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The Don Waltner Story {A special report by Jeremy Waltner: Told in three parts}

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If you haven't read Part 1, click here to do so.


The family of six stood in the living room where they had spent many holiday seasons before, arms wrapped around each other, all dressed up for Christmas Day. There were no forced smiles here, only genuine happiness, love and no doubt thankfulness for the moment they were in.

Don and Sonja Waltner were in the middle. Stephen and Kristin were to Don’s right, Kieran and Brennan to Sonja’s left, and the Facebook post made by Brennan at 12:21 p.m., Dec. 25, 2020.

“So thankful to have the whole family together after the year we have been through,” Brennan wrote on the popular social media site. “Celebrating the miraculous birth of Christ while also celebrating the miraculous recovery of dad! Merry Christmas!”

That such a special moment would happen — that the family of six would all stand together again, in that warm living room inside their cozy rural Freeman farmhouse — had been very much in question eight months earlier, as Don fought for his life in a Sioux Falls hospital.

Celebrate Christmas together?

How about just survive?

Chapter 5: ‘We’ll do what we can’

Sonja was on the phone with her mom when the surgeon called.

It was Saturday afternoon, April 25 and her husband of 32 years had been intubated and stabilized at the Freeman Medical Center ER following a subdural hematoma. He was being transported to Sanford Health by Avera’s Careflight air ambulance for emergency craniotomy surgery — a procedure in which a portion of the skull is removed so that blood which had accumulated from the bleed could be evacuated.

“All the blood was pushing the brain — squishing it over to the left side — which is why he was unresponsive and couldn’t talk,” said Sonja.

Not only was the brain being compressed, the bleed was so big that it was herniating the brain stem, as well, impacting critical bodily functions.

But Sonja didn’t know any of this when the surgeon called, and Sonja wasn’t able to answer in time. Instead, the call went to Kieran, a rehab nurse at Sanford who had previously been on the phone with a friend who works in the ER there, asking what she had heard over the radio.

“She told me she heard that they had intubated, and they were going do an emergency craniotomy surgery,” said Kieran. “At that point I knew it was pretty bad. In rehab we see patients post-brain surgery and there are some that do very well and some that do not. The extent of his bleed was pretty severe.”

The call from the surgeon confirmed that.

“He said, ‘I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise you anything,’” recalls Kieran.

“I am so grateful that I didn’t answer the phone and that Kieran got that information instead of me, because I didn’t realize how bad it was,” said Sonja. “I’m glad the surgeon didn’t tell me, ‘We’ll do what we can, but …’ Panic would have set in then.”

Brennan lives three blocks from Sanford and the family was all at his house during Don’s two-hour surgery; by this time, everybody was there.

“Unfortunately this is all during Covid and Sanford had a no-visitors policy,” said Kieran. “Since I worked at Sanford I called as many people as I knew to get an exception to have someone there — unsuccessfully.”

Brennan jokes that they contemplated throwing on some scrubs, showing their badge and just walking in “like we were going to work.” Rather, they gathered at Brennan’s place and turned on a family favorite, “Fantasia,” as a distraction.

“It worked in the sense that it brought back a lot of nostalgic memories,” says Kieran, “so instead of panicking we were focusing on childhood memories of watching that movie together.”

Chapter 6: May 2

The emergency surgery went well, which is to say Don survived, but he had a long, long way to go from being out of the woods.

“The first week was the worst; there was something every day,” said Sonja, who along with their children connected with Don through FaceTime twice a day, talking to him and singing hymns.

But complications persisted that ranged from a blood infection to a temperature spike, but the worst of all was when a CT scan to assess pressure in the brain revealed that the brain was still not shifting back to where it should be following the emergency surgery and subsequent removal of the blood. So their doctor, Dr. Larry Burris, recommended another surgery to remove the skull a second time and, this time, keep it off post-surgery.

This was Saturday, May 2, one week after Don was admitted. That’s the morning the surgeon who would do the procedure called Sonja to explain the risks and benefits involved in another surgery and seeking consent should the family so choose to proceed. The whole family was there, this time in Kieran’s apartment where Sonja was staying, and the phone was on speaker so everybody could listen in.

The surgeon was on the fence.

A pressure monitor put in the brain revealed that swelling had, in fact, gone down like it was supposed to, and there was no excess pressure, but he didn’t know if removing the bone flap would do any good in terms of a resettling of the brain.

“He essentially was alluding to the fact that we really needed to start thinking about quality of life and where to go from here, discussing palliative care and possibly onto hospice,” said Kieran. “He was the first one who was bold enough to tell us, ‘Hey, this is not good.’”

