By E.J. Crawford
There was every indication that Jack Palmen would follow in the footsteps of his older siblings, all of whom were star tennis players at Branford High School in Kenosha, Wis. Palmen was promoted to the varsity squad in his first year on the team and, in the words of assistant coach Don McNeil, "By the end of his freshman season we could see Jack was going to be a vital part of our team in the years to follow."
But Palmen’s life changed inalterably that summer. The 15-year-old became violently ill while swimming at a friend’s house and was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Milwaukee, where he was diagnosed with AVM, a condition that causes swelling and bleeding in the brain and is similar in many ways to a brain aneurysm or a stroke. Over the ensuing weeks, Palmen’s condition worsened. He lapsed into a coma and had to have parts of his skull removed to relieve the swelling in his brain.
"We got the call and immediately went to the emergency room with him, and within an hour he was fighting for his life," Jack’s mother Jane Palmen told Fox 6 News in Milwaukee, adding that the doctors had prepared the Palmen family for the worst. "They told me there was a good chance he wasn’t going to make it. They warned me that sometimes it’s a decision between saving a life and letting a life go—and sometimes it’s more merciful to let the life go."
What his family calls a miracle came nearly two months after Palmen fell into the coma. He awoke. The promise of a life revived, however, was tempered by the extent of the damage. The right side of Palmen’s body was paralyzed, and he had to relearn how to speak and walk, enduring extensive rehab at a facility in Chicago.
Palmen recovered to return to high school for the third quarter of his sophomore year, exhibiting steady improvement from month to month, and shortly before the start of his junior year, Palmen made a surprising revelation to his family—he wanted to give tennis another shot. A natural right-hander, he taught himself to play left-handed and, despite his limited movement, tried out for the Branford High team once again. "Through the whole recovery, you could tell the fight for life was still there," said Palmen’s father, Andy.
Jack played on the junior varsity that year, primarily in exhibition matches, and was promoted to varsity as a senior, serving as a substitute doubles player and a full-time inspiration.
"Here was a young kid who could have been a great player like the rest of his family, and he never complained once," says McNeil. "He had such a positive attitude in everything he did. It was all for the love of the game—it wasn’t about winning. He knew he had limited skills but he just wanted to play. If you ask him if he has a disability, he’ll say, ‘No, it’s a minor setback.’ It’s just truly incredible. The doctors never thought he’d be able to get out of a wheelchair, much less play tennis."
In June, Palmen graduated alongside his class. He was honored at the athletic awards ceremony and was featured in the valedictory address. He began attending Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., in the fall.
"It’s hard ever to be down when you’ve got someone like Jack in your life," says Jane Palmen. "He’s truly been an inspiration to us all."
"I basically wanted to get back everything I had before," Jack told Fox 6. "I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but I wanted to accomplish more. I say live your life—live it to the fullest."