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The long journey back from traumatic brain injury

Geraldine "Gerry" Sterns never imagined a slip and fall on an icy parking lot could lead to a life-changing brain injury.

It happened Feb. 23, 2014.

"I reached out to grab the door handle of the car and next thing I knew I was on my back on the ground," says the 71-year-old from Fergus Falls. "From then on, I don't remember anything until two days later."

Gerry's husband, Matthew, filled her in on what happened next. Immediately after the fall, he drove her to Lake Region Healthcare. She had a broken left wrist, but the more serious issue was a traumatic brain injury (TBI). That night she began a new chapter of her life: a 21-day stay at Lake Region's Acute Rehab Unit.  

Established in 2001, Acute Rehab is the only program in the lakes area certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. The certification is based on proven results and quality. 

Specialized team meets wide-ranging needs

TBI disrupts normal brain functioning and can cause wide-ranging physical, mental and emotional effects. Gerry recalls how early in her hospital stay she struggled with seemingly easy activities like walking, eating and remembering things from one moment to the next.

"I was in a fog and so weak," she says. "And I'm pretty sure I wasn't that easy to get along with.  I kept wanting to do things myself, but it wasn't safe. Those were rough times, but the nurses and everybody at Lake Region were excellent. So patient and willing to help."

Based on exams, scans and assessments, the Acute Rehab team developed an individualized plan for Gerry. The goal: To restore her independent, full life as quickly as possible. The plan included intensive and frequent physical, occupational and speech therapies.

"I couldn't always do what was on the plan because of my brain, but they always made sure I did what I could. They knew just how much to push," says Gerry. "Without that push, I don't think I would've made as much progress as I did."

Physical therapists worked on muscle stretching, leg strengthening and balance. Speech therapists worked to improve memory and thinking. Occupational therapists worked on daily living skills such as self-care and cooking.   

"I'm told I even made a key lime pie for the staff when I was there, but I don't remember it," she says, laughing. The unit includes a full apartment and mini-mall to help patients prepare for real life.

Families of patients play a key role in rehab, too.  "Matthew spent a lot of time at the hospital and I appreciated it," she says. "He'd read me the menus and help me think through what I wanted. I had so much trouble focusing and making decisions."

A safe transition home 

Gerry showed significant improvement in every area, paving the way for a return home. But first, the social worker from Acute Rehab arranged for staff to visit the Sterns' home to ensure safety and determine the need for assistive devices. "They thought of everything," says Gerry.

For the next several months, outpatient therapy continued.  By fall of 2014, thanks to continued improvement and a strong determination, Gerry was able to resume driving and return to her job at Walmart.

"I really enjoy working, especially the people part," she says."We tease each other and get along great. I'm not sure I'll ever be ready for retirement."

Healing continues

Though Gerry may look fully recovered, she still deals with TBI-related issues including severe headaches and sensitivity to bright lights and big crowds. She sees a neurologist in Fargo for specialized headache treatments and continues to see her team at Lake Region for follow-up.

"Getting back to 100 percent can take a long time. Hopefully I'll get there," she says. "I'm just thankful to everybody who's helped me get this far." Even Tinkerbell, her pint-sized therapy dog, has lent a paw to her recovery.

Today Gerry looks forward to an upcoming summer celebration. "Matthew and I will be married 50 years on June 29th," she says, a catch in her voice. "I don't know how I would've gotten through this without him. He took wonderful care of me." 

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