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The Don Waltner Story {A special report by Jeremy Waltner: Part 1}

  • Don and Sonja Waltner sit with their children in the living room of their rural Freeman home during the Thanksgiving holiday. Also pictured are, from left, Stephen, Kieran, Kristin and Brennan. The six are enjoying this holiday season together following a difficult 2020 that saw Don fighting for his life following a fall and subsequent brain bleed in April. 	PHOTO BY JEREMY WALTNER
    Don and Sonja Waltner sit with their children in the living room of their rural Freeman home during the Thanksgiving holiday. Also pictured are, from left, Stephen, Kieran, Kristin and Brennan. The six are enjoying this holiday season together following a difficult 2020 that saw Don fighting for his life following a fall and subsequent brain bleed in April. PHOTO BY JEREMY WALTNER

For many, the year 2020 will be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic that significantly altered life as it had been known. For one rural Freeman family, however, the year will be remembered for something else — one where a husband and father nearly lost his life, only to overcome the threat of death through perseverance, support from family and friends, great care from the larger medical community and unwavering faith, prayer and belief in a larger purpose.

For Don Waltner, his wife, Sonja and their four grown children — Kieran, Kristin, Brennan and Stephen — that truly makes this holiday season one from which miracles are made. You better believe they’re celebrating this week.

Chapter 1: The Fall

Late last March, Don Waltner was working with his nephew, Brandon, in their barn on the family farm four miles southeast of Freeman when he slipped and fell. Don remembers it well — how he was reaching through a gate panel to get something when he lost his footing on the slippery floor, went down and cut his ear through the right lobe.

“Is my ear bleeding?” Don remembers asking Brandon, who responded, “Woah, yeah.”

Indeed, the cut was bad enough that it required a trip to the Freeman Medical Center ER, an appointment with PA Tanya Schaeffer and stitches that would be removed two weeks later in the St. Paul Lutheran Church parking lot just east of Freeman Regional Health Services because of growing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Sonja, Don’s wife, called it “a drive-up stitch removal.”

Stitches in, wound healed, stitches out, life goes on.

What Don failed to tell his family after his fall, however, was that the cut on his ear wasn’t the only casualty from the incident in the barn. He had also hit his head — hard.

“At the time, he never admitted it,” said Kieran.

“He never said that,” added Sonja. “He just came in and said he cut his ear.”

Fast-forward three weeks.

Chapter 2: The Headache

Friday night, April 24 was a long one for Stephen, the youngest of Don and Sonja’s four children and a sophomore at the University of Sioux Falls. Because the school had gone to remote learning, Stephen was home and up late working on a paper into the early morning hours of Saturday, April 25.

Because of that, early the next morning he asked his dad if he would do his chores for him.

“Usually it would be like, ‘oh yeah, no problem,’” said Stephen. “But he stood there and thought about it; it wasn’t an immediate yes. Looking back on it now, maybe he was hurting already then. But in the moment …”

Don handled the morning chores and worked through Saturday’s lunch hour before finally coming in the house around 1:45 p.m. Sonja and their second-oldest daughter, Kristin, were in the house at the time. Stephen was out tending fieldwork while Brennan and Kieran, the oldest of the four Waltner children, both had the day off from their work at Sanford Health and were at home in Sioux Falls. 

Don, who operates Ridgeview Dairy with his brother, Gregg, had come into the house with a headache — a bad one. He had been working at Gregg’s shop near his own family farm and was bothered by the burning of branches nearby.

Once in the house, he sat down at the kitchen table, ate a slice of leftover homemade pizza, took some Tylenol and went to lay down on the living room couch. It wasn’t long after that he returned to the kitchen for an icepack for his head. Five minutes later, he was running down the hall toward the bathroom, throwing up.

“That alarmed me a little bit,” said Sonja, although she had seen behavior like this before in Stephen, who is prescribed medication for migraines. “I thought, ‘Just like Stephen. A migraine and he throws up.’”

Don returned to the living room couch, but not before Sonja was on the phone seeking guidance on whether she could give her husband one of the pills Stephen takes for his migraines. First, she called local pharmacist Norm Kaufman, who wasn’t comfortable offering his opinion. Next, she called her daughter Kieran, who, with COVID-19 of global concern, suggested she take Don’s temperature — it was normal.

Finally, a third phone call connected her with Tanya Schaeffer, a PA at Rural Medical Clinics in Freeman who, as coincidence would have it, was the same person who had stitched up Don’s ear three weeks earlier. Go ahead, Tanya said, and give Don one of Stephen’s pills.

But by the time Sonja joined her husband by the couch, he had become largely unresponsive and incoherent, babbling and unable to be stirred. Then he threw up again, but couldn’t even sit up to do so.

“Krissy came in,” said Sonja, “and we looked at each other and said, ‘OK, something’s wrong here.’”

