Pictured with Abby are (standing) her aunt, Peggy Dixon and (left to right) her mom, Michelle Theisen, Abby’s step-dad, Brad McKenna and her step-sisters Meghan and Madison. (Photos by Julie Berg-Raymond)
Pictured with Abby are (standing) her aunt, Peggy Dixon and (left to right) her mom, Michelle Theisen, Abby’s step-dad, Brad McKenna and her step-sisters Meghan and Madison. (Photos by Julie Berg-Raymond)
Photographs of Abby Theisen go a long way toward explaining why virtually everyone who has ever met the 16-year-old Decorah High School student has come away thinking there's something special about her.

In school photos taken earlier this year, the girl described by friends and family as "happy and bubbly, a girl who likes to joke around and have fun" is, not unexpectedly, flashing a smile that would light up any room.

The same can be said of more recent photos; but these defy expectations -- showing a smile undimmed by the automobile accident that, on May 8, left her paralyzed.

"Each day gets a little easier," says Abby of life after the accident. "I still have my bad days, but I guess I just try to push through it and be myself."

Which, according to her aunt, Peggy Dixon, might explain the smile.

"That's just who she is ... her smile, and her spirit."


Saturday, May 8, dawned cooler than normal, under an overcast sky.

"I remember pretty much everything," Abby says of that day. "It started off with meeting a couple of friends and going out to eat. We went to one's house and then to another one's house," she recalls.

Abby, manager of her high school's girls soccer and basketball teams, and her friends -- Tayla Begnaud, 15, Paige Smutzler, 16 and Morgan Weis, 15 -- were planning to attend a sleep-over at their soccer coach's house that night.

They never made it past Clay Hill Road -- a gravel road in rural Decorah, known for its steep hills and curves.

"When you drive over [the hills], you get this weightless feeling," Abby says. "The driver went over one too fast, and she lost control. We skidded sideways, stopped and then rolled into a ditch."

Abby, who was in the backseat behind the front passenger, was wearing a seatbelt -- as were all of the car's occupants. Alcohol was not involved.

"My head was trapped between the top of the car and the seat," Abby says. "The girl next to me [Tayla, who climbed out of the car and called 911 on her cell phone] was okay; the driver got knocked unconscious."

A deputy sheriff happened to be within six minutes of the accident site and was able to get to the scene quickly. He later told Abby's mother, Michelle, that the car had narrowly missed a fencepost that might have impaled someone in the car; and that when he saw the wreck, he expected a fatality to be involved.

"The Jaws of Life came to get me and the driver out," Abby continues. "They strapped me to a board and took me to the ambulance and then to a helicopter. They asked me a bunch of questions, and when I got to the hospital I went in for a CAT scan. I'd bitten my tongue and it was bleeding really bad and I needed oxygen, too."

Abby was in surgery for six and a half hours that night.

Her family was told her C-1, C-4 and C-6 vertebrae were fractured and her C-5 vertebra crushed. A halo was attached to her head to allow her fractured vertebrae to heal and her C-5 vertebra was taken out and replaced with filler material.

The accident left Abby paralyzed below her shoulders. She does not need a ventilator to help her breathe; but her family has been told she may not walk again, and she may not regain use of her arms.

All four of the teenagers suffered some degree of injury in the accident; but none to the extent of Abby's.

"At first I was a little jealous," Abby says. "But now I'm happy for them."

In the hospital

One month -- almost to the day -- after the accident, Abby is in room 3208 in the rehabilitation unit at Gundersen-Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis. Stuffed animals line a shelf behind the bed, and brightly colored signs and posters announce friends' and family's support and love.

Surrounding her on this sunny afternoon are Abby's aunt, Peggy Dixon; mom, Michelle Theisen; step-dad Brad McKenna; and step-sisters Meghan and Madison.

Meghan is on her way to find a nurse to talk with the reporter who has come to visit Abby and her family.

"Go ask for Lynn," Abby says, smiling. "She's one of my favorites," she tells the reporter.

The feeling is mutual.

"Abby is wonderful to work with," Lynn says. "She's a shining star. She's been so responsible, just taking charge of what's going on and communicating what she needs in such a positive way."

"Pretty much since day one she's been herself," Brad notes -- which includes teasing and playing pranks on her nurses.

Case in point: "When I was up in ICU (intensive care unit), someone always sat outside my room," Abby recalls. "Once, when my main nurse went to lunch, I held my breath so my oxygen machine started beeping."

The woman who'd taken her nurse's place came in and put an oxygen mask on Abby, not realizing at first that she was only joking around.

"She sat with me until my other nurse came back," Abby says.

Her daily routine in the rehab unit starts with a morning meeting with care providers. "Everyone gets a heads-up about what's happening that day," Michelle says.

The rest of Abby's morning involves feeding her breakfast, getting her washed up and administering her medications -- including a shot to ease muscle spasms.

After she's been dressed and had her teeth brushed, she has physical therapy -- where she's taken through range-of-motion exercises to keep her muscles from cramping up. Splints are applied to keep her tendons from shortening.

