Larry Tichenor looked across the table at his son, Matt. “We’re proud of you.”
Larry has every right to be.
Matt was born with Down syndrome 38 years ago at Gundersen La Crosse Hospital, and with it came a list of complications, including a heart murmur, which required his first surgery at only 14 months old. A second surgery happened at eight years, and his third heart procedure took place when he was 25.
“He’s had every valve repaired and replaced,” said Larry, who is Matt’s sole guardian at their home on the outskirts of Sparta. “Now he’s doing great and has great stamina.”
Matt’s heart is the most serious ongoing concern, which requires continuous monitoring. Blood circulation in his leg is another condition they watch – all this while enduring several hernia surgeries and other procedures. In his 38 years, Matt has had 18 surgeries.
“I have them counted up, but it’s kind of hard to put each one to a date. He’s had so many things,” Larry said. “But we take them one at a time, and I’ve learned over the years that it’s in God’s hands. But he’s in a good spot when he goes to Gundersen, so I just do my part in it and try not to worry.”
And Gundersen staff, Larry shares, have helped quell his anxious feelings before each surgery. Larry knows physicians see many people, but when they’re at the hospital, staff caring for the father-son team have made them feel like they’re the only patients there. Those good feelings are backed up by good results.
“It’s very positive and uplifting that we’ve had a good success rate,” Larry said.
Those results have helped Matt live an active, enjoyable life. He spends his time helping his dad in his workshop, driving around the property on his UTV, and scouring newspapers to find pictures of pigs, which he clips out and places in a binder. He’s also a huge Brewers fan, and he brings out his Brewers scrapbook every time there’s a game; it’s his connection to the team. A week-long camp is also a summer highlight.
“This is probably his ninth or 10th year” of camp, Larry said.
Matt also finds joy in visiting Gundersen Sparta Clinic each Friday for lab work, but it’s taken time. He wasn’t always so excited about it.
“Back in the day when he was younger, it was a completely stressful situation taking him to the doctor,” Larry said. “Every time he’d see someone in a white coat, he would come undone because he knew they were going to take his blood or do something. I always said it took two doctors, four nurses and half an army to get him secured.”
But over the years, Matt’s resistance faded as he got to know the nurses and doctors at the clinic. Relationships, and more importantly, trust, was built – and it was built in the most creative ways. Matt, as it turns out, doesn’t care for the word procedure, so instead, when he’s at the clinic for that reason, staff know to refer to them as “parties,” which sits much better.
“We went in to register, and they said, ‘You’re the people here for the party,’” Larry said. “Then there was a sign on the door that says there’s a party going on. It was just an uplifting experience for everyone.
“Everybody is smart enough to know how to play into it, and it works,” he added.
Now, Matt walks into the clinic by himself each Friday looking forward to his blood draw – but not before stopping to get his glasses adjusted each week, which is part of the “party.” It’s the people, Larry said, that make going to the doctor no longer an experience to dread. Turning to Matt, Larry says, “You like to go see Andrea?”
Andrea is Andrea Winters, PA-C, a pediatric specialist at Gundersen La Crosse Hospital. The Tichenors became close with her as Matt aged through the department. Even now, Larry said Andrea has made a point to check in, including when the pair had COVID over Thanksgiving two years ago. In turn, Larry will send Andrea photos of Matt riding his back or going on a hike. They also exchange Christmas cards.
When given the chance to transfer Matt’s care to the Gundersen Tomah Clinic, Larry refused, not because of the care in Tomah, but because of relationships built over the years.
“We want to go to La Crosse to see our Peds Specialties family,” he said. “I’ve known the nurses over time, and they make a point to come and say ‘hi.’"
“I always refer to her as his sister and my daughter because she’s so caring and so sweet,” Larry said of Andrea, adding that there are so many other wonderful providers they’ve encountered over the years.
This long-term relationship with Gundersen and its providers, and the success Matt has had with their care, has motivated Larry to become an active advocate for the system. He serves as a member of the Gundersen Sparta Clinic Patient & Family Advisory Council, and he’s a part of a group testing Gundersen’s external website. Larry figures it’s a way he can give back and help improve a system that’s been so good to him and his son.
“I’m honored that they asked me to do that,” Larry said. “We’ve had a big life of Gundersen.”
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