He yelled for Cathy Petersen, his fiancée. Only the yell came out
as a whisper, and Petersen was in another room. The couple’s rescue
pup, Serra, nudged him to get up, to come play. But Turner couldn’t
move his legs, his arms, his mouth—not even his tongue.
It was hard to breathe. Everything was getting fuzzy, and Turner was fading.
“It was like someone turned the volume— everything—off,”
Thirty minutes passed before Petersen came in to wake Turner for work.
Terrified, she dialed 911 right away. Turner was semi-conscious when he
arrived in the ambulance at Torrance Memorial. First responders were not
sure he would make it through the night.
Doctors believe he suffered basilar artery dissection, leading to a rare
type of stroke with a mortality rate of more than 85%, which is caused
when the main artery that feeds into the back of the brain pulls apart
or is dissected and blocks the part of the brain that controls motor functions.
They kept Turner in a chemically induced coma for two weeks to keep him
calm, and when he woke up, he couldn’t remember what happened. “I
had a breathing tube, and I couldn’t move,” he says.
Later Petersen told Turner that doctors had prepared her for the worst,
telling her he might not make it out of the anesthesia required to intubate him.
“They said if he did survive, he could be in a vegetative state,”
But he did make it, and the breathing tube was soon removed. One week after
Turner came out of the coma, doctors were surprised but thrilled he was
breathing on his own.
Throughout six weeks of hospitalization, a team of Torrance Memorial healthcare
professionals followed a highly focused, determined, one-hurdle-at-a-time,
one-day-at-a-time approach. They patiently and compassionately encouraged
Turner and Petersen—and each other—to keep looking and moving
forward. It was a Herculean effort that Turner and Petersen agree was—and
today still is—made of challenges and successes but also mounds
of perseverance, devotion and gratitude.
The two continue to be struck by the commitment of the Torrance Memorial
inpatient and outpatient teams and the care they gave over the duration
of his years-long comeback, which continues today as Turner works to keep
moving forward on his own. After all, the team and Turner started at square one.
Conquering The Basics
Not only were Turner’s limbs paralyzed, so were his vocal cords.
“I could only blink my eyes. Nothing else on my body worked,” he says.
So he used his eyeballs to talk, with speech therapists patiently encouraging
him. Eyes up and down for “yes;” back and forth for “no.”
Months passed before Turner said his first word. It was October, eight
months after the stroke, when he put together his first sentence.
The next step was sitting up. Turner is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed
225 pounds, with no muscle control. It took five people to hoist him up.
A team of four physical therapists and Petersen helped Turner with this
routine every day, several times a day.
Petersen and Turner speak with admiration of the medical team who worked
with him—from the speech, respiratory and physical therapists to
the nurses and physicians.
Terence Hammer, MD, Turner’s primary physician, remembers the first
time he saw Turner, post-hospitalization. “I was struck by his incredible
will to live, his will to continue to improve and his attitude,”
says Dr. Hammer. “This is a person who had not been dealt a good
hand. But he’s a gentle soul. He wasn’t angry; he just wanted
to do whatever he could to get better.”
The same hand of cards had been dealt to Turner’s grandfather, who
had suffered his own stroke and a heart attack. But Turner says he hadn’t
taken those bad genes too seriously; he was too young to think about it
much yet. He didn’t smoke and was only an occasional drinker.
Then, at 35, three years before his stroke, Turner had a heart attack on
Valentine’s Day. He had been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome diabetes
and high blood pressure. All these signs pointed toward stroke.
Two weeks prior to his debilitating stroke, Turner remembers having a chronic
headache—a sharp pinpoint over his left brow. He didn’t worry;
it must be a sinus blockage, he thought.
A week before his stroke, he suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack or TIA,
also known as a mini-stroke, which led to some weakness in his right side,
tightening of the throat and a bit of slurred speech. Before an MRI could
be scheduled, he suffered the severe stroke.
The end of Turner’s stay at Torrance Memorial marked the start of
three years of intense rehabilitation. He spent eight weeks in a transitional
rehabilitation center, re-learning how to bathe, shower and dress. Finally,
on July 2, one day after his 39th birthday and nearly five months after
the stroke, Turner returned home.
Dr. Hammer took the lead in helping Turner and Petersen navigate the long
road to recovery, coordinating his doctors and outpatient rehabilitation
procedures and creating a comprehensive plan that ensured the healthcare
team was working in tandem and communicating often. He also helped navigate
the complicated world of insurance and advised on ways Turner could get
maximum benefits, the most therapy and the best team. Along with Turner’s
cardiologist, Mark Lurie, MD, he worked to get blood pressure and cholesterol
under control. (If left untreated, this could have caused another stroke.)
