to the reception so he could stand up without the help of his power chair and dance with Rachel,” Ondersma said. “It was great to see him getting his arms up and dancing with his friends, as well.”
Couture said she’s impressed with Jason’s growth as a person and as a painter.
“I’m seeing that he’s healing in the sense that his paintings are becoming more structured in his design,” Couture said. “I can see his concentration is increasing and he’s putting more focus on the design. Art is helping him so much, not only physically with occupational therapy and what their goals are, but with the creative side, too.”