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Saved By The Woman Who Can Read Lips

Courtesy of Jessica Sklar
Jessica Sklar and Consuelo Gonzalez. When Jessica lost her voice due to being on a ventilator, Consuelo helped her communicate. Consuelo is deaf, but she is a skilled, professional lip reader.

Updated: 11:10 p.m. PST - December 11, 2016. You can now read a full transcript of this story by clicking here.

Sometimes when we are in our darkest hour, something completely unexpected happens that can give us a little bit of hope and comfort.


For Jessica Sklar, this came in the form of a woman who is called to help people by sharing an unusual skill. She entered Jessica’s life when Jessica was in an incredibly fragile state.


In 2012, Jessica was a healthy 38-year-old woman. But on the morning of September 15, she woke up and something was not right.


“My eyesight was very compromised. Basically what was happening was my eye muscles were becoming paralyzed,” says Jessica.


Jessica thought she had a stroke. She called 9-1-1, and went to the hospital. There, in the MRI, she started to have trouble breathing. At first, the technicians chalked it up to anxiety — lots of people get scared in these machines. But, just to be safe, they brought in the necessary equipment to insert a breathing tube if things got really bad.


“At that point, my breathing just stopped completely,  My lungs became sort of paralyzed. But I was able to breathe out and I said, ‘I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe; do it now; do it now; do it now.’  They sedated me, intubated me and I woke up paralyzed."


It took nine days for doctors to zero in on what was causing this paralysis. After various tests, it was determined that Jessica was frozen because she had been poisoned by botulism. She ate something bad.


Jessica says,“I believe it the most toxic substance known. So a very tiny amount can really do you in.”


Jessica’s recovery was going to take months. She moved into a long-term care facility. A ventilator supplied her lungs with oxygen. She had no voice. The only parts of her body she could move were a few toes on her left foot. She insisted on tapping out complete sentences. The process of getting her thoughts out took so long she’d sometime fall asleep.


After weeks in this state, Jessica was able to move her lips. Staff noticed this and introduced Jessica to Consuelo Gonzalez, a professional lip reader. Consuelo can understand what people are saying by the shape their lips make. She can also understand how frustrating it is to not be able to communicate. Consuelo has been profoundly deaf since the age of 8.


“I know intuitively how frustrating and sometimes isolating it can be for the patients if the can’t communicate.  Now, they’re on the other side, they can hear everything that's going on, but they can't communicate, and I can’t hear anything that’s going on but I can communicate. So, you put us together and it makes it work.”


For a few hours each week, Jessica gave her toes a rest and was able to have long conversations with Consuelo, diving into the ocean of words she dearly missed.


Through Consuelo, Jessica asked the doctors and nurses questions about her care she had long wanted answers to. Jessica also talked to Consuelo about the vivid dreams she was confusing with with reality.


“One of the interesting things was, in her hallucinations, she was arguing with the nurse and they were having a back and forth conversation; and I said, ‘Jessica, I don’t think that could have happened because you don’t have a voice.’”


“I told Consuelo we were dead,” says Jessica recalling some of the vivid hallucinations she had. “I told her we were in Texas. I told her I didn’t have any legs.”


Every time this happened, Consuelo gently brought Jessica back to reality.


Because Jessica was on so many different medications, she’d forget what the staff had told her, even about aspects of her care that were repeated multiple times.


There was one thing that terrified her. She said staff would come in, wake her up and cut her off from her oxygen. Then, they’d ask her to do what seemed impossible: take a deep breath.


“And I’d be like, ‘I don’t understand; there is no oxygen to breath,’" remembers Jessica. "How can I breath when you’ve disconnected my breathing apparatus?”


The medical team wasn’t trying to kill Jessica. This was a routine test to see if she was ready to be weaned off of the ventilator. Once the confusion was cleared, the test was only conducted when Consuelo could be present and be the conduit between Jessica and the staff.


There are other ways for Consuelo to earn a living reading lips, but she says explaining to a vulnerable person what’s happening to them in a hospital and helping them separate horrible dreams from reality is the most rewarding way she can use her unique skill.


“You know, there are people who are always trying to figure out, 'What’s that celebrity on YouTube saying?' And they wanna go, 'Could you watch this video and tell us what that celebrity’s saying?' And I will if they hire me," says Consuelo. "But that is not very interesting to me. But what is really wonderful is being able to use this skill to create healing and to create communication between human beings. That’s what feels good. That’s what’s the best: Love.”


After four and a half months in the hospital, Jessica was eventually taken off the ventilator. Consuelo was there, holding Jessica’s hand when Jessica finally passed the test.


Being bound to a bed for so long made Jessica incredibly weak. She could touch her smartphone's screen, but she didn’t have the strength to press it hard enough to send a text or make a call. She had to learn how to walk again, how to eat, how to talk. A small scar above her clavicle is a permanent reminder of what she went through.


Jessica eventually went back to work as a math professor. After her experience she wrote a new living will. One thing she added is that if she ever becomes incapacitated like this again, she is never to be left alone.


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.