the mysterious injury
Clark Jacobs can’t recall the moment his life changed,
but his long recovery has been a constant reminder.
Clark Jacobs doesn’t remember the moment that changed his life.
“Gone. Nothing,” he said.
No one saw it happen either.
One Friday night in January 2015, Clark went to sleep in his room on the Georgia Tech campus.
By morning, he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He would spend the next year recovering.
Despite his laid-back personality, Clark has a stubborn determination. That trait would serve him well as he re-learned how to eat and talk and walk. As a young boy, Clark’s second-grade teacher nicknamed him after his superhero namesake. And for the first time in his life, he would live up to the title, amazing his family, doctors and himself with his ability to fight his way back to the life he loved.
Photo: Exhausted from a morning of therapy, Clark falls asleep while his mom, Mariellen Jacobs, fills out forms for him in a waiting room at the Shepherd Center.
Clark was born in November 1994 at Kennestone Hospital, completing the Jacobs family of four, which included dad Ron, mom Mariellen and sister Kelsey.
As a 4-year-old, Clark already had a sense of humor. His mom still remembers the first joke he told her.
Mommy, did you hear about the new pirate movie? It’s rated Arrrr.
When your second-grade teacher decides every student needs a nickname, and your name is Clark, “Superman” is the obvious choice. The moniker stuck. And as his blonde hair turned dark and wavy, he resembled a young Clark Kent even more as he got older.
At Kell High School, Clark excelled in the classroom and particularly loved physics and math. As a senior, he took college-level calculus and aced it. Like his father and both grandfathers, engineering was his passion, and attending Georgia Tech made the most sense.
During his first semester of freshman year, Clark pledged with the Kappa Sigma fraternity, which was finishing a new, three-story brick home on the corner of Sixth and Fowler streets. After living in a dorm his first year, Clark was thrilled to move into the fraternity house his sophomore year.
With hardwood floors on the main level and plush, leather sofas in common areas, freshly painted walls and high ceilings, the fraternity house almost seemed too fancy for college students. Clark and his brothers were proud of the house, and in August 2014, he moved into a three-person room with two friends. Along one wall was a trio of loft beds, each seven feet off the ground. Metal ladders led the way to full-size beds — comfortable for Clark’s 6-foot-5 frame — and underneath were desks, closets and living space.
Clark had entered a co-op program the previous summer. Instead of taking classes, he worked full time at McKenney’s Inc., a construction service and supply company. That January, he had returned to work at McKenney’s part time.
After his first week on the job, Clark climbed up to his bed that Friday night and went to sleep. During the night, he climbed up and down the ladder several times to vomit in a trash can. His roommates, both sleeping in their loft beds, heard him but didn’t think anything of it. In a fraternity house full of college-age men, it wasn’t unusual to hear the sounds of someone getting sick on a Friday night.
When he woke up Saturday morning, Clark had a throbbing headache, so bad he couldn’t turn his head. His neck was also sore and too stiff to move. He noticed the black, light-blocking curtain that surrounded his bed laying on the floor. He thought perhaps one of his fraternity brothers had removed it as a prank. Assuming he had the flu, which had been going around, he called his sister, who lived in a townhouse nearby.
If you’re sick, you need to call mom and dad, Kelsey told him.
His dad brought him home that afternoon and his mom kept him hydrated.
By Sunday morning, Clark still had a blinding headache and a painful neck. There was an unexplained, small bump on the back of Clark’s head. That afternoon, Mariellen insisted on taking him to the local emergency room.
That’s overkill, mom, Clark said.
It was a decision that saved his life.
Photo: Clark talks with his parents Ron, left, and Mariellen while eating dinner.
A CT scan at Kennestone Hospital revealed a fracture in Clark’s skull. Even the emergency doctor was shocked. He told the family it would have taken a violent blow to the head to cause such an injury. They concluded that Clark must have fallen from his bed, a seven-foot drop, and hit his head on the hard linoleum floor sometime Friday night.
A second scan showed a possible blood clot near Clark’s jugular vein.
Clark was admitted to the hospital for observation. When his symptoms continued two days later, a third CT scan showed a brain bleed and symptoms of a stroke.
If we don’t operate, he won’t make it, the doctor told Clark’s parents. If we do operate, he might not make it. We have to try to save Clark’s life.
Clark’s brain was swelling; he needed a craniotomy to relieve the pressure in his head. At 3 a.m., Clark was rolled into the operating room, where the surgeon opened up his skull and removed a section called a bone flap so his brain would have room to heal. For more than three hours, his parents, sister and her roommate, Sarah, sat in a waiting room. For Mariellen, praying was the only way to pass the time.
“All I did was beg God not to take him from us,” she said.
The family just couldn’t imagine the world without Clark.
