ST. CHARLES COUNTY • While her classmates were heading off to college last year, Jake Gregory was fighting for her life.
One year ago today, Gregory and a girlfriend took an afternoon hike through Klondike Park in St. Charles County to shoot nature photos.
Drawn by the vibrant flower of an orange trumpet vine sprouting from the wall of a rocky cliff, Gregory began climbing, snapped a closeup and handed her camera back to her friend.
Then she kept climbing the cliff - upwards of 60 feet - until she lost her footing while bridging a gap in the rock face.
"I wanted to go to the top, and I was pretty darn close," said Gregory, 19, of St. Charles County. "This step was entirely too big for my leg span to get up, and I fell the whole way down. It was a free fall."
She landed on her left side, a blow that severely bruised her brain, broke her wrist and punctured her lungs.
At the hospital, doctors told her mother that paramedics had revived Gregory twice after her heart had stopped during the helicopter flight to the emergency room. Doctors said she had almost no brain activity when she arrived and was given little chance of survival.
"It was very possible that she wasn't going to make it," said her neurosurgeon, Dr. Peter Yoon.
And though Yoon said Gregory's injuries weren't unique to brain trauma patients, he said her strength and determination were big factors in her recovery.
"She just didn't give up," Yoon said, "Sometimes we are just lucky to see these kinds of patients."
Gregory, a 2008 graduate of Francis Howell High School, was scheduled to start her first semester at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., about a week after she fell from the cliff.
Since her release from the hospital last October, Gregory said, she has never stopped pushing herself to get better. And she believes her religious faith has guided her recovery.
"I'm not even supposed to be alive," Gregory said in a recent interview. "When doctors look at you and have no other word for this than miraculous, I know it's God that has gotten me through this."
The fall caused permanent damage, including hearing loss in her left ear, which has affected her speech. But Gregory soon will be fitted with a "bone-anchored" cochlear implant that will improve her hearing. She also has blurred and double vision and problems with balance because part of her cerebellum was removed.
"She'll always have dancing eyes and dancing feet," said her mother, Angela Gregory, 62, of St. Charles County. "If you saw that child lying in that bed, you would never in a thousand years think that a year later we'd be sitting here like this and she'd be in the great condition that she's in."
After several months at home and never leaving the house alone, Gregory started to feel herself again last spring when she returned to her volunteer job managing the Francis Howell High School baseball team. This season, the team wore caps monogrammed with her initials to show their support during her recovery.
Jake Gregory's youth pastor, Brian Bennett of Calvary Church in St. Peters, said he believes she would not have recovered so quickly without her family, her medical care, her self-determination and religious faith.
"I don't think her recovery is a random accident," said Bennett, 26, of O'Fallon, Mo. "I think God has something in store for her. Nobody comes that close to death without there being some purpose set ahead for her."
On Saturday, Jake Gregory's family is planning to celebrate her recovery and departure for college with a send-off party in Wapelhorst Park in St. Charles. Her mother said the party will give them the chance to thank her doctors, friends and family for their support.
Jake Gregory plans to major in nursing and mission work, with ambitions of a career as a medical missionary abroad.
Once she starts classes at Southwest Baptist University later this month, she will no longer have regular therapy sessions but will have to continue rehabilitation on her own. She said she is anxious about what students might think when they see her walk or hear her voice, but since she began therapy, she knew she could heal in time for college.
"Never a doubt in my mind," she said.