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The Don Waltner Story {A special report by Jeremy Waltner: Part 3}

  • Don Waltner is pictured in his telehandler in the weeks after returning home on Oct. 30. Easy work like stacking bales was something that Don was able to do around the farm following his recovery from a brain bleed and three subsequent surgeries in Sioux Falls, and something he says “helped give him purpose.” COURTESY OF SONJA WALTNER
    Don Waltner is pictured in his telehandler in the weeks after returning home on Oct. 30. Easy work like stacking bales was something that Don was able to do around the farm following his recovery from a brain bleed and three subsequent surgeries in Sioux Falls, and something he says “helped give him purpose.” COURTESY OF SONJA WALTNER

This is Part 3 of a 3-Part series about the medical journey of one rural Freeman family. Click on the links below to read the first two parts.





I, Sonja, am writing a summary of your accident so that you know why you are at Madonna and QLI, and why you have to work so hard before coming back home.”

So began a single page typed letter to Don Waltner, Sonja’s husband, written on Aug. 4 of last year. It had been a little more than 14 weeks since the Waltner family’s world was thrown upside down because of medical emergency; Don had fallen while working in his barn in late March and, on April 25, went into the family home complaining of a severe headache. Later that afternoon he was being rushed to Sanford Health in Sioux Falls for emergency surgery in response to a subdural hematoma — a slow brain bleed that was impairing Don’s ability to function and threatening his life.

Sonja wrote the letter to Don because, even though he had regained consciousness and was responsive, his poor short-term memory prevented him from remembering the story. So his wife’s words served as a reminder:

How he was flown from Freeman Medical Center to Sanford …

How a beautiful double rainbow filled the sky that evening …

How complications and challenges followed that emergency surgery …

How the family decided to go ahead with a second surgery despite the surgeon’s less-than-optimistic outlook …

How Sonja and their grown children, Kieran, Kristin, Brennan and Stephen, sang him hymns via FaceTime twice a day …

How that second surgery was successful, and the family began seeing progress and, for the first time in a long and challenging spring, feeling hope …

Chapter 9: Waking Up

That first true sign of hope came six weeks after Don was airlifted to Sanford Health, when, during a visit from Kieran, he began voluntarily moving his arms. Brennan says this is the scene in the movie when the victim’s loved one is breaking down, saying, “Just wake up, just wake up,” and then there’s that little movement and a look of surprise and awe washes across the face of the loved one. There’s probably a swell of music, as well.

“Honestly, that’s what it felt like,” said Kieran.

A few days later Don started opening his eyes, and then came the mouthed “happy birthday” and “I love you” to Sonja on June 8.

“It was a very gradual waking up,” said Kristin. “Up until that point I just expected him to wake up one day, but it wasn’t like that. Over the course of the next two, three weeks he gradually gained more movement and ability to open his eyes and mouth words.”

“That right eye still didn’t want to open,” said Sonja. “But we’d ask him to do stuff — can you wiggle your fingers? Can you open your eyes for me? And he’d try; everything took so much effort.”

Doctors still couldn’t tell the family what the long-term prognosis was because they didn’t know. Remember, the pacemaker placed in Don’s heart following an arrhythmia detected in 2014 prevented the health care team from taking an MRI, which would have shown the damage to the brain in much greater detail than the CT scans had.

“In some ways that was good,” said Kieran, “but at the same time how are you supposed to have any hope when the medical professionals couldn’t even tell you?”

But progress was being made, and it was around this time that Don underwent a third surgery to have a synthetic skull put back in — “a perfect fit,” said Brennan. (Remember also that doctors had opted to keep the bone flap off following the second surgery in an effort to return the brain into position — a surgery that was successful and likely saved Don’s life.)

Fifty staples later that third surgery was a success, too, paving the way for Don’s tough climb back.

Chapter 10: Hallucinations

Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals is a high level, in-patient program in Omaha that became Don’s home for the next six weeks.

“Being a rehab nurse, this was now a lot more comfortable for me,” said Kieran. “I knew that Madonna had a very good program and I wanted him to be transferred there.”

