After a near-fatal car crash impacted her ability to communicate, Jeanne Nicholson channeled her energy into making quilts for sick children
By Monica Drake
Featured photo by Mark Robson
Fourteen years ago, on a rainy October night, Jeanne Nicholson was driving home to Brighton from her sister’s house in Ferndale. Nicholson, who was 49 years old at the time, was a project manager at Ford, a web designer and a volunteer at her church. That all changed in one split second.
A 17-year-old girl, driving while intoxicated, struck the back of Nicholson’s vehicle, sending it off the road and into a tree. Nicholson sustained a traumatic brain injury in the crash and was given only a 7% chance to live — and a 1% chance to be out of a vegetative state. (The driver, on the other hand, was given six months of jail time.)
Nicholson was in a coma for two weeks. “I kept expecting her to roll over, open her eyes and say, ‘Hey, let’s get out of here,’” says Lillian Bishop, Nicholson’s daughter, who was 22 at the time. But when Nicholson finally woke up, the scene wasn’t like something you’d see in the movies. “She looked at me with a blank stare, like she didn’t know who I was,” recalls Bishop. “It was almost like staring at a wax figure. I remember thinking, ‘Where are you? You’re in there; come out!’”
What Bishop didn’t realize at the time: Nicholson couldn’t come out. She was diagnosed with aphasia, a condition that “impacts her ability to access the words she needs to communicate,” says Sammi Robbins, a speech-language pathologist at Therapeautic Rehabilitation in Troy, who works with Nicholson. Robbins adds that Nicholson struggles with both cognitive and behavioral deficits, which affect her memory and attention span; heighten her anxiety, depression and impulsivity; and make her unable to drive or read.
Despite her limitations, Nicholson, who’s now 62 and lives on her own in a Farmington Hills apartment (with the assistance of an aide who drives her to appointments and helps with everyday tasks), was able to channel her energy into something positive.
Three years after the accident, while participating in an art-therapy session, Nicholson rediscovered quilting, a previous hobby of hers — and with practice, she became even better than she was before the accident. She quilts for up to four hours a day and can make a lap quilt, start to finish, in less than seven hours. Nicholson, whose sentences are often disjointed (although she understands parts of conversations), says she enjoys quilting because “you can do your own thing.”
Nicholson’s newfound passion gave Bishop an idea: What if they started a philanthropic project centered on her mom’s talent for quilting? Nicholson had been an active philanthropist before the accident, volunteering at her Warren church and the Ann Arbor Quilt Guild, of all places. Bishop says that being unable to give back to the community left a big hole in her mom’s life, so starting an organization to help people seemed like a perfect solution.
Founded in 2018, Happy Community Quilts provides Nicholson’s handmade quilts to long-term patients at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. In the last year, Nicholson has made 45 quilts that were donated to the kids. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to be confined to a hospital bed, Bishop says her mom loves being able to provide some comfort to these kids, who are battling all kinds of illnesses. “Having a purpose and being able to contribute to society [has] been vital to her healing,” says Bishop.
According to Bishop, Nicholson’s doctors and care providers say that escaping through art has helped her thrive more than originally expected. “[Jeanne’s] intelligence, determination and wide variety of skills prior to her accident have benefited her in compensating for limitations and driven her to be as independent as possible post injury,” says Debra McGinnis, Nicholson’s occupational therapist.
Bishop describes her mother’s quilts as a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors and patterns. A single quilt could be composed of 50 different fabrics — all of which Nicholson picks out herself. “For the most part, she knows what she wants to say,” says Bishop of her mom. “But between the brain and the mouth, it gets all garbled. She might look at a tree and say, ‘cup.’” Adds Nicholson, “I can understand [most things], but actually saying it is hard. Sometimes I can figure it out, and sometimes I can’t.”
But quilting has become a way for Nicholson to express herself. “Each quilt tells the story of a brain figuring out new ways to communicate,” says Bishop. “These quilts are her voice.”
One of the recipients of Nicholson’s quilts is a 7-year-old named Brandon, who has neuroblastoma, a cancer found in the adrenal glands. He received his Happy Community Quilt when he was having t-cell infusions twice a week for months — a time during which he was very sick, says his mother, Jonelle Tolhurst. “He was very grateful,” she adds. “He kept his quilt with him wherever he went.” (Nicholson sometimes accompanies Bishop to the hospital to drop off the quilts, but she doesn’t go into the kids’ rooms, because it’s too hard to communicate with them.)
In October 2018, Bishop’s friend Tammy Bourque, co-owner of Detroit boutique Brightly Twisted, heard about the project and wanted to help. Located in Corktown, Brightly Twisted, which offers weekly tie-dyeing workshops, began donating the fabric, dyed by local community members, to Nicholson to include in her quilts.
While Nicholson’s work is not for sale, Brightly Twisted has decorated its walls with her work to raise awareness of the project. (The boutique also accepts donations for Happy Community Quilts to help Nicholson pay for supplies.) With the help of Brightly Twisted, Bishop’s goal is to expand Happy Community Quilts by recruiting more volunteers and donating to more hospitals.
In the meantime, she says, her mother’s outlook on life has changed since starting this project. “It doesn’t matter how bad the card is that’s been dealt to her,” says Bishop, “and it doesn’t matter that she can’t talk or understand or drive. She’s going to get up and she’s going to try.”