Jessie Sherman had always dreamed about becoming a college cheerleader and interacting with the crowd at a big stadium. The 18 year old South Carolina freshman was just a few weeks shy of doing that when a horrific car accident left her severely injured, but still lucky to be alive.
"It was pretty scary," Sherman said. "I just remember the air-bag going off when I was upside down in the car. I had no idea what was going on. I started screaming for help."
On August 4, 2014, Sherman got up early to drive back to Columbia from her home in Raleigh after going home for the weekend in between the first two weeks of summer two-a-day cheerleading practice. She fell asleep at the wheel and her car flew off an overpass on I-20, eventually landing upside down in the median of Highway 601 below. A nearby motorist stopped to assist. He held her hand and kept talking to her, convincing her not to undo her seatbelt before an ambulance arrived.
"My back hurt because I was hanging upside down, and I'm thinking if I just undo the seatbelt, then I can get out and I'll be fine," Sherman recalled. "He kept holding my hand and told me to stop. Then I realized one of my teeth was missing and it was actually up in my nose. So that sort of distracted me for a while. I kept saying, I'm a cheerleader. I have to have my teeth. I smile all of the time."
She can laugh about that now, but there were plenty of bigger concerns at the time. Rescue workers arrived, cut the doors off her car and began to assess her injuries. She was air-lifted to the Palmetto Health Richland hospital in Columbia.
"I broke two different bones in my face," Sherman recalled. "I had two black eyes. Some of my teeth were broken and several had shifted. There was a big laceration on my forehead. I had also cut all the tendons and ligaments between my L1 and L2 vertebrae."
Sherman had surgery on her face that night to repair her injuries and had back surgery a couple days later to fuse the L1 and L2 vertebrae.
"That was probably the most pain I've ever been in," Sherman said. "They had to open me up and put a measuring device in there to see what bones were the best to fuse together, but my doctor did an amazing job. Hopefully I'll get back all the flexibility that I had."
Sherman soon realized how fortunate she was to have survived. A friend of her mother was working at the hospital as a nurse and reassured her that she was in good hands.
"Honestly, it didn't really strike me until people visited me in the hospital and later when I got home," Sherman said. "One of the first people to be at the hospital was Erika (Goodwin), my coach, along with my cousins who live in Blythewood. She was so comforting. My parents had to drive four hours to get there. When my mom got to the hospital, she kind of broke down, and that's when I realized that it must be pretty bad. We're not indestructible."
I think there is a reason that God kept me alive. I'm really focused on trying to find that reason and fulfill a purpose.Jessie Sherman
Among the many other visitors to come see her were teammates as well as a visit from South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner.
"He and his whole family came to my hospital bed," Sherman said. "They spent 30-45 minutes just talking to me. I didn't realize how big of a deal it was until my dad whispered to me that he was Steve Spurrier's boss. I had a lot of people come see me. It was really nice and it was a good distraction so I wasn't thinking about pain or anything like that."
Her teammates made her a huge card, which is still hanging in her bedroom. She was released from the hospital after only one week when doctors initially thought she would be there a lot longer.
"I started walking with a walker while I was there and was able to walk up a couple of stairs, so they told me I could go home."
Sherman regrets that she hasn't been able to track down the Good Samaritan who cared for her immediately following the accident, but his name was never included in any official reports.
"I've been trying to contact him," Sherman said. "I have a very vivid picture of what he looks like. I just want to tell him thank you and that he is a gift from God."
Doctors had suggested she take the semester off so she could focus on rehabilitation, but Sherman was determined to make it all work without leaving school even though she missed a full month during her recovery.
"I said no, I'm going to school," Sherman said. "I ended up taking three classes, one online, and two on campus. I had them on Monday and Wednesday, and they were back to back and right next to each other. That made it easy to get there and stay there. I registered with student disability services in case I needed a ride to my classroom, but I was determined to walk there. I had to stop a few times at first, but I made it."
Not only did she make her classes, but she earned A's in all three courses. Mixed in with her class schedule are many sessions of physical therapy.
"I started physical therapy the second I got back," Sherman said. "Our athletic trainer, Lauren Salas, is awesome. I'm with her almost every day. We started working on walking better. I recently was able to run. That was really exciting. I've been focusing on arm and stomach strengthening because they cut all of the muscles in my back during surgery. So I'm starting from scratch."
The three inch scar on her forehead is barely noticeable, but there are still internal scars to be healed. Sherman visits a therapist to help her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to ongoing nightmares from the accident.
"It was more of a mental thing than anything else," Sherman said. "Being a college cheerleader is what I dreamed about since I was five years old. To be so close and then to have it gone was really tough, and the PTSD was hard. Cheerleading is physical but it's also a very mental sport, especially with tumbling. I even get scared to do handstands now. I think I'll get back to where I was, but it's scary to think that there is a chance I won't."
Sherman is indeed back in uniform, making appearances with the team. She cannot perform at games or be on the sidelines in order to avoid potential collisions with student-athletes, but she still has hope of being able to fire up the crowd in the future.
"It's hard to just sit there and watch people do what you really want to be doing," Sherman said. "I'm normally comfortable in front of huge crowds, and that's why I like cheerleading. It brought me out of my shell. Some of my teammates focus more on the tumbling and stunting aspects, but I enjoy interacting with the crowd and cheering and dancing most."
For now, she is constantly asking her athletic trainer if she can do more. She recently began dancing. Now she is searching for a way to make some good come out of all that has happened.
"I think there is a reason that God kept me alive," Sherman said. "I'm really focused on trying to find that reason and fulfill a purpose. For now, I want to talk about wearing your seatbelt and the dangers of driving when you're drowsy. I have a platform, being a cheerleader, so maybe I can use it for some good. Maybe I can make a difference in someone's life."