It was May 24, 1998, a week before Jaffer Odeh was to graduate from Stockbridge High School. He was driving home from Jackson after working at his parents’ restaurant, Steve’s Ranch, and fell asleep at the wheel.
Odeh’s vehicle struck a tree en route to Stockbridge and he broke his neck, suffering a spinal-cord injury. Now he spends most of his time in a wheelchair, though he is able to stand and walk short distances.
“I was up and running around as an athlete. All of a sudden, things changed drastically,” said Odeh, 26.
Still, it didn’t keep Odeh from attending college and medical school.
Then came December 2006. Odeh was driving to a medical residency interview in Chicago when he hit a patch of black ice on I-94 in western Michigan.
He had fractured his Vertebrae and injured another area, but did not suffer further spinal-cord injury.
“Everyone said, ‘How unlucky you are for this to happen to you twice,’ but I looked at it differently,” he said. “I’m very lucky and very thankful for what I’ve got. You never know when it’s going to change.”
Friday, he graduated from the University of Michigan medical school.
“I vowed to not let it deter me from my future goals, and I don’t think I let it do that,” Odeh said. “I think I’ve stayed true to myself and did what I needed to do.”
These near-death experiences inspired him to pursue a career in anesthesiology, the process in which a patient is made unconscious before surgery.
“You don’t have much time with your patients, but when you do, it’s very important,” Odeh said. “You have a chance to comfort them and calm them down a little bit.”
Odeh needed that same comfort after his first accident.
After that accident, Odeh went through four months of inpatient care and physical and Occupational Therapy every day.
Doctors urged him to postpone college, but Odeh began that fall.
“I didn’t listen because I’m stubborn,” Odeh said with a laugh. “I was home for two days before college. I literally went from hospital to college.”
However, he often had to get help from friends to push him in his wheelchair to class.
Now he laughs at that memory and looks at people strangely when they ask him if he needs help.
“I got stronger and more involved in life,” he said.
Odeh said he never thought he would get into another accident, let alone break his neck again.
While he was recovering, he had to wear a halo for six weeks.
“You can’t move your head at all,” he said. “Sleeping was miserable.”
Both accidents taught him a lot about how to deal with adversity.
Odeh’s mother, Fay Odeh, said she felt crushed after her son got into the accidents.
“I never thought he would make it through medical school,” she said.
“He made it by his determination and strength. Somehow he overcame all these difficulties.”
Fay has learned from her son to take one day at a time and have a good attitude about life.
“He’s going to benefit a lot of people,” she said. “He’s very loving. He believes everything has value.”
Odeh will perform his residency in anesthesiology at the Cleveland Clinic.
“You want something that’s going to be exciting and challenging,” he said of his career choice. “But at the same time, it will give me enough time to have a family and have a life.”
He said anesthesiology will give him a chance to work in a fun but challenging Environment, and interact with many different people.
During his first year of residency, Odeh will rotate through general fields of medicine, including surgery, diseases and emergency medicine.
Then he will study different aspects of anesthesiology, including pain management and operative care, for the next three years.
He also wants to make time for the important things in his life outside of his residency.
He will be moving to Cleveland with his girlfriend, Lindsey Daniel, whom he met about two years ago while singing karaoke at a bar in Ann Arbor.
“He’s one of the most outgoing people you will ever meet,” Daniel said. “He strikes up a conversation with anyone.”
Daniel said she is proud of her boyfriend’s accomplishments.
“He’s worked hard for this,” Daniel said. “He is never discouraged, he never complains. He has everything going for him in life.”
Family is important
Odeh has four sisters and three brothers, and is the second youngest in the family.
“I have a very close relationship with all of my siblings,” he said.
However, he said he is closest to his sister, Rudina, who has been like a second mother to him.
“When I got hurt in the first accident, she was there for me throughout it all,” he said. “She went through it all. Therapy, nightmares ! we went through so much together.”
Fay Odeh said Jaffer has wanted to be a doctor since he was 4 years old, and she feels wonderful about him graduating from medical school.
“It’s just a good feeling,” she said. “It’s the best thing that could have happened.”
Jaffer Odeh’s father, Mustafa, was happy when his son entered the University of Michigan medical school in August 2003. He died from lung cancer in August 2004.
“I wish he was here to see me graduate,” Odeh said. “But I know he’s there with me. He’ll be watching from up above.”
By Tarryl Jackson