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A fall and five days lost

A 13-year-old girl falls from her horse and suffers injuries that send her into a coma, devastating her parents.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000


Wendy Cisek has no memory of the night she nearly died.

First in a four-part series
photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Wendy Cisek, 13, teases her horse, Macuea. She was riding Macuea in May when the horse spooked, reared and rolled over her. Wendy's skull was fractured.
Several months ago, there were many things the 13-year-old couldn't remember -- why she was strapped to a hospital bed, for example, or what day it was.

"It was scary. I was trying to figure out where I was, and why I was there," Wendy recalls. "The doctors would tell me what had happened, but then I'd forget five minutes later."

Over time and after numerous reminders from physicians, family and friends, Wendy was able to piece together the basics of the story.

She had been horseback riding at a rodeo near Brooksville one warm evening in May when her horse spooked, reared and rolled over her. A fractured skull and other brain injuries sent her into a deep coma in the darkened field away from the main arena. She never heard the beat of the wind as a helicopter arrived to take her to the hospital.

Her parents, Dennis and Fran Cisek, remained by her side at the hospital, leaving only to eat and to pick up clean clothes from their home east of Brooksville. Doctors had warned them not to expect a miracle; still they prayed with desperate hearts.

Theirs was the same worry felt by the families of 1-million Americans who are hospitalized each year with brain injuries. Many recover, but 50,000 die and another 80,000 are permanently disabled.

Wendy's parents vowed that their daughter would not be counted among the casualties.

Before the accident, Wendy had been a normal teenager with an unusual love of horses. She could talk about different breeds and their temperaments for hours on end. What she enjoyed most was riding and grooming them. Images of horses graced her bedroom walls, her T-shirts and her stacks of Horse & Rider magazine.

When Wendy awoke from her coma, her parents sighed with relief. But doctors cautioned that their daughter could have permanent brain damage; the doctors couldn't promise that Wendy would get her old life back -- or her memory, for that matter.

Wendy's struggle was just beginning. It is a tale of healing that goes beyond cuts and bruises, to the emotions and minds of those who suffer brain injuries and the people who love them.

To this day, Wendy and her parents do not know where the recovery will end.

What they do know is that, as they gather this weekend for Christmas, they have much more to celebrate than a holiday.

"It's been hard, but whatever it took to stand behind Wendy through this, we would have done," said Fran Cisek. "We can handle whatever comes. What we couldn't handle was losing her."

"I hope it's not my kid'

May 20 was the day Wendy Cisek's life changed forever.

It was dusk, and Wendy's parents, high school sweethearts married 23 years, had dropped her off with a friend at the Bull-It Rodeo in eastern Hernando County before leaving to eat dinner at Cracker Barrel. They planned to return in less than an hour.

Wendy's horse, a mare named Macuea, was already at the rodeo because it had been ridden by a family friend in an event earlier that day. After her parents drove away, Wendy told her friend that she was going to take the 4-year-old mare out for a walk in the field adjacent to the rodeo.

Thirty minutes later, Wendy was found lying unconscious in the field, curled up in a ball and bleeding from an ear and her nose. Her horse was nowhere in sight.

No one witnessed the accident, so authorities have had to piece together events based on Wendy's injuries.

It is believed that as Wendy picked her way through the trucks and trailers that were parked in the field for the rodeo, something spooked her horse, causing it to rear back and roll over her, fracturing her skull and jaw. Because the field was unlit, Wendy's parents estimate she lay on the ground critically injured for as long as 20 minutes before a man and a woman found her.

Marie Rape of Brooksville remembers the horror of that moment. She and a friend, Chadwick Meagier, were on their way out to the field to look at Meagier's new truck when the two spotted something on the ground.

"Is that a dead animal?" Meagier asked.

"Oh, my God, it's a girl!" Rape recalls saying.

