May 17, 2023 at 7:39 p.m.
Reitsma improves daily through strength, community
Spring storms can bring strong, damaging winds, but Carolyn and Paul Reitsma have seen that faith, family, community and their daughter, Katie, are stronger.
One year after Katie suffered a massive brain injury when she was hit by flying debris during a storm that swept through her family’s dairy farm near Sauk Centre, she finally came home to continue her recovery.
Katie and her parents, along with brothers, Joe and Mitchell, milk 280 cows with four DeLaval robotic milking systems at Reit-Way Dairy. Katie also works as a paraprofessional at Holy Family Elementary School in Sauk Centre. She had been planning to begin taking evening courses to earn her teacher’s license.
When Katie flew home on a medical flight April 29, with her was her childhood neighbor and boyfriend Eugene Marthaler. The two began dating over two years ago. Marthaler stayed with Katie in Chicago since her first being transferred there in early March to receive therapy at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.
“That poor guy slept on a couch that is not even comfortable to sit on, and it’s too short,” Paul said. “I think they (were) both ready to come home. It’s time.”
Katie will continue her recovery at Marthaler’s home in Sauk Centre. His house is one level and has easier access than the family’s house on the farm. They have purchased some equipment Katie will need as she keeps her therapy going at an intense pace along with outpatient therapy out of St. Cloud.
“I told Eugene that Shirley Ryan would hire him because he does so much,” Paul said. “Eugene’s aunt is an occupational therapist who advises him. He even has Katie doing pushups. They didn’t believe him (at Shirley Ryan), so Katie showed them.”
However, Marthaler said he did not see his efforts as above the ordinary for his relationship with Katie.
“If the roles were reversed, I know she’d do the same for me,” Marthaler said. … “You have to stick through the hard times to get to the good times.”
It was to Marthaler that Katie first gave a sign that she was still Katie inside even though her brain was not cooperating.
That sign came in early August 2022 in the form of the thumbs-up gesture.
“That was when I knew we’ve got this,” Marthaler said. “I knew then and there that Katie knew what was going on.”
At the time, Katie was at Regency Hospital in Golden Valley, the second facility she had been to. She would stay at two more during her year away from home. For her loved ones, the journey has gone from initial fear to hope and progress, and it all began with one storm.
Weather warnings were posted across Minnesota during evening chores May 12, 2022.
“Eugene had come over,” Carolyn said. “He said to me, ‘Something told me I needed to come help you get done before the storm.’”
Everyone was rushing to complete chores when the storm hit.
“The wind picked up the back end of a hutch, and the calf got out,” Carolyn said.
“I heard Katie say, ‘Mom, calf,’ and those were the last words she said to me.”
As Katie ran to address the loose calf, Carolyn finished up work with the skid loader.
“I was by the clothesline and saw all of these hutches flying up over the evergreens,” Carolyn said. “I didn’t know exactly where Katie was.”
Out of 66 calf hutches holding calves, only three stood in place when the storm ended. The rest were blown to fields and ditches around the farm. Calves roamed everywhere.
It was Marthaler who located Katie. She was lying on the ground close to the house. Thinking she had lost consciousness due to a concussion, he helped carry her inside the house. Paul called his sister, a retired nurse, who guided them in assessing Katie’s injuries and then determined Katie needed emergency help. As Marthaler drove Katie to the Sauk Centre hospital, the Reitsmas rounded up calves.
At the hospital, analysis was giving troubling results. Katie needed a ventilator and equipment the hospital was not set up with. She was transferred to the larger St. Cloud Hospital 40 miles away. Paul and Carolyn joined her and Marthaler.
“The first diagnosis was that her brain stem was cut,” Paul said.
Katie also had multiple bleeds in her brain. Carolyn said they were told it was an injury similar to shaken baby syndrome.
“They said whatever hit her was heavy and blunt,” Carolyn said.
The family assumes it was a calf hutch that hit Katie, Carolyn said, but no one actually saw it happen. The type and location of her brain injury did not look promising.
