Archive for Wednesday, May 3, 2000

Graduation, Kentucky job pull me away from Mirror

May 3, 2000

This is the last issue of The Mirror for which I will write. I'm graduating May 21 from the University of Kansas with a master's degree in journalism, and I have to take care of moving my stuff and making arrangements for the summer.

I've enjoyed my time in Tonganoxie. Eight months have flown by. Thank you to all the students, coaches, parents, teachers and fans who helped make my job easier by giving me tips or answering questions.

While I'm copy editing at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky this summer, I'll miss standing on the sidelines at games.

However, I'm excited to graduate again and take my stab at being a full-time productive citizen. I plan to attend graduation with my friend Ragnar Peterson.

On March 1, Ragnar let go of his handhold as he kicked out from the rock climbing wall.

He expected to drop about 10 feet before the rope tied to the harness around his waist caught in the caribiner clipped to the wall. He'd swing back to the wall and extend his legs to keep from hitting the climbing surface too hard.

Instead, he saw the rope wildly flying past him as he descended. His only thought before the end of his 26-foot fall: I'm going to hit the ground.

During the ambulance ride to the hospital, Ragnar felt every bump as it vibrated painfully from the ambulance tires to the shocks, through the body of the ambulance and onto the plastic board to which he was strapped. He tried to think through the steps for handling a serious trauma patient that he had learned while working in the emergency room in Las Vegas. But because of the pain in his back and legs, he couldn't remember the split-second decisions the doctors, nurses and ambulance personnel would have to make. In the emergency room he received morphine at almost unheard of doses.

Nearly as fast as he had fallen when his safety rope failed to catch, a safety net was enveloping Ragnar and his traumatized back that now included three broke vertebrae. In 27 years of living including five years as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas and four years of medical school, the most important connections he had made were those with people.

By the next afternoon, the word had spread about his accident. A steady stream of people tromped into the room at St. Joseph's Hospital. His mom drove from Manhattan, Kan. Scott Stivers flew from Tulsa, Okla. College friends, medical school classmates, fellow climbers and his family gathered around his bed.

Each person walked in, noticing different things. The plastic sleeves on Ragnar's legs expanded and contracted as a small pump underneath the bed inhaled and exhaled air, attempting to maintain circulation and prevent potentially fatal blood clots from forming in his legs.

Ragnar's left arm was strapped to a board so that he wouldn't knock out the needles stuck in his veins to feed him various fluids intravenously. He clutched the button that controlled the morphine dispenser in his left fist.

The nurses fielded questions from the current and past medical students. Much to the dismay of some of the friends and relatives who weren't in medical school, Ragnar and his classmates talked about the potential surgery, pulling out textbooks to explain the technical details.

The doctors remained uncertain about how soon or if he would walk again. As a fourth-year medical student, he had only a paper to write during the final two months of school. Would he even be able to graduate now?

Most of the visitors, however, focused on the positive. They brought in books and gifts, shared stories about their experiences with Ragnar, told jokes and commented that he'd be back on his feet in no time if only because he was so stubborn.

Ragnar's personal knowledge from classes, from rounds at various hospitals and from textbooks was mildly reassuring but not nearly as important as the presence of people who knew him and cared about his welfare.

Even with steady support from friends and relatives, these scenes from the following weeks are nothing short of miraculous.

Ragnar was on his feet for the first time two days after the surgery. With helping hands on all sides, he took six painful steps.

One week after the accident, Ragnar walked at the rehab hospital like an old man on his last legs at the nursing home. With both feet flat on the floor and both hands tightly gripping a walker, he lifted a foot and set it forward. He had to lift the right foot off the floor because he couldn't control the muscles that move the foot and toes toward the shin planar flexion is a problem, he says.

Each step was an effort. He twisted his torso in the uncomfortable brace he wore to protect his back if he fell. He labored, breathing hard, concentrating on sending the movement commands to the nerves, muscles and tendons in his legs and feet.

Six weeks after the accident, Ragnar walked into Kaufman Stadium for a Royals game. He used a cane and his walking was almost natural, although the brace on his torso and the brace on the back of his right ankle combined with some missing motor control give him a slight side-to-side swagger.

On May 21, Ragnar will join a group of people, each of whom has overcome his or her own set of obstacles. Some have felt physical pain like Ragnar. Some have overcome personal pain. Some had to pass calculus.

Most people along the sidewalks and watching from the stands in Memorial Stadium during KU's graduation ceremonies will be watching for their own family and friends not Ragnar. They'll be celebrating the academic, social and personal achievements of their own black-gowned graduates.

Their presence is a testament to the importance of education, learning and knowledge. Perhaps more importantly, though, it is also an affirmation of the need for human connections, for society and relations between people.

Ragnar, too, will walk through the Campanile and down the Hill. He won't need a walker or a cane.

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