This was a good sign.

“But it was hard,” said Sonja. “The day before he moved I was like, ‘Is this the right thing?’ Because up to that point someone was able to visit him every day. And all of a sudden I got panicky; he’s going to be in Omaha and they have stricter regulations and we weren’t going to be able to visit as much.”

Sonja said she had second thoughts but pushed them aside at the recommendation of Kieran and members of Don’t medical team.

“It was an emotional thing to send him down there,” she said, “but I was glad that we did.”

Kieran said Don’s stay at Madonna was the hardest part for her. He was now awake but not aware and oriented, faced a battle with pneumonia and was dealing with hallucinations.

“It’s just that of recovery in a brain injury where they’re awake but they don’t know what’s going on,” Kieran said, noting that the medications he was on only exacerbated the confusion.

“He was convinced that somebody he knew was there, but they weren’t,” Brennan said, and other times on a Zoom call Don thought he was eating, but there was nothing there, and during one of Kieran’s visits Don asked her to be quiet because he thought they were in church.

“That was scary,” Sonja said.

But that, too, passed, and by early August Don was doing much better, paving the way for the move to QLI — another rehabilitation center in Omaha that’s a step down from Madonna. Most of the hallucinations had stopped, an infection had cleared up, a trach tube had been removed and he was now eating pureed foods and beginning to walk with a walker.

“He knew he was in a hospital and something had happened to him,” said Kieran.

“He just didn’t remember from day to day always,” said Sonja.

So on Aug. 4, the day he moved to QLI, Sonja wrote the letter:

“I, Sonja, am writing a summary of your accident so that you know why you are at Madonna and QLI, and why you have to work so hard before coming back home …

“You made wonderful progress at Madonna and we are so grateful to all your therapists who worked with you and gave you such great care. I know you will miss them (Katie and Drew especially) but hope for great continued progress at QLI. Our God is a great God, and has taken good care of you. The following verse is one that has sustained me.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13”

Chapter 11: On A Dime


That’s how Don describes his time in rehabilitation. He doesn’t recall much from Madonna, but has strong and good memories from QLI.

“I was so impressed with how compassionate the workers were; there were people who were worse there than I was and they were just so compassionate toward them. I was so impressed.”

Sonja said the hardest thing for Don surrounding the transfer was the isolation he had to endure upon arriving at QLI. Because of concerns about COVID-19, Don had to be alone in his room for a week upon arrival, then take a COVID-19 test, and then wait another week for the results to come back.

Alone with his thoughts, all Don could do was contemplate where he was at and try to make sense of the hand he had been dealt.

“I had no idea how serious it had gotten,” Don said of the previous few months. “No idea at all.”

Don’s stay at QLI lasted 88 days, during which time one person from the family was designated as his visitor. That person was Kieran.

“It was during those times that Kieran could come to therapy with me that were so helpful,” he said. “When you’re on these machines it can get so boring and tedious. I remember she told me the story of what happened and I just lost it. I had no idea I had been that close to death. That’s when it became very evident that God had spared my life.”

Kieran said the cognitive progress was most evident during her dad’s time at QLI; “When he would remember things from day to day, that was a huge step,” she said. “Or he would remember something that the family said on Zoom one day and he would ask me about it the next.”

Don did well physically, too. He started walking with a cane — a big milestone considering Kieran had been unsure if he would ever walk again. He also regained a lot of function in his right arm.

“To me it seems like he all of a sudden rounded a corner,” said Brennan. “He was getting so much stronger; when it came to doing things physically, it seems like he just turned on a dime.”

The family says it was during his time at QLI that they rested assured that Don would escape the permanent brain damage they had previously feared. Even during one of her visits to Don at Madonna, Kristin said she was confident in his recovery.

“Even then, even in the middle of a lot of confusion, there were glimmers of the old Dad,” she says. “I remember having conversations with him, and not fluffy, surface stuff, but kind of deep conversations about life. That was reassuring.”

Don left QLI and returned home around 3:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30 — 188 days after he left his barn and returned to the family farmhouse complaining of a headache.

