On Nov. 15, 2015, Anna Horejs, then 17, was driving the family minivan home from a weekend visit with friends at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, where she planned to start college the next fall. The Wauwatosa East High School student was roughly 30 minutes into her trip when she was struck head-on by an elderly man driving the wrong way on Highway 10 in Waupaca County.
The crash killed the 86-year-old driver and left Anna with serious injuries, including a ruptured diaphragm and collapsed lung. Her left femur was broken in three places; her pelvis was shattered; and her sacrum, left hip, right wrist and right radius and ulna were all fractured. Emergency personnel worked for 45 minutes to free her from the crumpled minivan and flew her by helicopter to a hospital in Neenah. After a seven-hour surgery, she spent eight days in intensive care, returning to the operating room for two more surgeries that week. She then moved to the recovery area, where she spent five and a half more weeks.
The Return Home
While Anna worked on healing, her parents, Chris and Bill, developed a plan to bring their daughter home to Milwaukee and ensure she would get the best possible care. Given the complexity of Anna’s injuries, an orthopaedic surgeon they knew recommended she see Gregory Schmeling, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Froedtert Hospital and MCW faculty.
Still frail, Anna traveled by ambulance from Neenah to her family’s home in Wauwatosa where her parents and brother had set up a hospital bed in their dining room. Within days of her homecoming, Anna had her first appointment with Dr. Schmeling.
“My role at that point was to assume Anna’s postoperative care, look at managing her progress through physical therapy and assess her healing,” Dr. Schmeling said.
He ordered new X-rays to evaluate her injuries and confirm they were healing well. Anna and her parents found Dr. Schmeling’s direct, businesslike manner reassuring. They also were wowed by the attentive, responsive care provided by his team, including physician assistant Tiffany Maurer and registered nurse Noelle Wilkes.
Graduating to New Goals
In January 2016, Anna began physical therapy with Sara Ziegele at the Froedtert & MCW Sports Medicine Center.
“When I first met Anna, she was in a wheelchair, non-weightbearing and just beginning her recovery,” Ziegele said. She asked Anna about her goals, a question she poses to all new patients. Anna didn’t hesitate. An Advanced Placement student with many credits, she was on track to graduate from high school in June. She wanted to walk across the stage with her fellow graduates.
“I thought, ‘OK, we’ll figure out a way to make that happen,’” Ziegele said. “It was a stretch, but it wasn’t impossible.” Through her physical therapy sessions, Anna gradually moved from the wheelchair to a walker and then from a walker to crutches.
“Sara would push me to where I was still comfortable and then push me past it just a little bit,” Anna said.
Graduation day was like something from a movie. On stage, Anna threw aside her crutches and walked over to receive her diploma, all while classmates gave her a standing ovation.
Her progress continued that summer. The fractures in Anna’s pelvis and sacrum had damaged nerves in her left leg, causing that foot to drag and her Achilles tendon to shorten dramatically. Dr. Schmeling and then-resident Jill Martin, MD, now an orthopaedic surgeon at Froedtert Hospital and MCW faculty member, performed surgery to lengthen the tendon.
“It was literally life-changing because it made walking so much easier,” Anna said.
She continued her diligent physical therapy work and by August was strong enough to begin her freshman year at UW–Stevens Point. After a challenging year, she decided to continue her studies at UW–Milwaukee where she would have the benefit of family support. Anna is majoring in information technology and minoring in health care.
Moving Past Pain
Last year, Anna struggled with back pain, and Dr. Schmeling referred her to his colleague Brandon Rebholz, MD, MCW faculty member and orthopaedic surgeon with expertise in spinal surgery. Dr. Rebholz concluded that Anna needed another round of physical therapy with Ziegele. This time they focused on strengthening her core muscles, hip muscles and glutes to stabilize her spine. Within a matter of months, Anna’s pain dwindled to a level 2 out of 10. Ziegele admires Anna’s progress and determination.
“Every time she came here, Anna was ready to work,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to all the people around her.”
Anna is appreciative of her experiences in the Froedtert & MCW health network. “Everyone there is so amazing,” she said. “They take care of you to the highest standards.”