“That day was the worst,” said Sonja, who notes that the fact that both Brennan and Kieran work in the health care industry was of great benefit to her and the entire family. “They are able to ask the right questions and be able to understand everything; that was so helpful to me this whole time.”

The family talked about it and agreed to the surgery based largely on Dr. Burris’ recommendation; “We thought, what could it hurt?” Sonja said. “Let’s go for this last-ditch effort to see if it helps, even though the surgeon was on the fence about doing it.”

Discouraged and nervous, the family went to Falls Park for a distraction. If there was a low point in the whole ordeal, this was probably it.

“At that point nothing had gone right,” said Stephen, “and here was this guy saying, ‘Well, this might not help, either.’”

“I was in a daze,” said Sonja. “We just walked around the Falls, waiting for the phone call from the surgeon, and it didn’t come and it didn’t come. I was on pins and needles. That was a hard day.”

Finally the call came: Surgery was over, Don had survived and they were even able to remove a little more blood.

“We were obviously relieved,” Sonja says.

Chapter 7: ‘Horrible waiting game’

Don remained unresponsive while the family waited for the CT scan to reveal that the brain was moving back into place the way it was supposed to. Kristin called it “a horrible waiting game.’

Doctors to this day cannot say why the brain had such a hard time moving back into position, but CT scans every few days revealed hope. Not only was there no indicator that this was a life-ending situation, slowly but surely the brain began moving back into position.

One of the biggest challenges facing the medical team — and something that gave the family great anxiety — was the fact that they could not conduct an MRI because of a previous health issue. Indeed, this was not the family’s first scare. Back in 2002, Don had a mitral valve replacement and, six years ago, had a severe heart arrhythmia called ventricular tachycardia, where the heart was beating more than 200 times per minute.

“My heart raced,” said Don, who was in the barn with his brother Gregg when he collapsed before coming to.

“He said, ‘What was that?’

“And I said, ‘I don’t know?’

“He said, ‘That wasn’t good.’

“And I said, ‘No it wasn’t.’

Don was admitted to Sanford and set up with a heart monitor, which confirmed the arrhythmia and led to the placement of an ICD (Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator) — essentially a pacemaker that was not compatible with MRI technology.

Brennan explained that an MRI following his brain bleed “would give them an extremely detailed scan of the brain,” but without it, there was no certainty as the extent of the damage both in the short-term and long-term.

“Every time the doctor talked to us, he would say, ‘Well, you know we can’t do an MRI so we don’t know exactly what’s going on,’” said Sonja. “That was a frustration for him, too. They just couldn’t get a good, detailed look at exactly what was going on.”

“Not only were we waiting for the brain to shift back,” said Kristin, “but we had no idea if there was permanent damage.”

Still, talking to Dr. Burris gave the family great hope; Brennan calls him “one of the best in the Midwest — or anywhere.”

“Every time we would talk to him, I felt more encouraged,” Sonja says.

The FaceTime meetings and hymn-sings to Don continued in the morning and the evenings for weeks, with members of the family picking a different hymn; “We just hoped that he would be hearing us.”

Chapter 8: Hope

Six weeks had passed since Don was admitted. The brain had finally worked its way back into position and he had moved out of ICU and into neuro acute — not as complex a level of care — but he was still unresponsive.

By this point Sanford began allowing one visitor per day, so the Waltner family took turns sitting with Don. On one of her visits, Kristin took a photo of her hand on his and wrote on the back of it. It’s dated May 30, 2020:

I got to visit Dad for the first time since his accident. One of my fondest memories from my childhood was when Dad would run his thumb over my palm at night to lull me to sleep. So I did the same for him, hoping he was aware that I was there and that it brought comfort.

And then there’s this:

Kieran remembers during one of her visits elevating her dad’s arms onto a pillow to avoid contractures, and he kept moving his arms off the pillow — much to Kieran’s chagrin.

“I said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to keep your arms elevated,” Kieran says. “It made me wonder if he was starting to hear me. So I held his hand and said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to listen to me and keep your arms on the pillow, could you at least wiggle your fingers?’ And I remember it was a very delayed response, but I saw very slow movement in his fingers. That was the start of him waking up.”

A few days later, he started opening his eyes.

Then, on June 8, Kieran was in the room with Don while Sonja was with them on FaceTime, when Sonja saw Don mouth something to her. He mouthed, ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘I love you.’ “Then it was like, ‘OK, he’s in there,’” said Sonja. “He knows what’s going on.”


This is part two of a three-week series that began in the Dec. 24 issue. Next week: One more surgery, a move to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital and then to QLI in Omaha, a return home, and Don’s own reflection on his purpose-driven life.