“Everything initiates there – your walking, your talking, your coordination – everything stems from that spot in the brain,” Carolyn said.
As days passed, they began getting asked difficult questions.
“They kept asking us, because Katie was an athlete, if we could accept her in any other condition,” Paul said.
Katie played both high school and collegiate volleyball. She later helped coach her team at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
“We thought, ‘Katie’s much more than just an athlete,’” Paul said. “She has touched the lives of so many kids at Holy Family School. There’s more to her than just volleyball. She’s our daughter.”
The questions became even harder.
“They asked us if we wanted her to receive last rites,” Carolyn said.
The family agreed to have those rites performed.
“That’s when we realized it wasn’t good,” Paul said. “We were asked to make the decision between comfort death and giving her a chance.”
It was nearly 10 days after the storm. If they chose to keep trying, Katie needed to be taken off the ventilator and receive a tracheotomy to save her from permanent vocal cord damage. The hospital needed to know the family’s decision.
The Reitsmas and Marthaler needed a sign.
“The day we had to make the decision, that was the first time she opened her eyes,” Paul said. “(The medical staff) didn’t look at that as being positive at all, but for us, it was.”
Then a staff member said something that Carolyn said was the right thing at the right time.
“A respiratory therapist said, ‘Well, let’s see what she can do,’” Carolyn said. “That helped us decide that we weren’t even going to think about comfort care because Katie could do this.”
Paul and Carolyn’s other daughters – Michelle, Renae and Christine – as well as neighbors and friends stepped in to help with the farm when Paul and/or Carolyn were with Katie. After work each day, Marthaler, who is a carpenter, was by Katie’s side.
The Reitsmas also had 50 heifers due that month.
“You have to keep everything going,” Carolyn said. “Nothing stops.”
Kindness and support surrounded them.
“We were sent a video of the kids from Holy Family; they formed a rosary, praying for Miss Katie,” Paul said. “The school would cover a day each week the whole summer where two staff members would sit with Katie (at Regency Hospital) because we couldn’t always get down there.”
Once Katie woke up and was weaned from her tracheotomy, she was transferred Aug. 17, 2022, to CentraCare-Melrose Care Center near Sauk Centre. Katie received physical, occupational and speech therapy there with good results.
“There you go with that small town thing,” Paul said. “Everyone knew her and treated her like family, and when you left there at night, you felt good because you knew she was going to be taken care of. That’s when Katie really started responding to therapy.”
Meanwhile, Katie’s high school and college teams did fundraisers as did the FFA chapter and other groups. People keep bringing food. Prayer groups far and wide wrote, saying they were praying for Katie, one card coming from a group in Rome.
“It’s working,” Carolyn said.
Meanwhile, Katie continued therapy to reconnect her brain to muscle control because it was no longer automatic.
It was from the CentraCare-Melrose Care Center that Marthaler sent a video to the Reitsmas of Katie singing three words – I love you – the words muffled and taking effort to be formed, but that did not matter.
“It was a thrill,” Carolyn said.
Katie was also able to the visit the farm a few times, the first being in October 2022 when she arrived on a minibus with four residents from the nursing home. They drove through the barn. Both Paul and Carolyn said Katie lit up when she saw the cows again.
On March 9, the next phase of Katie’s recovery began, which required more equipment, and she and Marthaler prepared to move to Chicago.
“The staff and residents (at CentraCare-Melrose Care Center) lined the halls,” Paul said. “They clapped and were in tears.”
They even blew bubbles.
In Marthaler’s care, Katie worked on core strength in Chicago and continued with other therapy with the goal of Katie walking independently again.
Now, with Katie finally home, the next year of her recovery begins.
“We don’t know what the plan is in the end, but we still have her,” Paul said.
Carolyn said they never lost hope, and community helped them maintain that hope.
“One day, Katie will walk into Holy Family School,” she said.
Mark Klaphake contributed to this article.