Chapter 3: Freeman ER

Gregg, Don’s brother, and Gregg’s youngest son, Brandon, happened to be working in the shop on the Don Waltner farm as Don’s condition quickly worsened. Now fully aware that this was more than just a headache,  Kristin ran out to get Gregg and Brandon, who came to the house and carried Don to the pickup for transport to the Freeman Medical Center ER. With Don still babbling, Gregg asked him, “Can you hear me?”

Don’s response? No.

The family laughs about it now, but it was no laughing matter at the time, as Sonja drove into town with Don in the passenger’s seat and Gregg and Kristin in the back seat, Gregg extending his arms forward to stabilize Don so he wouldn’t slump over.

Given Don’s unresponsive state and growing urgency, there was no COVID-19 test administered and no wheelchair entrance into the ER, which the staff there had originally planned on. Instead, Don was admitted on a stretcher, followed by a TeleMed video conference between local nurses, medical personnel from Avera and Sonja, who was the only family member allowed in the room because of COVID-19 precautions.

Two immediate actions were ordered: an infusion of Vitamin K to help thicken the blood and a CT scan, which revealed a large bleed in the right side of his brain and the revelation from Dr. Allison that Don must have also hit his head when he fell and cut his ear, causing a subdural hematoma.

Brennan, a nurse at Sanford Health, says the diagnosis made total sense.

“It’s a slow bleed over awhile,” he said. “I went back in my nursing notes and looked it up and there were three things listed: nausea, a headache and then eventual loss of consciousness — just textbook stuff.”

Given the growing severity of the situation there was no question that Don would be airlifted to Sioux Falls, but Sonja asked the medical team from Avera to take him to Sanford Health, where both Kieran and Brennan work, and where Don’s doctors practice.

By that time Dr. Allison, who had been the doctor on call following Don’s fall in the barn earlier in the month, had arrived at Freeman Medical Center and was offering additional care to the family. He told them Don’s fall must have triggered the brain bleed and offered comforting bedside manner when Don’s condition seemed to worsen.

“It was scary; he started breathing heavy, almost like he was snoring really loudly,” said Sonja. “Looking back, I think he was in respiratory distress, but it sounded like something really bad was happening. But Dr. Allison made it light. He was joking with me, like, ‘Oh, he’s quite the snorer. That’s real love to put up with that.’ He was making jokes, but really that did calm me. I just wasn’t sure what was going on.”

“I was concerned, but Dr. Allison kept me from panicking,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds,’ because it sounded bad.”

Kristin, meanwhile, was outside the ER sitting in the truck. Brandon had come to pick up Gregg and offered to take her along, but she opted to stay, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

“I didn’t know any of what was going on,” she said. “We had had scares with Dad before, but I remember fearing that this was different.”

Don, of course, remembers none of this, but breaks down in tears when hearing the story told by his family.

“It’s very emotional to think that I was the cause of all this anxiety and pain,” he said.

Sonja remembers one other specific moment from the ER in Freeman. Don, through semi-consciousness at best, before his labored breathing began, started saying something.

“He said something about home — going home,” she says. “I said, ‘Well, we’re not at home now; we’re in the hospital. We’ll get you home later.”

Chapter 4: To Sioux Falls

It was after 5 p.m., more than three hours after he first came into the house complaining of a headache, that the flight team landed in the St. Paul Lutheran Church parking lot to transport Don to Sanford. First he had to be intubated and stabilized — something Sonja says she couldn’t watch — after which his loud breathing stopped.

“That was a relief,” she says.

Sonja says the medical team then loaded him up on a stretcher, moved him out of the ER, into the ambulance and across the way to where Careflight was waiting.

“I remember when I was going out with him, LaVonne Brockmueller (a nurse at Freeman Regional Health Services) was there and gave me a big hug,” Sonja recalls. “She had tears in her eyes and it was then that I realized that this wasn’t good. I mean, I knew that, but I guess I was in shock.”

Sonja and Kristin were both there when they moved him into Careflight to say goodbye and that they would see him in Sioux Falls. Sonja said she made sure to take a photo; “I thought, ‘Oh, he’ll want to see this someday, knowing that he got to ride in a helicopter.’”

The ladies returned home to grab a few items and pick up Stephen before hitting the road. They weren’t but a few miles from their home when they spotted a huge double rainbow that would last the entire drive to Sioux Falls, all the way to the interstate.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is maybe a sign from God that he’ll be OK,’” Sonja says. “You know, here’s this traumatic thing and we weren’t sure what’s wrong and what was going to happen; we knew he was going to have emergency surgery as soon as he got up there, but somehow that rainbow just kind of gave me some hope.”

Next week: Long days, nerve-wracking weeks, coming to terms that Don might not pull through; and then, finally, a light, the long road back and the return home — just in time for Thanksgiving.