Jacqueline McMillan finds healing in wood-carving after losing limbs to sepsis

Reckon Women partnered with seven women-owned small businesses and creators whose stories illustrate the grit, innovation and creativity we admire, and together we curated holiday gift boxes for our readers to purchase. Click here to support these women creators with your purchase.

Jacqueline McMillan likes to watch customers browse in front of her booth at craft shows and art fairs, turning each delicate wooden flower over in their hands as they admire the craftsmanship.

They don’t notice her prosthetic legs at first, or the tools she wears on her wrists where they might expect her hands would be. 

When she raises her arms to greet them, they also don’t typically assume the carved, wooden flora she’s selling are each made by her.

The tagline for McMillan’s business, Love by JM,  “hands free and made with love” describes not only her process but her outlook on life. Her story is a harrowing one, but her success story is also one of inspiration and positivity.

McMillan grew up mostly in Oklahoma, but moved all around because her dad was in the military. She learned to make friends quickly and effortlessly, due in part because of her bubbly personality and infectious positivity. She married young and moved to California, often working two jobs as a restaurant manager by day and bartender by night. McMillan was separated and living with roommates at 35 in 2009 when she began to feel sick. 

“One day I just couldn’t get up,” McMillan said. “I actually had to get somebody to cover my shift, which is unheard of in my life. Just knowing I felt that bad, I was like, ‘Something’s wrong.’”

She doesn’t remember much after that, only that she woke up surrounded by her family telling her she no longer has legs or hands. 

McMillan had developed sepsis from an internal infection. It infiltrated her bloodstream and began shutting down blood flow to her limbs. While she was unconscious, her parents agreed to let doctors remove the blackened limbs to increase her chances of survival. She spent six months in the hospital recovering. 

Afterward, McMillan was forced to quit her job. She moved in with her sister back in Oklahoma to relearn how to take care of herself. During that difficult time, she met her husband online, and together they moved to Mobile, Ala.

But stuck in her new home with limited mobility, McMillan wasn’t fulfilled. In 2017, while watching the entrepreneurial reality TV show, “Shark Tank,” McMillan saw a woman selling wooden flowers as an alternative to traditional wedding bouquets to keep as a memento. McMillan ended up purchasing one of the wooden flower bouquets for her own wedding, and found herself intrigued by the craft of how it was made.

“It was a nice bouquet but I was like, ‘I think could do it better,’” McMillan said.

McMillan taught herself the intricate craft of carving flowers by watching women, often with disabilities like herself, in YouTube videos as they manipulated the soft balsa-like wood. The women would dampen the sheets of wood with water and gently mold them into petals and leaves. McMillan’s husband helped her modify a velcro strap he took from a drone battery to hold craft tools strapped to her arm.

Since 2018, McMillan has created wooden flower bouquets for 14 brides. She also loves experimenting with different flower and plant species to take to craft shows and art fairs. This year, because of COVID-19, McMillan has only been able to participate in one art festival, the Daphne Jubilee.  

She hopes to open a stand-alone shop for her business. She dreams of a studio with a long table where she can host craft nights. She said working with flowers can be therapeutic for others with disabilities. 

In the years since her sepsis diagnosis, McMillan has faced more health problems. She’s had her ovaries removed, a hip replacement and a hernia, but her positive spirit has not wavered. 

“Life is funny at times, and you just kind of roll with the punches,” McMillan said. “I’m very determined to make my life happy and fulfilled.”

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.