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Eagle Turns Near-Fatal Experience Into Comfort for Kids

By Kyle Wingfield


Like many mothers, Nancy Jacobs remembers her son's first words. That they came as Ivan's father was headed to a Boy Scout meeting—when Ivan was 12 years old—is where things begin to differ from the norm.


Those words—"Bye, Dad"—were the first of Ivan's second life, a milestone along his miraculous comeback from the depths of a near-fatal accident to the rarified air where eagles soar. Eagles, as it turns out, like Ivan Jacobs.


"Basically, my life is now devoted to service to others, and the love and joy I get out of serving others and being able to help," Ivan said.


Ivan was supposed to be wearing his helmet when he took off on his bicycle on September 12, 1998. Of course, to hear his mother tell it, he also was supposed to be out selling magazine subscriptions for school instead of gallivanting about a fair near his hometown of Wheaton, Illinois. But Ivan nonetheless was riding back from the fair, without a helmet, when he was struck by a teenager's car.


The damage was as severe as it was immediate. Ivan spent the next eight months in a coma, scarcely able to open an eye. One-half of his skull was crushed, and bone fragments had shot into his brain. With his brain swelling dangerously, doctors removed much of his skull and froze it with hopes that they could put it back later.


When the swelling subsided, doctors realized that a third of his brain had disintegrated into his body, leaving a gaping hole in his head. Neurologists gave Ivan's family long odds for a recovery. It was not until he was moved to a rehabilitation hospital that his parents and two brothers saw the first glimmer of hope.


The rehab specialists had seen recoveries in people like Ivan before—a cause for optimism, Mrs. Jacobs said. He had a few things going for him, including his youth (at 12 years old, his brain was not yet fully developed, giving him a better prognosis than, say, a 16-year-old) and his determination. His mother had seen that determination shine through him before, in his climb from Tiger Cub status to earning the Arrow of Light Award, and she knew she would see it again.


"I just expected normalcy, and that's what we were going to work toward," she said. "And as a family we just kept being optimistic and expecting things were going to work out in the long run."


Ivan's fellow Scouts from Troop 23 of the Three Fires Council were there all along the way. They built a ramp outside the house so that Ivan could be wheeled from the family room downstairs up to the dining room, to share evening meals with the rest of his family. "I was so grateful for that," Mrs. Jacobs said.


Throughout his recovery process "Scout angels," as Ivan's mother calls them, would drop by the house with dinner every other night. "And no matter what condition he was in, they would give him an encouraging word," she said. "And I knew he heard it because you could see he felt a little bit better."


Ivan's first words eventually came, and he was eager to return to Scouting. He went back to the troop, in fact, before he returned to school. "He knew it would be familiar friends who knew his situation before he was put into a school situation again," Mrs. Jacobs said.


"Being a Scout was pretty much all my life," Ivan said. "I have devoted my heart to doing it, and I have devoted myself to push myself to do it, to get myself to the highest level I can get to, and in that be a leader and help others. And just keep going."


Scouting often was Ivan's inspiration to continue his rehabilitation. One of his most significant improvements in being able to walk came just before he was set to attend an Order of the Arrow fall fellowship with his father, Philip. "I think it was just being away from home, and being in a different situation, and he pushed himself a little harder," his mother said.


There were tough times along the way. Frustrated by his inability to go camping regularly with the troop, Ivan decided to quit Scouting. His parents were disappointed, but they let him choose. After a few months—and a pep talk from an Eagle Scout's mother—he changed his mind.


It was a pretty big change. Ivan decided he wanted to work on the staff at summer camp—in Wisconsin, four hours away from his suburban Chicago home. Philip Jacobs offered a deal: If Ivan could complete his strengthening exercises, beginning to walk on the sidewalks and grass outside the house with just a cane, or without one, he could work at summer camp.


"He used it as an impetus to really work hard," his mother said. Ivan met his parents' requirements and went to work in the camp's dining hall, putting together meals for campers.


All along, even as he worked hard to make up the year of schooling he had missed, Ivan continued to complete merit badges. He became a Life Scout. When it came time to find an Eagle Scout project, he thought back to his struggles.


Ivan was attending a tea with other former patients at a children's hospital when he ran into a teacher who had worked with him. He asked the teacher what he might do for an Eagle Scout project that would help kids going through what he had been through. The suggestion that came back was to put together journals for the children to write and draw in. Ivan thought this idea would be great. But how many journals would be necessary?


"The teacher was trying to be conservative and said, 'Oh, 25 would be good,'" Mrs. Jacobs recalled. "And Ivan laughed and said, 'This is an Eagle project.' And I thought 250 would be great, but the teacher said, 'How about 500?'"


Five hundred it was, though it was not as simple as Ivan had hoped. Many of the large office supply stores that he asked for donations refused to help. Eventually, though, things came together—$750 from a golf raffle here, 600 packs of crayons from a local store owner there. Ivan led his troop members in putting the 1-inch binders together, with paper for writing or drawing, and a pouch filled with pencils, pens, and crayons. He also included a letter describing his own accident and the recovery he had made, as well as his promise to pray for each of the patients in the hospital.


On October 1, 2003, he delivered the journals to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois. The 500 journals went quickly, and the recipients were quite appreciative. "One boy read my cover letter, and he said, 'Wow!' and he almost started crying," Ivan said. "He said wow because of what I've been through and what I did for him."


Richard Taylor, who heads the hospital's Reading, Writing, and Recovery School, is trying to get local high school students with community service requirements to match Ivan's donation and keep the journal program going.


"When (the journals) arrived here," Taylor said, "I couldn't believe the time he had put into them. It showed. I mean, every single journal had that truly loved feeling. He put his all into it."


If the high schoolers need inspiration, they need only call on Ivan.


"Mainly my philosophy in life is to walk when you cannot walk, talk when you cannot talk, keep moving forward, and spread your wings and fly like an eagle. And never give up," he said. "That's a philosophy that just came straight from God into my heart. And that's how I feel about everything."