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JILL 'S ORDEAL: AN ATHLETE STRUGGLES TO REGAIN HER LIFE AFTER BEING STRUCK A YEAR AGO BY A DRUNKEN DRIVER WHILE BICYCLING IN THE VALLEY OF THE MOON

Published on April 10, 2005
© 2005- The Press Democrat

PAGE: D1

Jill Mason didn't lose her life when she was hit by a drunken driver while riding her bike last April 11.

But she lost nearly everything else.

She lost her boyfriend, fellow triathlete Alan Liu, who was riding just behind her along Highway 12 near Oakmont. She lost the use of her legs, as her spinal cord was severed on impact. She lost a big piece of her memory when her head was driven into the pavement. She lost her cherished independence, sentenced by a senseless act to spend the next five months in hospitals, the past seven months back in her childhood home and most likely the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

No, she didn't die. But, ``You took my life away,'' she told the driver, Harvey Hereford, as he was sentenced in September to almost nine years in prison.

Her life, up to that Easter Sunday morning, had revolved around action, effort and achievement.

``Running was my favorite thing,'' she says today, sitting in her wheelchair in her parents' Grass Valley home. ``I used to run or ride or work out six days a week.

``I miss sweating.''

Mason's is a tragic story, but as she tells it she stops repeatedly to giggle, her left hand covering her face. At first a guest mistakes this as sobbing, but when she pulls her hand away she reveals a radiant smile.

``It's part of the brain injury,'' says her mother, Joanne Mason. ``Some people have uncontrollable anger. Jill has giggles. I guess we're lucky.''

At 27, Mason exudes a child-like quality. Her strong soprano voice that once starred in a concert choir now is soft and high-pitched, the lingering result of the brain injury but also due to the hole that was cut in her throat to keep her breathing in the days immediately following her injury.

She often looks to her parents to help answer questions; her memory -- both short-term and long-term -- remains profoundly impaired a year later. Larry Mason urges his daughter to reach into herself for answers, while Joanne is more apt to help fill in the gaps.

``She's changed,'' Joanne says, looking at her daughter in the wheelchair. ``Jill was nothing if not self-confident. But this -- it kind of takes that out from under you.''

Still, there are sparks of confidence and competitiveness apparent in the diminutive young woman who starred on the soccer and track teams at Nevada Union High School, and who played lacrosse and ran marathons while attending Santa Clara University.

She wants to drive a car again. She wants to live in her own place again. She wants to move back to the Silicon Valley, get her Ph.D., teach college, find a way to get back to some semblance of her old life.

``Who's gonna pay the rent?'' Larry asks.

``I'm gonna do it!'' Mason snaps back, raising her voice for the first time. ``I will!''

Training ride

It wasn't yet noon last April 11 as Mason and Liu, 31, rode their bikes toward Santa Rosa through the Valley of the Moon. In town to visit Liu's mother, Rita Wells, the two triathletes were squeezing in a training ride before Easter brunch.

Harvey Hereford, 69, had been drinking heavily at his Oakmont home. He later tested at almost four times the legal limit of .08 percent blood-alcohol.

Hereford left his house and pulled his 10-year-old Nissan onto westbound Highway 12. Witnesses said he accelerated sharply, weaving down the road before swerving to the shoulder, where his car struck Liu. He then continued on about 100 feet and hit Mason before he pulled over.

He told CHP officers that he didn't realize he'd hit anything until he noticed his broken windshield.

Liu, an MIT graduate who worked as an engineer for Applied Materials in Santa Clara, died at the scene. Mason was taken to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where she was put on life support.

``They were saying she might not live, or if she did she would be in a vegetative state,'' says Larry Mason, tears welling in his eyes.

Local cyclists gathered outside the hospital the next night, standing silent vigil with the grieving parents. In the crowd were Betsy and Rusty Dillon, whose son, Ross, was struck from behind in June 2002 as he rode his bike along Occidental Road. The Dillons told the Masons that their son hadn't been expected to live, either. Then they told them that Ross is doing better every day.

``That was an amazing thing,'' Larry Mason says of the vigil. ``It helped us a lot.''

(The Masons later learned their daughter had been a contributor to a fund for Ross Dillon, a fellow alumni of Santa Clara University.)

Mason was hooked up to a ventilator for a week. She underwent a 12-hour surgery to fuse her broken spine. Doctors repaired a lacerated liver, fractures to her heel and arm and ``a lot of road rash.'' A shunt was inserted in her brain to reduce swelling.

When she was transferred to a rehabilitation center in Santa Clara a month after the wreck, she still couldn't speak and she didn't know about Liu's death.

In fact, she didn't remember anything about the crash, or much about the six months leading up to that point -- the period in which she and Liu had grown so close. Even now, the months between April 11 and her birthday on July 9 remain a blank.

Shortly after her birthday, though, as Mason was scrolling through the many e-mails that had piled up in her computer, she saw a reference to a Mass that had been said for her at Santa Clara University in the early stages of her recovery. The e-mail explained the circumstances, saying, ``Jill was paralyzed and her boyfriend Alan was killed ... ''

That was how she found out she had a boyfriend before the wreck. And that was how she found out her boyfriend was dead.

Good match

It has taken months, but Mason is beginning to recover some memory of her time with Liu. She now remembers meeting him when she joined the Mountain View Masters swim team, which he coached. She remembers, ``He was really busy at the time, and so was I, so we were a good match.

