Jessica De Milo was a whisper away from graduating magna cum laude when her car hit an icy patch on Evaro Hill and slid into oncoming traffic.

Her mom, Téjeanne De Milo, was in Dillon when she got the phone call in November 2009: "There was no doubt that this was really severe. I was not necessarily expecting her to be alive when I made it to Missoula."

At the time, her daughter had a 3.98 GPA. She had been inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society and served as president of a creative writing club on campus.

"I would love to write fantasy novels," wrote Jessica in a social media post before the wreck. "I love story in all of its rich and varied forms."

She had planned to continue her studies in England after graduating from the University of Montana.

Instead, on her way to work at Mission Valley Christian Academy, her northbound car spun out of control, and a sport utility vehicle heading south struck her. 

The collision crushed Jessica's right front temporal lobe. She underwent emergency surgery at St. Patrick Hospital, and remained in intensive care for 23 days.

A doctor told the Highway Patrol trooper that if Jessica lived at all, she would have a life-altering brain injury.

Jessica survived, and the doctor was correct. Now 31, Jessica is living with a traumatic brain injury, and Téjeanne provides her care around the clock.

The De Milos have endured the loss, and as Téjeanne tells it, the family has invested six years in the grieving process.

This weekend, though, the mother and daughter have something to commemorate: UM granted Jessica the two bachelor's degrees she earned as a student.

In June, the De Milos are planning the celebration of a lifetime.

"This most likely will be the only major life event she will be able to celebrate," Téjeanne said. "She's not going to date, she's not going to marry. She's not going to have kids."


On Friday at the De Milo residence, Téjeanne was preparing for graduation, and Rachael Pastrana was helping Jessica get ready.

Téjeanne had placed Jessica's cap, gown and gold cords on a hanger by the front door, and her beaded scarf hung nearby. She added a small purple bouquet to the graduation ensemble and planned to secure purple sequin flowers to a neck brace her daughter would wear.

In the living area, Pastrana, with Norco Medical, gave Jessica a manicure. She rubbed moisturizer onto Jessica's hands and arms, shaped her fingernails, and painted them, in a shade of purple, of course.

"I like that you squared them," Téjeanne said of her daughter's fingernails.

The glittery polish was called "Let's Get Star-ted," and Téjeanne's hope is that the next phase of Jessica's life will indeed be the start of her ability to more fully communicate.

For the first time, Jessica has support 20 hours a week, and Téjeanne believes her daughter will make great strides in the upcoming rounds of therapy.

At the end of the week, though, Téjeanne's focus was on graduation. Her own dress and scarf hung beside Jessica's scarf, and Téjeanne was on the hunt for one more item.

"I still need to find a little black bag that will carry my keys and a good-sized pack of tissues," Téjeanne said.

Pastrana has become a friend of the family in the years since the accident, and she figured she might need to dip into the tissues as well. She planned to run the Camcorder at graduation, and the recording may shake every now and again.

"To be able to celebrate the accomplishments of her life is huge. We're all going to be crying together," Pastrana said. 


A while back, several people at UM who had known Jessica began wondering whether she had earned enough credits to graduate. Among them was Terry Berkhouse, director of Internship Services and executive director of Academic Enrichment in International Programs.

"I just started doing some asking around, both with her mom and some of the professors she had," said Berkhouse, who got to know her because they worked in proximity to each other.

Some of her faculty mentors reviewed her transcripts and credits, and they found she had more credits than she needed, although not exactly the right ones, he said. After an evaluation, UM found it could substitute credits and confer two degrees on Jessica, Téjeanne said and UM confirmed.

Last summer, Téjeanne got the phone call from Berkhouse. She had grieved for so many years, and the news that her daughter would be granted at least one degree stunned her.

"You had to pick me up off the floor," Téjeanne said. "It was pretty emotional, after all these years."

It was also fitting. Before the accident, Jessica had been an accomplished writer, and she loved stories and told part of her own in a page she posted on MySpace.

"First, I am a Christian. Some days, when I let myself get pushed into a boring mold by the world I live in, I'm the tame, boring sort of Christian who doesn't do anything wild like pray in front of people or talk about Jesus to people who don't know him," she wrote.

She identified herself as a student, daughter, translator, writer, sister, friend, and a lover of colors. Purple topped the list.

"Rarely ever do I like orange, except in sunsets and poppies," she wrote.

She loved stories told by the Greeks "and those pesky Romans," but she believed that many translations fell short of the original text. She planned to help.

"I'd like to save the rest of the world from reading bad translations of excellent stories," Jessica wrote.


On Saturday, Téjeanne draped gold cords around her daughter's shoulders along with a beaded purple scarf Jessica had bought in London, and she wheeled Jessica through commencement so she could receive a bachelor's in her beloved classics and another in creative writing.

The tears flowed as predicted. In a thank you statement, Téjeanne told family and friends she was grateful they had invested so much in her daughter's life.

"Jessica is a survivor of this catastrophic traumatic brain injury in no small part from the amazing gifts she had prior to that fateful morning in 2009 which changed our lives forever," Téjeanne said. "And she has the heart of a warrior, like her hero King David, known as a man after God's own heart; Jessica has her Abba's heart."

She is inspired that her daughter graduated, and one day, Téjeanne is hoping Jessica will cross another milestone.

"I would give anything for my daughter to be able to say, 'Mom, I love you.' 'How are you?' And that day may come."

Next month, Téjeanne is hosting a celebration to honor her daughter's achievements. The invitation asks Jessica's friends to bring personal mementos or photographs as presents because the pictures and memorabilia can be used in her therapy.

"Jessica's long-term memory is intact, which means she remembers you and your relationship with her," reads the invite. "The good news is that with visual and audible cues and reminders, her short-term and prospective memory is improving."

In an interview with the Missoulian, Téjeanne said the family needs a wheelchair-accessible van as well as a "Hi-Low Bed." She said she didn't ask for help in the invitation because she wanted everyone to feel like they could attend the party.

"What we desire most is your good will and appreciation," the invitation says.


Berkhouse, who attended graduation and will participate in next month's celebration, plans to bring Jessica pictures of his dogs, Bridger, who died, and Trapper. His wife, who earlier made Jessica a purple shawl, is knitting a new piece for the graduate.

After the accident, Téjeanne sent out a note telling her campus community that Jessica was in a coma and needed people to sit with her. Berkhouse started sitting with her, and once she was out of the coma and out of the hospital, he would bring along Bridger, his flat-coated retriever.

"I love dogs, and she, it turned out, loved dogs. So I really enjoyed bringing my dog in and visiting," Berkhouse said.

Bridger has since died, and Trapper now hangs out with Jessica from time to time.

It's difficult to communicate with Jessica, Berkhouse said, but he is certain she understands him when he talks to her and reads to her.

Sometimes, she smiles in response; sometimes, she cries.