Note: This article first appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Focus.
When Bill and Glyni Fenn went to bed on July 7, 2010, they had a great life. Healthy and in their mid-50s, they were remodeling a summer home on Torch Lake purchased by her parents in the 1960s and filled with Glyni’s fondest childhood memories.
Bill was a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel with a 20-year service record, including participation in Operation Desert Shield/Storm. He’d worked as a Physician’s Assistant for 30 years. In 2007 he was recognized as a Distinguished Fellow for his service to the American Academy of Physician Assistants. He holds a PhD in health policy, and was a tenured professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, teaching and supervising physician assistant students as well as doctoral students in the university’s interdisciplinary health doctoral program. He loved his role as mentor and counselor to future healers. Best of all, he was married to a beautiful woman who had been his soul mate for more than 32 years. Life was good.
Sometime in the night, Bill got up to walk off the symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome. While he was wandering through the darkened house, he fell through an open trapdoor, landing on cement six feet below. Glyni found him there after waking up and discovering he was missing from their bed. North Flight’s helicopter crew transported Bill to Munson Medical Center, where he was in a coma for a month, the result of a severe brain trauma.
"Had our roles been reversed, he would have been in charge and would have known, without a doubt, what to do, what questions to ask, who to ask, and how to go about getting what was needed," Glyni said. "As a non-medical person, I was terrified, scared to death that I was going to lose my husband of 32 years. I gave him orders he was not to die; I was too young to be a widow. I told him to stick with me, and he did."
A Different Life
Two years later, Bill lives at the Origami Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center in Mason. He is the first veteran to be admitted there under a pilot program through the Department of Veteran Affairs that allows injured veterans to receive rehabilitation services in non-VA facilities closer to their homes. At Origami, he undergoes intensive therapy and continues to make progress. He can sing, play guitar and piano, speak German, and his long-term memory seems intact. Glyni, meanwhile, lives at home in Kalamazoo, and continues to praise the care Bill received at Munson Medical Center. She has shown her gratitude with two gifts, including one directed to support nursing education in honor of Bill’s nurses. "A lot of people think all civilization stops north of Grand Rapids," she said. "I can’t tell you how impressed I was with Munson - they are the reason he is alive."
"Munson made it as tolerable as it could have been," she added. "In five weeks, I did not meet one person I didn’t like. Everyone was wonderful and very compassionate. I can’t tell you the number of nurses who held me in their arms when I collapsed crying. They took excellent care of me as well, making sure I stayed hydrated and that I remembered to eat, welcoming our many friends who were my support and strength, listening to my fears, and answering the many, many questions I had. They had unending patience, for which I will be forever grateful."
Bill’s hospital care began with the Emergency Department’s trauma team, lead that night by neurosurgeon Thomas Schermerhorn, MD, and general surgeon Walter Noble, MD. "Dr. Schermerhorn displayed compassion, extreme concern not only for his patient, but for me. He explained everything that needed to be done so I could understand it fully and make informed decisions. In the emotional, terror-filled moments I was experiencing, Dr. Schermerhorn was a sea of calm. He kept me focused on what needed to be done, and he made it happen."
It Takes a Team
In addition to Drs. Schermerhorn and Noble, Bill’s care team included neurologists Cornelius Robens, MD, Bradley Evans, MD, and Matthew Salon, MD; neurosurgeon Eric Zimmerman, MD; infectious disease specialist Karen Speirs, DO; critical care specialist Charles Gwizdala, MD; internists Thomas Ling, MD, and Jacques-Brett Burgess, MD; physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Julie Gronek, MD; physician assistant (and colleague of Bill’s) Jim Frick; speech and occupational therapists; and dozens of nurses in the ICU and medical surgical unit. "Your team got him through the initial terrifying phase of dealing with the injury, the ensuing complications, and then getting Bill medically stable."
Today, Bill has aphasia, which makes it difficult for him to articulate ideas or comprehend written or spoken language, a heartrending reality for an extremely intelligent man. "Bill’s recovery has been slow, painful, and has changed our lives in ways I could never have imagined," Glyni said. "He’s still in there, but it’s a different version. Before the accident, we never ran out of things to talk about - now we struggle to communicate. Sometimes it feels like there is an ocean between us because of the communication issue. It’s been a very rough road."
Glyni, who has a passion for producing and performing in community theater, has grown into her new role as her husband’s "fearless" advocate. "The need to be liked and popular falls away because you’re on a mission. I’ve had to be firm and assertive."
Bill is now at his fifth facility." Not one has come close to the quality of care at your facility,- she said. "Nothing else compares to the level of caring, the quality of your medical professionals, and the facility itself."
"Believe me when I tell you that if you had a traumatic brain injury rehabilitation facility, we would be there now," she added. "My hope, my dream, is to come back to Munson in the future, along with Bill, and introduce him to some of the wonderful people who brought him back from the brink. Munson was the best, the absolute best."