She's occasionally left alone to give her a break from having someone constantly in the room. At those times, she can blow into a machine that allows her to turn the T.V. on and off and to alert the nurses' station if she needs anything.

She also has access to a voice-activated computer program that she can use to keep up with e-mail and facebook, while she's in the hospital.

Abby recently used the program to compose a thank you note to her mother and father, and asked that it be included in this article:

"I want to thank both my parents, Tim and Michelle," Abby writes.

"I first want to thank my mom for coming back and forth every day to see me. In every girl's life there comes a time when she needs her mom; at this point in my life, I need my mom more than ever. I cannot thank her enough for all the love she has given me, throughout the years and now.

"I would also like to thank my dad for his time and love. This past month, my dad has taken leave from work to be here with me; I have really enjoyed his company and the many laughs we've shared. Being with my dad makes the days go by fast -- we always find some sort of adventure to get ourselves into.

"My parents and family have made it possible for me to be strong and to be able to move forward."

Abby's discharge date goal is July 2; in the meantime, she says the toughest thing is "deciding where to go from here and what to do."

As is typical of Abby, according to her friends and family, her biggest concerns are about her loved ones.

A nurse recently told Michelle that one night, feeling down, Abby talked about worrying that she'd be a burden on her family.

"She's always thinking of everybody else but herself," Brad says.

As for the future, Michelle says "We're looking into further re-hab facilities, including the Shriners' Hospital in St. Paul. If there isn't a place out there that can do more for her, she'll come home ... They're training me to take care of Abby, and we'll have help at home."

Going home

Right now, though, "home" is still up in the air for Abby and her family.

The split-level rental they live in is not designed for handicap accessibility; and Abby will share the space with her mom and step-dad, along with five siblings.

Abby's sister, Alisha, is 25 and lives in Waukon, and twins Matt and Megan, 23, live in Cresco. At home are step-sisters Madison, 10, Jordan, 12, and Meghan, 16, step-brother, Austin, 14, and her half-sister, Lexie (Alexis), 4, who is autistic and has special needs of her own.

"We're struggling with the housing situation," Brad says. "We're hoping to stay in the Decorah area so Abby can go back to (Decorah High) school ... Tracey Samuelson has been a really great help to us and has gone out of her way with it."

Samuelson, a realtor with A&J Petersburg in Decorah, says she is trying to line up contractors who might be willing to help the family.

"Habitat for Humanity has offered to build a home, but it would be on a small lot in Freeport and they wouldn't be able to keep their horses there," she says.

Which is less a luxury than it might seem. Horseback riding -- something to which her step-dad introduced her in recent years -- had already started to become an important part of Abby's life, according to a posting on her facebook page, written before the accident.

"I love riding our horses; they're a great way to eliminate my stress," Abby wrote.

Brad says he's confident that, with the help of Great Strides -- an organization specializing in therapeutic horsemanship, among other equine facilitated learning services -- Abby will be able to continue working with their horses.

Fortunately, Samuelson says she has found a landowner who may be willing to sell the family property on a land contract; but she cautions that it's not a sure thing. Meanwhile, she's open to all suggestions and advice and asks that anyone who might be able to help call her at (563) 379-3079.

Early efforts to help

Culver's Restaurant in Decorah hosted a "Day of Giving" for Abby May 26, donating 10 percent of the day's sales toward her care. They raised $2,010.

Lisa Roberson manages Culver's and her kids are friends with Abby. She goes up to see her at least once, sometimes twice, a week.

"She is one amazing, amazing woman," Lisa says. "She told me once that 'God may have made this happen to me because He wanted something greater for me than I would have done on my own ... '"

Abby's step-sister, with whom she is especially close, affirms this.

"If she walks again or if she's in a wheelchair, she's going to succeed," Meghan says, "because of her attitude and how she looks at life."

The positive attitude Abby shows in the face of tremendous adversity is an inspiration to everyone who knows her, friends say.

Describing Abby as "wise beyond her years," Lisa says simply, "She's changed my life."

June 19 benefit for Abby

Abby's mom says the whole family is grateful for the help and support they've been offered by their community -- particularly, Michelle says, by Decorah Lutheran Church.

"We want to thank all the people who have supported and prayed for the family, and everyone who has come to see Abby and sent flowers and cards and donations."

A benefit for Abby is Saturday, June 19, at the Decorah Middle School. The event includes a silent auction and bake sale from 3 until 7 p.m., a meal from 4 until 7 p.m. for $10 and a dance from 8 p.m. until Midnight for $5.

Members of Abby's family will attend the event wearing T-shirts bearing Abby's picture.

Anyone interested in ordering a T-shirt may do so by contacting Lisa Roberson at Culver's: (563) 382-5120. Shirts cost $10 -- $5 of which covers the cost and $5 of which goes to Abby.

Donations also are being accepted through a fund set up in Abby's name. Donations may be sent to:

Attn: Abby Theisen

Associated Bank

500 37th St NW

Rochester MN 55901