Ginny Theisen of West Bend and her husband, John Theisen, were camping on an island in the Turtle Flambeau Flowage near Mercer, Wis., in July, 2010, when a tornado struck, uprooting and hurling trees across the island. With no place to go and no shelter, they took cover in their tent, which was no match for a tree that fell on it. The tree landed on Ginny, pinning her to the ground.
“I knew it was bad right away, and when I began having trouble breathing, I didn't expect to live,” Ginny said. Her husband found a hatchet and was able to get the tree off of her, and he found his cell phone in their sunken boat in a plastic bag. After 4 tries, he was able to reach a 911 operator and they waited until EMTs arrived by boat to rescue them. Ginny’s injuries were critical and she was rushed to a local hospital with two breaks in her lower back, internal injuries, a broken leg and damaged ankles. Local doctors were able to perform her spinal surgery and take care of her immediate trauma needs, but they were not able to heal her pilon leg fracture because she had multiple breaks and soft tissue damage that was challenging to repair. That’s when Ginny and her husband agreed she should transfer to Froedtert Hospital under the care of an old friend, Gregory J. Schmeling, MD, FAAOS, FACS.
“A lifetime ago, I had gone to grade school and high school with Dr. Gregory Schmeling, an orthopedic surgeon at Froedtert. Although I hadn't seen him since we were kids, I remembered the boy who was so good at math and science and could hit a mean line drive in softball. I knew he had an expert reputation in his field,” Ginny said. Dr. Schmeling performed Ginny’s surgery and was able to save her leg.
Ginny remained in the Froedtert & MCW Spinal Cord Injury Center, one of the only centers in Wisconsin with CARF accreditation, for the duration of her initial stay, which lasted until the end of September.
“I knew very little about my condition when I arrived. Life was such a confusing mess and the prospect of recovering from something so traumatic was daunting,” she said. “I didn't feel human at the time and I couldn't even contemplate my future. Fortunately, I didn't have to go it alone. The staff in the SCI unit were so kind and caring, both for my physical and emotional needs.” Ginny spent five weeks in recovery and then started inpatient rehabilitation learning to sit, kneel and stand on one leg. Many days were difficult.
“I've never worked so hard before or since. Blessings were constantly there, though, in the skills of the rehab staff. My Occupational Therapist, Toni Gillette, was a combination of skill, tough love and compassion. There was no messing around with her. If she said you were going to wash your own hair, well, that's what you were going to do … Even though there were days when I looked at her through gritted teeth, I knew I had the best of the best advice and guidance,” Ginny said. Initially, Ginny was unable to sit up on her own, but she remembers the first time she stood with Toni’s help.
“She looked at me and said, “‘You can do this,’” and it provided the initial spark that I needed,” Ginny said.
When it was time for her to go home, her care team determined that since one of her ankles wasn’t healing properly, she would need a complex reconstruction procedure called flap surgery. Plastic surgeon John A. LoGiudice, MD, was in charge of her care and helped Ginny think of her recovery process differently.
“I felt like I was going backward and was devastated to be going through such a setback with tricky surgery that doesn't always succeed. It was Dr. LoGuidice who showed me reality,” she said. “I clearly remember him telling me one day, “‘You can't think of your recovery in terms of days or weeks. You have to think of it in terms of months and even years.’” I cried in his office that day. But that statement was what I needed to understand what lay ahead, to prepare myself for it and to build up my determination and patience to go the distance. The surgery was a success and, once again, I felt I had the best of the best.”
Traveling between West Bend and Froedtert Hospital for frequent therapy sessions became difficult for Ginny, especially in the winter months. She began physical therapy in her community with Laurie Prestby, PT, at the West Bend Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Center.
“At first, I doubted that a PT in our small community would stack up to the specialized skills in the SCI rehab unit at the hospital. Laurie's skills corrected that assumption immediately. I had the good fortune to work with Laurie for several years, from the time I was still in a wheelchair until I was fully capable of walking with the assistance of hiking poles. Laurie guided me through the process of recovery, of regaining flexibility, of building strength, using small steps and very creative means. I've been able to continue my own therapy using techniques she taught me, and I continue to make progress. In Laurie, I had the best of the best,” Ginny said.
“Today, I still bear the scars of my injury and still do not have normal strength or balance; however, the things I can do far outweigh the things I can't do,” Ginny said. She enjoys kayaking, hiking, doing yoga, and gardening and works in a very demanding job as an IT project manager. She is able to drive, take care of her family, and shop. She volunteers as a peer mentor for the Spinal Cord Injury unit and in support group meetings. Ginny encourages others in similar situations about what they can accomplish.
“I have an appreciation for life. There is no such thing as a bad day. I have learned the lessons of patience and endurance. I know what it's like to go through hardship, and I understand when others face similar challenges,” she said. “I live my life as a positive person, taking nothing for granted and being grateful for everything. God gave me the gift of life on that day of the tornado. He also gave me the means to survive and recover in the skilled caregivers I had, each step of the way. I have been so fortunate that those means have included the fine staff at Froedtert and all they have done for me. I had the best of the best and will be forever grateful for that.”