Rape took Wendy in her arms as Meagier called 911 on his cell phone. Then they tried to hold her as she went into seizures. Soon, the ambulance came, followed by a helicopter to fly Wendy to a Tampa hospital. A circle of cowboys had gathered around the area, hats in their hands. Some were in tears.

Dennis Cisek, a fleet mechanic for Verizon, was just arriving at the rodeo in his pickup as the scene unfolded.

"I saw the ambulance and I thought, "Boy, somebody must be hurt pretty bad," Cisek said. "And then you say to yourself, "Gosh, I hope it's not my kid."

Bruises and swelling

Wendy was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital, and her parents followed, speeding south on Interstate 75 in their pickup.

"The whole trip to the hospital, I cried," said Fran Cisek, an office manager in Tampa, who had just lost her sister to a sudden heart attack the same week. "I kept saying, "What do I do if I lose her too? I don't think I could handle that. What am I going to do?' "

After rushing into the emergency room, the Ciseks were ushered into a private conference area. They tried not to panic.

"The nurse says, "Your counselor will be right with you," Fran remembered with a shudder. "It was terrible. I thought they were going to tell me she died."

Minutes ticked away like hours. A woman offered them soda. Mrs. Cisek tried not to scream at her: Who could drink at a time like this? She stared straight ahead at the wall. Voices buzzed around her like gnats.

Finally, there was some news. A neurosurgeon came in and informed the Ciseks that their daughter was alive, but in a coma. On a scale of 1 to 12, Wendy's injuries -- most of them to her head -- were an 11.

The Ciseks breathed with relief and sent prayers of thanks that their little girl was still alive. But the worrying was far from over. They were led over to see Wendy.

The last time they had seen her, she was her usually vivacious self, a 13-year-old going on 17 who had inherited her mother's height, dark coloring and large brown eyes.

Now, she lay tied to a gurney, her head, arms and legs held down with thick straps. Tubes snaked out of her nose, throat and arms like alien growths. Her entire face was black and blue, eyes swollen out of her head. Dirt matted her long brown hair. Her brown locks were the only thing that her parents recognized.

Dennis Cisek fell to his knees.

"Wendy," he moaned, taking her hand.

Before that moment, he had been the strong one. "Babe," he had told his wife back in the truck, "she's going to be okay. It's not as bad as you think."

Now, Fran Cisek was the one standing tall. She told herself that if she just stayed by her child's side, everything would be all right.

Dennis Cisek rose to his feet, his face gray.

"I can't do this," he said, his voice hoarse with emotion. He pushed his way out of the emergency room and into the night.

"Worse than we thought'

The next few days were a blur of CAT scans and MRIs. The Ciseks camped out at the hospital, sleeping in plastic waiting-room chairs or on the cold linoleum floor of Wendy's room.

"I would not leave her," Fran Cisek recalled, her jaw set.

Fear and guilt were powerful stimulants.

"I kept looking at the heart monitor and thinking, if that thing goes straight, oh, my God," she said.

Wendy showed no signs of movement, no reactions to the pricks and prods of doctors. Her eyes were swollen open, each looking outward in the opposite direction. It was a sign of brain damage, although the nurses didn't tell Wendy's parents at the time.

"If her eyes had been shut, it would have just looked like she was sleeping. But this was out of a horror (movie)," her mother said.

At one point, doctors warned they might have to drill through Wendy's skull to relieve some of the swelling. The accident had caused her brain to bounce against the inside of her skull, and the bruising was causing the brain to become so engorged it was being crushed inside her head.

In the end, doctors did not have to resort to drilling. But several attempts to revive Wendy were unsuccessful.

Fran Cisek thought she would go insane from the waiting. She bargained with God and held long conversations with her 50-year-old sister, Linda, whom she had buried days earlier.

"I said, "Linda, you can't have her. Tell God how important she is to me. You can have her someday, but not yet,' " she said. "It was crazy, but that's how I was."

When they were around Wendy, her parents put up a brave front. They talked to her, held her hand and smoothed her hair.