Photo: Clark Jacobs relaxes while spending the weekend at his sister Kelsey’s home in Atlanta. Clark is living with his parents near Kennesaw while recovering from a serious brain injury.
The music and Superman
If anyone was going to make it through brain injury and come out stronger, it was going to be Clark “Superman” Jacobs. He was the stoic one in the family, not easily rattled or overly emotional. Always determined and stubborn.
Still, everyone who suffers a traumatic brain injury has a different path toward recovery, and there are no guarantees.
After surgery, Clark’s head was wrapped in white gauze, he was attached to a ventilator, and there were wires and tubes connected to his nose, chest, arm and hands. Dressed in a hospital gown, he was seated nearly upright in his hospital bed, motionless, surrounded by medical equipment. He appeared to be in a deep sleep, only there was no way to wake him up.
A week later, a feeding tube was inserted into Clark’s stomach, and he underwent a tracheotomy to assist with his breathing. In late January, Clark was moved to the Shepherd Center in Buckhead, where he would remain for four-and-a-half months. The small room became the Jacobs family headquarters, and a parent or his sister was always by his side. Classmates and fraternity brothers visited often.
It was all a blur to Clark, but all too real for his family. As the hours and days passed, Clark’s parents faced the real possibility that he may never walk or talk on his own again. Ron wondered where his son would spend the rest of his life if he required round-the-clock medical care.
“He didn’t look like a kid that was going to go back to school ever,” Ron said.
Then slowly, there were positive signs. One day Clark gave a thumbs-up. Another day he yanked at the tubes connected to his body. Gradually Clark began to let his family know he was still there, inside his thinner, lanky frame. It gave his family hope.
Still, his body struggled to stabilize. He developed infections and blood clots, and he continued to lose weight, dropping to 131 pounds, far too thin for someone his height.
One of the first nurses to treat Clark at the Shepherd Center was Mike Marshall, who happened to have a small Superman tattoo on his left bicep. Clark’s family took comfort in one Superman helping another. They placed a large Superman decal on the door of room 272.
Hours, days and weeks passed without a sound from Clark, but the medical staff assured his family he was on the right path. He underwent a second brain surgery to re-attach his skull flap. Within hours of the surgery, Clark’s eyes were tracking around the room. Five days later, Ron asked Clark if wanted to listen to some music, and Clark gave a thumbs up. In high school, Clark had become a fan of the British band Mumford & Sons. Their 2012 album, “Babel,” was one of Clark’s favorites.
“We played it for him constantly,” Kelsey said. “It was a way for us to have Clark when we couldn’t have Clark.”
Waiting for Clark to communicate was painstakingly slow, but his family refused to give up.
One of Mumford & Sons’ biggest hits became a theme for the Jacobs family.
Cause I will wait, I will wait for you. And I will wait, I will wait for you.
Every day his family talked to him, telling stories and showing him pictures, anything to try to evoke a reaction. Kelsey occasionally climbed in bed to lay beside her brother. Outside of Shepherd Center, family and friends supported the family by bringing meals and praying. Clark’s uncle Mike set up a Go Fund Me page online to raise funds to pay medical expenses not covered by insurance.
The Jacobs family was told to prepare for possible changes in Clark’s personality as he recovered. Traumatic brain injuries affect each person differently. The Clark that emerged during recovery could be different than the one they knew before the fall, the family was told.
But as Clark slowly returned to consciousness, it was obvious he was the same person his parents and sister always knew.
At first, it was just a smile. Then a single word, here and there. Within a week of the surgery, he progressed to complete sentences. As his physical therapy regimen intensified, so did Clark’s ability to express himself. One day, he shocked his therapists by calling them by name.
Well if you’re going to say their names, you’d better say, ‘Mom,’ his mother teased.
Mom, Clark responded.
His tracheotomy tube was removed, and for the first time in months, Clark was able to eat soft, pureed foods rather than relying on an IV for his nourishment. Slowly, he began to gain weight. Milkshakes, hand delivered by his sister, quickly became a favorite snack.
On Mother’s Day, Clark sat in his wheelchair as his parents and sister looked on. Mumford & Sons played in the background as the Jacobs family talked about the progress their “Superman” had made that week.
When the song “Whispers in the Dark” came on, Clark began to strum an air banjo and sing along. He performed the entire song as his parents and sister watched with tears in their eyes.
“That song,” Kelsey said, “brought him back to life.”
Photo: Nicholas Evans (left) and J.D. Harworth work with Clark during a therapy session at the Shepherd Center.
Clark was released from the Shepherd Center in June and returned to his family’s Kennesaw-area home. He was stronger than he’d been since the fall, but his motor skills, including his balance and coordination, prevented him from being self-sufficient. Clark still needed his wheelchair and help moving around.
