Road to recovery: Two athletes rally and rebuild
When you’re in the presence of Owen Weisenbeck, you’re in the presence of someone special. A son, a brother, an athlete, a teammate.
And a warrior.
A life-changing tackle
Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 started out normal for the 18-year-old. But everything changed during that night’s football game.
“I got hit by a tackle,” the former running back from Durand, Wisc, said. “His knee hit the back of my leg really hard. And my foot didn’t move. I knew right away that something was wrong.”
So did his parents, Paula and Jason.
“He was on the 35-yard-line and we were in the stands,” Paula said. “And we could clearly see that his leg was broken.”
The field was silent.
“I was in shock,” Owen said. “I didn’t begin to feel the pain until I was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
Owen broke his tibia and fibula – two bones of the lower leg. It’s unusual to break both bones where he did and takes quite a bit of trauma to break them at the same time, said Ryan Reidt, a physical therapist at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and Clinics in Wabasha.
Owen underwent surgery to stabilize the fractures. His recovery was going as expected and discharge plans were in the works— until Owen experienced a sudden onset of pain and swelling in his lower leg.
He was also facing compartment syndrome, a condition when pressure rises in and around muscles. The pressure can limit blood flow and oxygen to muscles and nerves and can lead to serious damage.
“The fracture was serious, but compartment syndrome was just as severe,” Reidt said. “If not addressed right away, this condition can lead to permanent artery and nerve damage.”
Another surgery helped release pressure and swelling.
After more than two weeks, eight surgeries and intense wound care, Owen was discharged from the hospital. Sent home with crutches and a hospital boot, he was about to begin another healing process: physical therapy.
Healing continues; physical therapy begins
Owen first met Reidt at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s in October.
“When Owen first came in, our goal was to just start putting a little weight on his foot,” Reidt said. “Everyone has a different timetable for healing. We started with small and simple steps – both literally and figuratively.”
Physical therapy visits have decreased from multiple times a week to just a couple of times a month. Now Reidt shares a playbook that Owen can put into practice on his own in his high school weight room.
“PT has been Owen’s favorite day of the week,” his mom said. “Ryan does a great job of encouraging Owen. It’s given him hope.”
Another athlete, another recovery
Down the hall at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s, another high school athlete has been on a different recovery journey. Adam Dunagan, 18, sprained his ankle during the 2021 football season. He faced pain and swelling that wouldn’t go away.
The multi-sport athlete wanted to finish his football career strong and kick off his senior basketball season with a bang. But he knew he needed help. He turned to Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s physical therapist Jared Peterson.
“Jared gave Adam the exercises and support he needed,” said Adam’s mom, Lori. “He helped Adam strengthen his ankle and gain back mobility.”
The time spent in PT was worth it.
“Adam’s having a great basketball season. He’s played every game,” Lori said. “He’s able to jump ball at the start of each game and capture lots of rebounds. Both of those actions have him landing on that ankle.”
Adam lives just four blocks from Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s. When he needed answers, he instinctively turned to his hometown hospital. But Owen lives 20 miles away. When he and his family were looking for a physical therapy program, it was Owen’s aunt Bridget who spoke up. A radiology manager at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s, Bridget knew the physical therapy team would walk beside Owen. But more importantly, she knew Owen.
When Owen was in the hospital healing from his many surgeries, isolation and loneliness – due to strict pandemic visiting policies – began to sink in. That paired with the knowing his high school football career was over left him feeling even more alone. That’s when Bridget stepped in.
“She organized for Owen’s entire team along with our friends and family members to meet outside Owen’s hospital room,” Paula explained. “While Owen sat in his wheelchair five floors above, they held up encouraging posters, waved, smiled and cheered. It was truly wonderful.”
The ultimate goal
Neither Owen nor Adam plan to pursue professional athletic careers. But they both plan to stay active – whether in the weight room with teammates, on a hike in the woods or in the driveway with friends.
“Recently Owen was jogging and playing football in the yard with his brother,” Owen’s mom said. “That’s been the goal all along. To see him happy and healthy.”
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