Wuertz glad to be home after 7 weeks in hospital

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/2/99.

If watching your child learn to walk and talk is memorable the first time, consider how precious these skills would seem if suddenly he or she had to relearn them. Most newborns are expected to say “mama” eventually and to take their first step someday, but after being in a coma, on the brink of death, the recovery of 16-year-old Jaime Wuertz is miraculous.

Seven weeks ago, Jaime was in the intensive care unit at the St. Cloud Hospital, fighting for her life after a car accident left her in a coma. Now she’s trying to rebuild her life and relearn all the skills that most of us take for granted everyday: like walking, talking, speaking, seeing, and many other seemingly “ordinary” tasks.

“People just don’t normally think about it. They just do it naturally,” explained Jaime’s mother, Lori. “Jaime has to relearn it all.”

So much has happened in the last 50 days of her young life. Her mother is glad she kept a journal, recording hospital visitors and “firsts” like squeezing hands and wiggling toes. In the beginning, the doctors told Gene and Lori, Jaime’s parents, that they would have to wait and see about permanent brain damage. For every traumatic brain injury, the patient responds differently the doctors said, and recovery could be slow or fast or not at all.

Jaime’s recovery has gradually accelerated and in the past two weeks she has made rapid progress. Jaime started walking with a walker and now can get around just with a cane. She does use a wheelchair still, largely due to fatigue. She was talking in just whispers or only saying “yes” and “no” until a week ago when she started engaging in conversations.

Lori said the doctors and the intensive-care nurses were all surprised at Jaime’s progress. For instance, after the injury to the right-side of her brain, the doctors feared she might lose the use of her left eye, but it has vision, though occasionally double. They hope new glasses can correct the problem.

On Friday, Jaime left the hospital after being discharged, and she returned to her home near Lake Henry. “It’s nice,” said Lori. “She’s enjoying it a lot.”

“It’s nice for me to sleep in my own bed,” Jaime said. “It feels good to be home.”

When Jaime left home on the afternoon of Dec. 16 for basketball practice at Paynesville Area High School, she had no idea it would take her seven weeks to get home. On the way to town, her car slid through a stop sign and was broadsided by an oncoming car on Highway 4.

“The accident she doesn’t remember at all,” said Lori. She also doesn’t remember much about the first month she spent in the hospital either. According to Lori, she always recognized relatives and friends who visited, but she couldn’t remember some of the visits afterwards.

Short-term memory loss is now the main concern for Jaime’s long-term prognosis, remembering to eat breakfast and to brush your teeth. She is taking medication to help her memory.

Lori said her doctors are anticipating at least a 90 percent recovery, which is a long ways from the wait-and-see approach offered six weeks ago. “They didn’t give much hope at first,” said Lori.

“All I can say is she’s doing better than the doctors expected,” said Jaime’s friend and basketball teammate Steph Krupke. “If she keeps it up, she’s going to have almost a full recovery.”

Jaime will be attending therapy sessions every morning at the St. Cloud Hospital. She takes physical, speech, and occupational therapy. It will be at least a year until the permanent effects are known. As long as she shows improvement, and as long as insurance allows, Jaime will be taking therapy, which will be adjusted on a month-to-month basis.

Anyone who knows Jaime knows she will be working hard at it. “She’s got the will power,” her mother explained. “She’s young and she’s in good physical shape, so that’s a plus.”

“She’s always been a fighter,” added Krupke, “so I knew she’d come around.”
She’s already set some goals.

Physically, she wants to play basketball again, hopefully next year for the high school team. “That’s one goal she’s going to set for herself, and one goal we’re going to help her meet,” said Lori. As a sophomore this year, Jaime started at the forward position for the Bulldogs before her accident.

“No one will work harder than her to get back,” said Cameron Mahlum, her varsity basketball coach. In 10 years of coaching, he described Jaime as having the best work ethic he has ever coached.

She has attended several varsity girls basketball games in the past couple weeks. At first, her mother was nervous that it would depress her to see what she was missing, but it hasn’t. “She knows she can’t (play now),” Lori explained, “but she knows she will (play again).” On Saturday, she joined the team in the locker room and sat on the bench during the game against Eden Valley-Watkins and enjoyed being part of the team.

She will be dressing for Parent’s Night on Monday, Feb. 8. “It’s a step toward normalcy,” said Mahlum. “She’s a part of everything except on the court. And we’ll get that back.”

Jaime’s presence gives her teammates an emotional lift, evidenced by euphoric shouts at spotting her in the gymnasium. “When we see her there, it’s a reason to play our best,” said Krupke, also a sophomore starter for the Bulldogs. “We try to win for her.”

She wants to improve her speech enough to be able to return to school. Lori thought that might happen in April at the earliest and that she would probably have in-home tutoring before she returned.

Occupational therapy covers a wide-range of fine-motor tasks: baking cakes to see if she can follow directions or throwing a ball to judge her hand-eye coordination. Sometimes this goes so well it can be boring, but you don’t know what skill might give her trouble. “The only way she’s going to find that out is she’s got to do it all again,” said Lori.

Support of friends and family have been crucial to Jaime’s recovery. Recently Jaime read all the cards she received while in the hospital. She appreciated the concern from people.

“I’d like to thank all my friends and my relatives,” said Jaime.

“Her friends have been great,” agreed Lori. “I think that helps her the most. She’s going to need it for awhile.”

Which is fine by them, according to Krupke. “You can just tell she’s glad to be home. She starts talking and it’s just like old times. It means a lot to me that she’s back that far.”

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