There was no way Clark could climb the stairs to his bedroom, so a makeshift room was set up just off the kitchen. He could eat some but still relied on a feeding tube for additional nourishment. Speech, occupational and physical therapists came to the house to work with him on his motor skills, swallowing and pronunciation.
He was growing stronger every day, but the medications Clark needed while his brain healed left him in a daze. Sometimes, he had odd hallucinations and stubborn thoughts Clark was sure were real, despite what his family said. He often thought he’d left his wallet or bag somewhere. When he was asked how he ended up at the Shepherd Center, Clark replied that he’d walked there from the Georgia Tech campus.
“It was a long, fuzzy dream-like type of thing, and he couldn’t figure it out for a long time,” his sister said.
A big chunk of Clark’s memory remains missing. He doesn’t remember his first week of work at McKenney, although he knows he did it because his paycheck was deposited into his bank account. He has no idea what he did that Friday night before he went to bed and woke up injured. The last thing he remembers clearly before the accident was spending New Year’s Eve in Miami with friends watching the Yellow Jackets play in the Orange Bowl.
Eventually Clark progressed to a walker and started eating solid foods. In August, his feeding tube was removed.
In the fall, Clark was disappointed he wasn’t well enough to return to school, but he went to two football games, both losses for his Yellow Jackets but wins for a college student recovering from a brain injury. He celebrated his 21st birthday with family and friends in November, and three weeks later he was the real-life blessing at the Thanksgiving table.
Photo: Clark’s sister Kelsey Jacobs laughs at one of her brother’s sarcastic jokes at her Atlanta home.
A new year
Passing the January anniversary of his fall was a major milestone for Clark. He was ready for new challenges, including taking an online college course. It was a way for Clark to test his ability to comprehend coursework, as well as to earn some credit hours. The class, “Adjustment Psychology,” sounded daunting but ended up being relevant to his everyday life.
He had always been a great student, particularly interested in physics and math. But taking a college class while recovering from a brain injury was time-consuming. Still dealing with short-term memory loss, Clark spent hours in the afternoons reading and re-reading the material. Some days he was too exhausted from the morning’s therapy session to do school work. But as with his recovery, Clark was diligent. He got an A in the class.
“Make sure you note this,” Clark joked. “I’m awesome.”
Meanwhile, his physical therapy sessions at Shepherd intensified as Clark got stronger.
“It takes a lot to get me frustrated,” Clark said. “But I do get frustrated sometimes. I’ve come to peace with a lot of it.”
During a recent weekend visit to his sister’s townhouse, Clark said he felt more “normal” than he had in recent days. The two ate at a nearby restaurant and made frozen yogurt before watching a movie. For Clark, it almost felt like being back at school. For Kelsey, it was reassurance that the younger brother she adored had survived.
When Mariellen found out Mumford & Sons were coming to Atlanta for two concerts this month, she bought four second-row tickets. It just felt like a way to celebrate what the band’s music had done to help Clark.
“Heck yeah,” Clark agreed.
As he sat in the passenger seat on their way to Shepherd one day recently, Clark and his mom both sang along to “Babel.” He stopped momentarily while “I will wait” played on.
Thanks for waiting, Ma, he said.
Later this month, the family will take a week-long trip to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they’ve rented a villa with a pool. It will be a chance to relax and reflect on the past year after nearly losing a pillar of the family.
When the fall semester begins in August, Clark plans to be back on campus, back at his fraternity house. This time, he’s not taking any chances — his bed will be on the floor. He has already enrolled for two classes. His next major milestone will be driving again, but he’s not ready just yet.
Ron Jacobs said most days it’s hard to believe how far his son and his family have come.
“We didn’t do it, it did us,” he said. "We just walked through it.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Mariellen Jacobs sounded weary when I first spoke to her in March 2015, and she had every reason to be. Her 20-year-old son, Clark, was barely conscious more than two months after falling from his loft bed at Georgia Tech. But what I most remember is how optimistic she was that Clark would recover. I followed Clark’s progress through Mariellen’s blog on the Caring Bridge website. When I met him in February, I was so humbled. He had just finished hours of grueling therapy and was exhausted, but he was so friendly and chatty ... and tall. Every time I saw him after that, I noticed he was talking just a little faster and walked with more confidence. And every time, I was struck by how Clark never got rattled or angry about his situation. His humor and positive attitude, along with his supportive family, seemed to help speed up his recovery. Clark isn’t back where he was before the fall, but he’s on his way. He’ll get there.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Alexis Stevens joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December 2000 as a sports page designer. She has been covering breaking news since 2009. Alexis graduated from Berry College in 1997 with degrees in communications and Spanish.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Ben Gray has been a photojournalist for more than 20 years, working the last 18 at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can follow his running adventures on his Instagram account @photobgray.