“We wanted to make sure that, as a young person, he had the very
best chance of returning to an as-normal-as-possible life,” says
Dr. Hammer. “Jesse came into the office once a month, and while
our staff was his cheerleading team—telling him, ‘Look where
you were then, and where you are now. Look at all your progress!’—they
often told me that Jesse gave them an infusion of positivity and hope.
He was usually our last patient of the day, and we wanted to make sure
he got positive reinforcement for all he was doing to improve, but at
the same time, he gave us hope. We really believed in Jesse.”
Marianna Newsam, an occupational therapist with the Outpatient Rehabilitation
Department at Torrance Memorial, worked with Turner for four of the eight
months he did therapy there. She, too, was touched by his work ethic and
commitment to improve.
“Jesse’s will and determination have gotten him where he is
today,” Newsam says. “He is very positive and strong. If I
asked him to do something at home before his next visit, it would be done
when he came back. Turner didn’t wait around for things to get better;
he made them happen.”
Twice a week for an hour each visit, Turner worked with Newsam and other
therapists, concentrating on stretching, alignment and balance work. Stretching
in particular is critical in stroke rehab, as many post-stroke patients
can have involuntary muscle contractions, known as spasticity. Untreated,
spasticity can worsen and decrease muscle function even years after a stroke.
Balance therapy played an integral role in Turner’s occupational
rehabilitation. Newsam and the team worked with him on alignment and range-of-motion
exercises as well as reaction time and speed. Another form of balance
therapy, known as vestibular rehabilitation, is also practiced in Torrance
Memorial’s new Neuro Balance Center (see sidebar), though this treatment
was not necessary for Turner.
Prior to his discharge from Torrance Memorial’s outpatient rehabilitation
program, and as insurance coverage of the therapy expired, Newsam and
Dr. Hammer worked to ensure he would be able to continue rehab in his
home and in the community. Turner still practices speech and physical
therapy at home. Thanks to his therapists, he learned exercises he could
do there without spending money on fancy equipment.
And through extensive research, he learned of an Adaptive Physical Education
program at Los Angeles Harbor College. The class has equipment for people
with physical challenges, such as a treadmill with a harness system designed
to aid in helping patients walk again.
Today Turner uses bilateral forearm presses, or crutches, to help him walk.
Newsam says that Turner’s progress over the past four years is close
“You see cases where the amount of damage done to the brain is so
significant, you’d never expect the patient to be walking—you’d
assume they would be institutionalized. This is Jesse’s case. He
had massive brain damage, yet through the work of everybody—therapists,
medical professionals, Jesse himself and his caregiver, he made unbelievable
Newsam puts a special emphasis on Petersen as caregiver. “In my experience,
people with a good support system progress well,” she says. “Jesse
and Cathy are an excellent team. It made a huge difference in his recovery.”
The Caregiver's Miracle
By Turner’s side at every step, literally, Petersen prefers to shine
the spotlight on Turner’s healthcare team when giving credit for
the strides he’s made. “Doctors don’t like to use the
word ‘miracle,’” she says. “But I’ve heard
them call Jesse’s case a miracle. When we’ve been back and
seen some of the team who treated Jesse, they thank us for coming back,
saying they just don’t get to see that very often. He’s like
The two have been together since before his heart attack. They are both
appreciative of the humanity of the hospital team. Turner says, “When
I couldn’t speak or move, the nurses still talked to me like I was
there and an active participant, which helped me be more aware and feel
Petersen agrees, saying, “They were always considerate of Jesse’s
thoughts and emotions, and that can be tough when you’re dealing
with traumatic issues every day. The kindness and diligence of the team
made me feel comfortable that things were being handled properly. They
genuinely care for their patients.”
Turner admits that it’s tough to stay positive around the clock.
There are things he can’t do and might never do again, like playing
the guitar—a favorite hobby for 24 years—or throwing a ball
with teenage son Elijah.
But his motto is “Keep Moving,” a reminder to not stop. “If
I fall, I get back up. I figure if I don’t fall, I’m not trying
hard enough. So I keep trying. I keep moving forward.”
Turner has short-term and long-term goals. He’s taking computer classes
and is within a few units of earning an associate’s degree in math.
He wants to go back to work. He wants to walk on his own. Those are longer-term goals.
In the short term, he wants to take perhaps life’s most important
next step—marrying . “When we walk down the aisle,”
he adds, “I plan to do it with one cane.”
Cathy and Jesse are hopeful future Valentine’s Days are cause for
celebration and reminders of the power of perseverance, devotion, gratitude
For more information on Torrance Memorial's Certified Stroke Center
and other stroke-related resources, visit