Lights, Camera, Action! The Bucket List of Jan Hartsell

By Connie Barnard

In the poignant popular film, The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson’s character, Edward Cole, gives this sardonic summation of life: “We live, we die, and the wheels on the bus go round and round.” Cole, a wealthy, miserable terminal cancer patient, echoes a universal, fleeting question, “Is that all there is?” With help of the elegant, wise, equally ill Carter Chambers (played by Morgan Freeman), Cole learns there is indeed much more to life if he is willing to risk failure, embarrassment and bodily harm to get there.

Southern Snaps: Jan Hartsell

For Myrtle Beach resident Jan Hartsell, this realization came as a triple-bang epiphany: two near-fatal car wrecks within two years, closely followed by the death of her mother. A native of Salisbury, N.C., Jan and her daughter moved to Myrtle Beach in 1991 via a job transfer with the Sara Lee Corporation. Here she married fellow North Carolinian, Larry Hartsell, and settled into a happy new life at the Beach, later taking a position with the Time Warner Company. Everything changed, however, on the night of November 12, 2000, when Jan and Larry were returning home from a Carolina Panthers game. In Lancaster, S.C., they were struck in a head-on collision which killed the elderly driver of the other car and required his wife to be air-lifted out. From a physical perspective, this wreck was harder on Larry who was hospitalized for almost a month with multiple fractures and pulmonary complications. Yet Jan was the one forced to give up her job due to a broken collarbone and right hand which made it impossible to make sales presentations vital to her work. In the midst of their recovery, back in Salisbury, Jan’s mother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and Jan literally left her own sick bed to help care for her terminally ill mother.

Larry eventually recovered sufficiently to return to work, Jan’s mother temporarily was able to care for herself again, and all was relatively calm until the night of July 22, 2002. Traveling on I-95 near Fayetteville, N.C., the Hartsells were rear-ended by a drunk driver, causing their Ford Explorer to roll three times before landing in the median. Larry was the lucky one this time, but Jan suffered a broken neck, the same C2 fracture which paralyzed and ultimately killed actor Christopher Reeve, sometimes referred to as a Hangman’s Fracture. Though perilously injured when her air bag did not deploy, Jan amazingly experienced no permanent paralysis, a miracle she attributes directly to the care she received at Fayetteville’s Cape Fear Hospital. By luck or Providence, the EMS crews who arrived at the accident scene were military medics from Fort Bragg moonlighting at the local civilian hospital. Their extensive trauma training and experience with combat casualties had taught them exactly how to move her without causing further damage. The skilled attending neurosurgeon also played a large role in her dramatic recovery, putting her first in a medically induced coma, then in spinal traction before moving her to the hospital’s rehabilitation center for extended therapy.

Jan Hartsell with a Hangman's Fracture

Today, looking back on it, Jan is convinced that other factors also played a role in her miraculous survival. She wonders if the unusually cool night and rainy weather conditions may have kept her brain from swelling. She also believes the prayers of hundreds contributed to her amazing lack of permanent damage. The recovery was long and laborious, nonetheless. A hospital bed was installed in her dining room, and friends moved in to help. For three months around the clock she wore a very large, unwieldy halo brace which was literally screwed into her skull, then a less cumbersome collar for an additional three months. Jan says, “Just as I will always have scars, so will my house! Every door frame has dents and dings from that awful brace.”

Perhaps, however, Jan’s emotional recovery was the most difficult part of the experience. She developed an understandable phobia about driving or even riding in a car, a fear exacerbated by required road trips back to her doctor in Fayetteville. Because both wrecks occurred at night, even today Jan does not like to travel after dark. Yet she realizes fully how fortunate she is to have survived relatively unscathed saying, “I feel so blessed and so grateful.”

Acutely aware of how fragile life is, this experience placed Jan at a “Bucket List” type crossroads in her life. She felt a sense of exhilaration that she had survived, coupled with a need to be daring, to try something she had never done before. She also needed to get away from being dependent on others, to be completely on her own for a while. To his great credit, Jan’s husband, Larry, understood this need and supported her in it. It came down to deciding exactly what she most wanted to do with this precious time she somehow had been granted.

I came away with a new awareness of how life can turn on a dime. Traumatic experiences can actually be blessings if from them we discover who we really are. If I have learned anything from all this, it is to do what you love and don’t wait for that ever elusive Someday.

Jan narrowed her list to two choices: Italy or New York. Both were exciting options, but over time she decided New York would fill the bill quite nicely. She had always loved the city, particularly its theaters, and instinctively knew she had drawn on creativity and acting skills when making presentations to large audiences during her sales career. In a daring “Well, Why Not!” moment, Jan applied to the famed Lee Strasburg Theater and Film Institute, known worldwide for its method acting approach. To her absolute amazement, she was accepted into the program.

In April 2006, armed with newfound courage and a small inheritance from her mother, Jan began her New York adventure. The city was just what she had hoped it would be: exciting, exhilarating, clean and safe – thanks to the efforts of former mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Jan loved walking the streets of Manhattan, exploring its many diverse neighborhoods where, she says, “You can find anything in the world, with the possible exception of pimento cheese.” She particularly enjoyed the abundance of live theater and between classes auditioned for acting spots, she says, “like everyone else in New York.”

Returning to Myrtle Beach in March of 2007, Jan decided to pursue regional acting opportunities. Fortunately, in recent years Wilmington (N.C.) has become a major film center, especially for small, independent films. Posting her resume on internet web sites such as “Casting in the Carolinas” and “Tar Heel Films,” she was selected for several supporting roles in locations such as Charleston and Atlanta. Then last December 16 while on a girls’ getaway in Charleston, Jan received a call that she had been chosen for a film set in New Bern, N.C., which would begin filming in less than a month. She received the script on January 7. Filming (without costly rehearsals) began on January 14, an experience Jan refers to as: “the best and worst thing I ever did.”

L-R: Greg Frucci, Peggy Droz, Catherine Trail., Jan Hartsell, Catherine Campbell, Dan Donovan

The film, titled Death, Taxes, and…Chocolate! is a dark comedy centered around six aging baby boomers with a mutual desire to control how they choose to, well, kick the bucket. The ensemble cast brings a zany mix of depth and humor with an unexpected twist, and Jan’s character “Sara Jane” adds a deep dish of Southern charm to the sweet and sour mix. Playwright Angela Levinson mortgaged her New Bern home to produce the film which was introduced at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently selected for multiple prizes at the New York International Independent Film Festival, including Best Original Screenplay and Best Comedy Feature. On September 22 she flew to New York for the presentations and accompanying festivities featuring a celebrity guest list which included Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Allen, as well the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, subjects of a prize-winning film by Deepak Chopra.

Jan doesn’t know if this exciting experience is the end of a chapter in her life or the beginning of a whole new one. She recently acquired an agent in Raleigh and is encouraged by new film opportunities in the Wilmington area. However, more than anything, she is proud and grateful for the turn her life has taken. Reflecting on her personal Bucket List experience, Jan says, “In a brief period of time, I faced my own mortality three times after two near-fatal car wrecks and my mother’s death. I came away with a new awareness of how life can turn on a dime. Traumatic experiences can actually be blessings if from them we discover who we really are. If I have learned anything from all this, it is to do what you love and don’t wait for that ever elusive Someday.”

For more information on the film, go to

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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