Cody Pappenfus will be joining his classmates, in cap and gown, Friday, June 4, as they walk on stage, one by one, to receive their high school diplomas. 

Family, friends and fellow classmates will be there to celebrate, grateful they are able to do so. It is a celebration that almost did not happen for Pappenfus when a car crash in March nearly took his life.

“They (medical staff) are amazed because they thought he was going to be a vegetable,” said Cody’s grandmother, Kathy Kalis. “And now, he’s doing really well.”

It shows, as Cody, who always had a sense of humor, jokes and laughs with his friends and family often.

“Living life,” Cody said when asked how he is doing now. “I feel like I used to.”

March 17 was a usual day. Cody and his 14-year-old brother, Logan, left their home in Cody’s 1999 Pontiac Bonneville to go to school a little after 7:30 a.m. Their mother, Sherri Kalis, had already left for work. The roads were icy that day. About a mile from their home, Cody was traveling south on 90th Avenue when he approached the intersection of 30th Street and 90th Avenue. At the stop sign, his vehicle hit ice and slid through the intersection. Their car was T-boned on the driver’s side by a Ford Explorer, driven by Vern Capelle, who was traveling west on 30th Street.

“They (emergency personnel) believe Cody and Logan were hit at full speed, about 55 miles per hour,” Sherri said. “Both the boys knew they were going to get hit.”

The crash left Cody unconscious. Logan, who had minor injuries, called their grandmother, Kathy, with his cellphone, knowing their mother was at work and their grandmother was home often. 

“I got the phone call from Logan, who was screaming as loud as he could and I couldn’t understand him. He said, ‘we need help, we need help, I think my brother’s dead.’ I told him, ‘Don’t say that,’” Kathy said.

Logan held Cody’s head up while on the phone, waiting for first responders to arrive. 

Kathy, who was on her way to St. Cloud when she got the call, turned around and went to the scene of the accident. 

“Cody was laying in the car. They cut the car apart and got him out. I walked up to him, yelling his name, but he was unconscious,” Kathy said.

They were going to airlift Cody, but, because of the weather – fog, mist and ice – they could not. He was taken to St. Cloud Hospital by ambulance.

Cody had a punctured spleen; a broken left clavicle; a hole in his diaphragm; a pelvis fracture; a skull fracture on the front, left side of his head; a traumatic brain injury and his bottom jaw was broken in two places.

Once at the hospital, he received two emergency surgeries to stop the bleeding in his spleen, repair the hole in his diaphragm and repair the broken jaw with three plates. His left lung collapsed while in surgery. Another plate was later placed on his left clavicle.

Doctors prepared Sherri for the worst, not knowing if Cody was going to pull through.

“It wasn’t looking good at the time,” Kathy said. 

Cody did not wake up for seven days. For about four days, he was placed on a ventilator. When he did wake, he spent another week at the St. Cloud Hospital and was transferred to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul where he spent six weeks recovering, doing several different therapies daily.

“When I first woke up, I looked at my hands like ‘whoa’ and I saw ma and asked her what happened. She said I was in a car accident,” Cody said.

He also was a bit frightened upon waking because he was in a Posey bed, which is an enclosed bed with guards to prevent a patient from falling out or getting out of bed unassisted. 

“I got scared because I thought I got locked up or something,” he said with a laugh.

Cody does not remember any of his time spent at the St. Cloud Hospital, nor the first two weeks at Gillette.

“He didn’t know mom for half a day, which hurt,” Sherri said. “But then he knew who I was. Things started to come back to him.”

Doctors believe Cody had a diffuse axonal injury, which is the shearing of the brain’s long connecting nerve fibers, known as axons. It happens rapidly inside the skull as an injury is occurring.

Family drove to St. Paul every day to see Cody, who was recovering slowly but strongly. Because of COVID-19 protocols, only two family members at a time were allowed to visit. Sherri and Kathy, who Cody calls his “two biggest fans,” were there often. Cody and Logan’s father, David Pappenfus, and Logan, also came to visit. 

Because of his broken jaw, Cody was fed intravenously at first, then a liquid diet, and later pureed food. He lost 40 pounds during recovery. In the crash, a front nerve by his jaw was severed, causing permanent numbness of his lips and front of his mouth.

He slowly transitioned from being in a bed, to a stroller, wheelchair, walker, an in-motion walking crutch to a crutch.

“They (physical therapists) took the crutch away May 20,” Sherri said.

Through a school program and teacher at Gillette and accommodations with Holdingford High School, Cody was able to complete his schoolwork and will be finishing high school on time, graduating with his classmates. 

His first day back at school was May 25, which was also the last day of school for the seniors.

“It felt good,” he said about being back at school. 

Through Cody’s recovery, it was hard for Logan not having his brother at home. 

“It was kind of tough,” Kathy said. “We tried talking to him and he was very shaky and very emotional.”

“He said he remembers everything, the screeching of the metal, and how he took care of his brother in that scene,” Sherri added.

By the time Cody was able to come home from the hospital, both brothers missed each other, “tremendously,” even if they do not like to admit it.

“Every time we see each other, we gotta give each other crap now,” Cody said. “It’s just a thing.”

Throughout it all though, Cody maintained his sense of humor, joking with his family and staying optimistic.

“It’s easy to laugh now but not then,” Sherri said. “He will have a story to tell for the rest of his life.”

Support and prayers from the community throughout the ordeal was overwhelming and the family could not thank everyone enough.

Cody looks forward to getting better this summer, to drive again and return to work at Jarnot Custom Cabinets Inc. in St. Wendel where he worked before the accident. He will be going to physical therapy for a while yet and does have some nerve pain on the left side of his body but feels well overall. 

High school graduation is a momentous milestone for any high school senior, but for Cody and his family, the ceremony will be profound as they know this senior overcame a great deal to celebrate this moment.