``We used to ride together and run together and swim together, and I really miss that,'' she says. ``He was pretty much my best friend.''

While she knows that Liu is gone, Mason says it's still hard at times for her to fully grasp the enormity of what has happened.

``I don't think it has totally hit me yet,'' she says almost a year later. ``Sometimes I feel like it only happened to me, and I'll go back (to Cupertino) and Alan will be just waiting back at his house.''

She thinks a lot about getting back to the South Bay, where she can return to her friends, her job (her employers at an engineering firm say her marketing job is waiting for her) and the independence that she learned to relish after growing up in the small Sierra foothills community of Grass Valley.

``My goal is to move back by January,'' Mason says. ``But that depends on my arm, it depends on my brain, it depends on a lot of stuff.''

Her right arm is still weak, apparently a neurological problem caused by the brain injury. She attends occupational, speech and physical therapy sessions each week to help her learn once-simple tasks that now represent daily obstacles. Taking a shower by herself is ``a cause for celebration.'' Getting from the wheelchair to the bed is a test of strength. Emptying her bladder requires inserting a catheter every six hours.

``People tell me I'm making progress,'' she says. ``But it's all too slow for me.''

An attendant stays with Mason while her parents go to work (Joanne is a school counselor, and Larry teaches adaptive physical education to disabled children). Otherwise, in an effort to help Mason preserve money that she has saved as a down payment on a house, Mom and Dad spend 16 hours a day helping their daughter with her many physical and emotional needs.

``We're exhausted most of the time,'' Joanne says. ``It's hard to maintain hope, to not get discouraged.''

Progress each day

But hope is there. Each day, Mason gets a little stronger, retrieves a lost memory, shaves another few seconds off of her ``time trial'' wheeling her chair up the short driveway. And, while one moment she gestures to herself in that chair and says, ``This is it'' for her future, the next moment she's remembering the possibilities of stem cell research.

``They can fix rats!'' she says, indicating that paralysis may not necessarily be forever.

She says she thinks often of Hereford, whom the whole family refers to, familiarly, as ``Harvey.''

``When I think about Harvey I'm mad, but it's more like, `Why?' It's more of a question than it is anger. What did I do to deserve this?

``I think about him and I wonder, `Why did this happen?' I wonder, `What was he thinking?' And I hope he's enjoying his time in jail.''

Last week, she got the news that another cyclist had been killed in Sonoma County by another suspected drunken driver.

``Oh my gosh!'' Mason said, expelling air as if she had been punched. ``It's so stupid to drink and drive!''

Later, she e-mailed this: ``Drunken drivers not only risk their own lives but can take away the lives of others, too. In my case, the life I knew is no longer. And I can say that I was pretty happy and I know Alan was too. I can be happy again, but it will be more of a challenge ... a challenge to do the simplest things. People need to think about what they are doing before they get into a car after drinking.''

Contact Chris Coursey at 521-5223 or ccoursey@pressdemocrat.com.

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PHOTO: 1 by Jill Mason
7 by CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat



1: Jill Mason with her boyfriend, Alan Liu, 31, who died in the same Highway 12 crash that severed Mason's spinal cord.

2: A triathlete before her accident, Jill Mason works with a physical therapist to help strengthen her right arm and increase her range of motion so she eventually will be able to get in and out of her wheelchair without assistance. Mason was injured and her boyfriend killed when struck by a car driven by a drunken driver.

3: In-home caregiver Christy Cox stretches Jill Mason's hand after exercises.

4: Mason times herself on her progress from one end of the driveway to the other at her parents ' Grass Valley home.

5: One of the lingering effects of the brain injury Mason suffered

is spontaneous giggling.

6: Caregiver Christy Cox helps Mason exercise with light weights in the living room of Mason's parent's grass Valley home. The exercises help Mason strengthen and gain mobility in her right arm.

7: While eating lunch at home, Mason uses a frame, a gift from her grandmother that lets her stand, allosing Mason to improve the circulation in her legs, as well as help her mother prepare dinner.

8: Mason listens to her occupational therapist's encouragement during one of her twice-a-week sessions.

Infobox: .

A LIFE ALTERED

Who: Jill Mason

Age: 27

Residence: Grass Valley, living with parents

Background: Marketer at Lowney Associates, an engineering firm in Mountain View. Received her bachelor's degree from Santa Clara University and a master's degree in English and mass communications from San Jose State University. She was a competitive swimmer, runner and triathlete prior to injuries.

What: Injured April 11, 2004, when hit by drunken motorist's car while bicycling on Highway 12 near Oakmont. Her boyfriend, Alan Liu, 31, was killed in the same accident.

Injuries: Spent five months in hospitals, now confined to a wheelchair. Underwent 12-hour surgery to fuse broken spine; suffered lacerated liver, fractures to heel and arm; had shunt inserted into brain to reduce swelling. Lost use of legs due to severed spinal cord.

Lost memories: Various brain-related problems due to head injuries, including impaired memory.

Driver: Harvey Hereford, 69, of Oakmont, tested at 0.30, almost four times the legal limit of 0.08 percent blood-alcohol. He was sentenced in September to 8 years and 8 months in prison.

Web site: Mason's brother, Dan, keeps a Web site chronicling his sister's progress at www.jillmason.com.

Keywords: BIOGRAPHY ACCIDENT BICYCLE DRUNK DRIVING




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