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Rita was given little chance of survival in the days after the crash on June 4, 2006. Dr. Silvestrini conducted an extensive review of her medical records and examined her a month later. Myrna and Rita credit him with changing the course of her recovery – and their lives.
"It was in God's divine order that Skip was on call for his first visit and that he came back two days later and found a small sliver of opportunity," Rita says. "If he hadn't returned, I would have gone to a nursing home. I could have been in a vegetative state the rest of my life. That's why I give so much thanks to God for giving me Skip as my rehab doctor."
Myrna knew nothing about rehabilitation or even what to expect. She only knew that Rita had to show progress within two weeks in order for insurance to pay for rehabilitation.
"It's like standing in a strange land where you didn't ask to go and you can't speak the language," Myrna recalls. "You have to trust a whole lot of people with your most prized possession. As a mom, it seems hopeless because you have no control of the situation and you're unsure of the outcome."
A hint of hope and trust came to Myrna as Rita was admitted by Frank Ziesmer, a registered nurse. Clipboard in hand, Frank posed his questions to the still unconscious Rita.
"At first I thought, 'She can't answer you.' But then I realized how respectful that was. He knew the answers would come from me but he kept talking to her," Myrna says. "I felt that he really cared about Rita and that anything that's going to happen here is going to be good."
Good things did start to happen, thanks to Rita's improving brain, her athletic body and her determination. After slowly regaining consciousness, she started learning how to do everything all over again and how to do some things differently because of the stroke and amputation.
Dr. Silvestrini, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, led the team that developed an individualized treatment plan. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, nurses, therapeutic recreational specialists, a specially trained psychologist and others brought their expertise to Rita's care.
Rita became known as 'the moving target' because she often met short-term therapy goals within a single session or a few days. For example, an early goal was to sit on a mat and balance for five seconds. Rita sat and balanced for the entire 30 minutes as therapists quickly moved on to other goals.
"All the therapists had the ability to change and move on to the next step – sometimes within minutes," Myrna observed. The therapists also communicated with one another so Rita's rehabilitation was constantly updated and coordinated.
Because Rita initially couldn't communicate, Myrna feared her daughter had lost her ability to understand or remember what she once knew. A cherished milestone came early, when Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Stacey Quade brought a pegboard with colored pegs. The goal was to see if Rita could mentally plan and physically execute a simple series of tasks required to put a peg into the board. When Stacey asked Rita to put a green peg in the board, she correctly picked up a green peg and placed it. She did the same with pegs of other colors.
"I was so excited because she knew her colors," Myrna recalls. "She couldn't talk to us or tell us anything but I knew she was in there."
By March of 2007, Rita had met many more goals. Her rehabilitation team had helped prepare her and her mother for the transition to living at home. Ten days before the first anniversary of her car crash, Rita walked across the stage to receive her diploma from Northwestern High School in Maple, Wis.
Rita continues to see Dr. Silvestrini and does physical therapy at the adjacent Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center. She's a regular visitor to Miller-Dwan Rehabilitation Services and shares the story of her recovery with other patients and their families. She speaks at schools as a volunteer with ThinkFirst, which encourages teens to think about how to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries.
"You have no idea what you have until you lose it," says Rita, who is back to playing the piano and swimming laps in a pool. "As Norman Vincent Peale said, 'The secret of life isn't what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you.' You make the best of what you have. I see life as a gift and do my best to be thankful for what I have and not complain about what I don't."
While Myrna recognizes the role that Rita's positive attitude played in her recovery, she also praises Dr. Silvestrini and the Miller-Dwan Rehabilitation team.
"They're great people with the amazing talent to bring out the best in any patient with the ability and desire to get better," Myrna says. "And it's all right here in my own backyard."
Rita describes herself as "eternally grateful for the change my life took. I feel I've gained more than I've lost and God led so many amazing people into my life the second time around."