Gunn sisters juggle academics with life at the VA | March 2, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 2, 2012

Gunn sisters juggle academics with life at the VA

On-site hospital residence for families enables them to stick with dad

by Chris Kenrick

When Amber and Julie Jacobson tell classmates at Gunn High School they live down the street at the VA Hospital, they're astounded that some say they've never heard of it.

"They know nothing about it," said Julie, a freshman, who recently tried to explain military life — and the concept of an Army PX store — to a friend who "just couldn't wrap her head around it."

Since last August, the Jacobson sisters have been living with their mother, Amy Jacobson, in Fisher House, an onsite residence for families of patients at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Health Care System.

Their dad, Sgt. Martin Jacobson, lives a stone's throw away in the hospital's Spinal Cord Injury Unit. A U.S. Army plumber, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down following a beach accident last July in Hawaii, just as he was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan.

The disastrous consequences of a dive into a sandbar upended the lives of the Jacobsons, who had spent the last two years on Army assignment in Korea.

They abruptly shifted gears, following Martin Jacobson from Hawaii — where they had planned to live while he was in Afghanistan — to the Palo Alto Spinal Cord Injury Unit.

"My dad's the same person he always was — he just can't move now," said Amber, 16, a sophomore at Gunn.

She and her sister stop to see their father each morning on their way to school. During the afternoons, they settle into his hospital room with their books and laptops, using the wide window ledge as a desk to do their homework.

Their older brother, Brandon Jacobson, 21, serves with the Army at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Amy Jacobson spends her days trying to support her husband, preparing some of his favorite foods — Filipino dishes, soup, roast beef sandwiches — in the spacious kitchen at Fisher House and carrying them across the street to hand-feed him.

Amber and Julie say their academic transition to Gunn has not been difficult.

"My school in Korea was challenging, so it isn't that different," Amber said.

Making friends was more of a challenge.

"People here grew up together. They know each other, and they're not used to moving around," 14-year-old Julie said. "They already have their own groups, and when you come in, you have to find your own friends."

She finally started feeling comfortable in November, when she got to know classmates better on field trips to Yosemite and Jasper Ridge.

Having just come from Korea, "We connect with the Korean kids (at Gunn) very easily," Amber said.

"I tell them what school I went to, and they know it."

Amber was surprised, upon joining the Model UN Club at Gunn, to find students she had known in Korea in the same organization.

"They probably moved here the same time I did," she said.

Still, it's tough to put down roots when they know their situation is temporary.

"I keep trying to do sports, but it's expensive, and I have to get signatures from my old school, and that's hard because it's in Korea," Amber said.

The family now anticipates a mid-March departure date for a new home at Travis Air Force Base, but little seems to be certain.

Martin Jacobson's room in the Spinal Cord Injury Unit is decorated with self-portraits by Julie, her drawing of Honolulu's Diamond Head as seen from Jacobson's room in the Intensive Care Unit of Tripler Army Medical Center, and other family memorabilia.

Jacobson, 46, is up and about in his wheelchair, after having been bedridden for months and gradually weaned from breathing assistance.

He can make phone calls, switch TV channels, send email and surf the Web using voice-recognition technology, a small, circular "mouse" stuck in the middle of his forehead and other technology.

"It's definitely a new lifestyle for me," Jacobson said.

"I've learned some freedom, but it's not a lot. After three months of lying in bed, I really started wondering what use I am, so that's probably my biggest challenge — being of use again."

Of his family, he said, "They've been through a lot.

"Amber does volunteer work here, and she's interacted with soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and talked to me about how she can see the difference.

"She seems to be thankful for what's left of me."

Since its opening six years ago, the 21 suites in Fisher House have provided temporary shelter to more than 3,000 families, according to Palo Alto VA spokeswoman Kerri Childress.

Many families come through with young children, and about 20 have had kids old enough to attend local schools, a Fisher House staff member said.

U.S. Secretary for Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki recently approved a second Fisher House for the Palo Alto VA campus, to be built through the fundraising efforts of the Fisher House Foundation and local volunteers.

Major donors for the first Fisher House were Palo Alto businessman John Arrillaga, Cadence Design, Inc., and local Rotary Clubs, Childress said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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