"Wendy, honey, you're strong. You're going to get through this," her mother whispered into her ear. "We love you, and we miss you."

Slowly, the Ciseks began to see encouraging signs. Wendy was fighting now, thrashing against the bindings that held her down. She even tried to pull out her breathing tube. But the movements were automatic. She was still in a coma, unconscious, doctors said.

On Day 5, May 25, another MRI was taken. Bad news. The test showed that Wendy's brain stem -- the part of the brain that controls consciousness, the part that would wake Wendy up -- was bruised.

"She's worse than we thought," Fran Cisek recalls a doctor saying before leaving the room. "Don't expect her to wake up any time soon."

It was too much. Fran Cisek needed some sort of hope to hold on to, and it all seemed to be slipping away.

Once the doctor was gone, she broke down.

Waking up

For her entire 42 years, Fran Cisek has had to be strong.

Her father died when she was 7, and her mother contracted tuberculosis soon after, becoming partly disabled after the disease ate away at her hip.

Fran was the youngest of 10 siblings, whom her mother raised alone despite her illness while cleaning houses to pay the bills. By the time her brothers and sisters all left home, her mother was aging and her disability had worsened. So Fran, then 16, did the laundry, the shopping and all of the other daily chores that most parents do for their children. Money was scarce.

Hardship polished the stone of resolve inside her. And now hardship had returned. It would not beat her.

After crying herself dry at the doctor's news, Fran Cisek pulled herself together. She had not been home since the accident. She had not seen her two boys, Denny and Nick, then 18 and 16.

Both of them were staying at home with an aunt, going through the motions of high school while they waited for word about their sister. Nick had been out mud-bogging when he heard about Wendy's accident. At first he thought it was a joke. Denny, the quiet one who was nearing graduation at Hernando High School, knew it was not.

Both were in shock.

Somebody, Fran Cisek thought to herself, needed to go buy groceries for the boys. She also wanted to make sure they were all right, even if the trip home was only a brief one.

Fran and Dennis Cisek drove the hour back to Brooksville, went to Winn-Dixie and, upon returning home, checked on the boys and took hot showers.

It was nice. They could almost imagine that the last few hellish days had never happened, that their daughter was out in the family room watching TV or in the kitchen, arguing over a chance to get on the Internet.

But reality intruded.

Although the doctors had urged the Ciseks to go home, get some rest and eat, Fran Cisek found she couldn't. Her brain buzzed in overdrive, constantly filled with maybes and what-ifs: Maybe Wendy would wake up soon. What if she wasn't at the hospital when it happened?

It had been only an hour or two. But Fran Cisek didn't ask her husband, she told him: We're going back to the hospital. Now.

As they drove back to Tampa, Fran Cisek couldn't wait to see her daughter. Impatient, she had her husband go park the car while she went inside.

But when she got to the hospital, the doors to the pediatric intensive care unit were locked. It was 6:15 p.m. -- right in the middle of a shift change -- so she knew everyone would be too busy to let her in. She sighed and decided to try to wait patiently.

Then a nurse walked by and smiled.

"She sure is spunky now that they've extubated her," the woman said, referring to Wendy.

Extubate?

Fran Cisek was confused.

"What does that mean?" she asked.

The woman looked at her, surprised.

"They didn't tell you?"

Fran Cisek's heart started beating faster.

"What?"

"She's awake!" the nurse said.

Fran's eyes flew open. She sprinted to her daughter's room.

Inside, she saw a physical therapist standing next to Wendy's limp frame. The woman nudged the young girl, who still appeared unconscious.

As if on cue, Wendy sat straight up in her hospital bed. The movement appeared unnatural and strangely stiff. But it was Wendy, alive and awake.

The teen's eyes were tired, but aware.

Fran thought she would explode with joy.

"Wendy!" she cried.

COMING TUESDAY: Wendy's recovery begins.

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