OCEANSIDE — In many respects, she should not be leading her program, perhaps even be alive.
But even a stroke couldn’t stop Dr. Jessica Poumele from getting back to her duties as principal of the independent study program within the Oceanside Unified School District.
On Dec. 10, 2017, Poumele was getting her nails done when an artery in her neck ruptured. She was rushed to the hospital and into surgery, which left her without the ability to speak and confined to the intensive care unit for a week.
The news hit her family hard, especially her five kids ranging from 6 years old to 20. Poumele and her family suffered heartbreak in June 2016 when her husband, Pulu, suddenly died from a heart attack, and her stroke was another tragic family event.
“It was hell,” she said of the impact on her children,” because I was in the hospital for three weeks. My husband has a lot of family and they were around the house. I was supposed to go Iceland. If it would happened when I was flying, I would’ve died.”
Still, she said the support of her kids, friends and family was a blessing as she recovered from her near-death experience. Her oldest son, P.J., 20, withdrew from San Diego State University for the spring semester to take on the matriarch role and led the family through the trying times. He will return for the fall semester.
“He was good,” Jessica Poumele said of P.J. “He would come every day and see me. My kids are really tight.”
The first few weeks were touch and go, she said. Independent Study teacher Shawn Pederson said she and the staff were floored upon hearing the news.
Early indications were Poumele had a 50/50 chance of survival. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five women will have a stroke and nearly 60 percent of stroke deaths occur with women.
“We were praying and calling,” Pederson said. “Thinking we possibly weren’t going to have her come back … was devastating for the staff.”
Soon enough, though, she was released from the hospital and itching to speak, work out and, more importantly, get back to her staff and students.
Amazingly, though, regained her voice in February and on March 7, nearly three months to the day, she walked through the doors to her office to report for work. Her bulldog-like determination rebuffed concerns from her friends, teachers and district administration. For Poumele, she was lucid, speaking, healthy and saw no reason she shouldn’t return to school.
Looking back, though, Poumele is unabashedly humble about her stroke and recovery. Many suffer permanent damage or even death, yet she just saw it as a small hurdle.
“I was fine,” she said about returning to work. “I was not going to lie down and give in.”
She does have a speech therapist, but didn’t need physical or occupational therapy. Poumele said being back at work, conversing with staff and students has been the best form of speech therapy.
She still slurs some words, but one student didn’t even realize she suffered the stroke. Poumele said her doctor told her she will regain her full speech in about one year.
Regardless, she is back at work, keeping her fashion game on point (she has more than 100 pairs of glasses to match her outfits), working out and is focused on the independent study program.
Pederson said Poumele’s drive, passion and leadership has shifted the tide within the program and the district. Pederson also said Poumele’s drive at the four campuses has lifted spirits and brought a new direction.
“Jessica, from the moment she has walked in the door, has changed the vibe here,” Pederson said. “Everybody can do the talking about the program, but very few people have been willing to get down into the mud and dirt. She gets up and talks to the kids and goes to their houses.”