Chapter 12: The Return Home

Family members say nervous energy washed over them upon Don’s return home. Sonja says she felt a mix of excitement and apprehension.

“He had been taken care of by medical professionals for six, seven months,” she said, “and now suddenly he’s going to be home and it was my responsibility to make sure he was taken care of.”

“But QLI was very aware of that,” Don says. “Part of the prerequisite for you to come home is that you have to become as independent as possible, so that you wouldn’t burden your caretakers once you got there. They had really tried to prepare me and make me as independent as possible.

“Even when I suggested that I couldn’t wait to get home so my wife could rub my feet with lotion, they just kind of laughed.”

Sonja remembers telling the team at QLI that she had two goals for Don before he returned home: That he could walk and take care of his bathroom needs on his own.

“I remember thinking, ‘yeah right,’” she says. “But he got there. He came home, he can walk, he can take care of his business by himself. They really did a lot of good preparation.”

An on-site therapist spent the following Monday and Tuesday after Don arrived at home observing his progress and determining what he was or wasn’t able to do around the farm.

“Very educational for that man,” Don says of his therapist’s visit to the Waltner farming operation. “All the therapists were excellent.”

During the interview for the story on Saturday, Nov. 28, Don said he felt good.

“I mean, I’m not like I used to be, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I can do everything that I need to do to take care of myself, and that feels really good,” said Don, who can and does do light work around the farm. “It feels good not to be a burden to my family.”

But more than how he feels physically, Don talked extensively about how he feels emotionally.

“There was a point when Kieran told me my story that really left an impression on me, that there was no doubt that God had spared my life,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t have made it, but I did.

“I just don’t understand why God thought I was worthy of saving and bringing back to life,” Don continues, noting how many seemingly healthy people were taken by COVID-19 during his stay in Sioux Falls and Omaha.

“Why did God hear all the prayers for me and answer them?” he asks. “That’s a philosophical, spiritual question that I don’t think I’ll ever have the answer to, but I sure do recognize it.”

Don also recognizes the outstanding care he received and the outpouring of support he received from friends and his larger church community.

“The people at QLI would always comment, ‘My gosh you get a lot of cards,’” he said.

And then there’s his family which walked by his side every step of the way.

“My highlight of the day was to wait until 7 o’clock to Zoom home,” he said. “Through all that I realized how special and how precious and how valuable my family was to me. Especially my wife, she was my cheerleader. There were days when I didn’t want to be there at all, but Sonja was the one who would gently say, ‘We really think this is the best place for you to be right now.’”

“I told him it was like being in college,” she said.

Don believes that it was when he finally realized and accepted his reality that he turned the corner.

“Once I said in my heart that I was going to do the best that I could do — that I was going to put forth as much effort as I can muster — I saw improvement. I knew that this is a place that cares about me and has the ability to make me better.”

Chapter 13: Purpose-Driven Life

When things were toughest — when the lowest of the low hit — Sonja says she got to the point of preparing herself for Don to die.

Kieran said so too, to which Kristin responded quietly, “Yeah, especially that first week, and then after that it was, ‘He’s alive, but he may never wake up.’”

“Yeah, I got to that point, just knowing what was going on,” said Brennan. “I’ve taken care of people in that same situation where it was awfully bleak.”

“I was probably the most in denial,” said Stephen. “But the week after the accident, that was a realization for me that I honestly didn’t think he was going to make it. I remember going outside when we came home and I had a little meltdown by myself; I thought I was going to have to go on without my dad.”

That they had each other was therapy for all.

“I have to say that, since this accident, I have not been by myself, and that has been wonderful,” Sonja says. “My kids have been with me every step of the way and that’s just what I needed. I needed to be with my kids.”

Don will be on blood thinner for the rest of his life; “There’s always going to be a concern about the thickness of his blood,” Kieran said. “What caused this accident could happen again.”

But as the family looks ahead to this new year before them, they will do so knowing and feeling the presence of God, which sustained them through the darkest of days.

“There’s no way to describe it,” Sonja said. “There are days I would get discouraged and I would cry out to God and, every time, when I asked for some sort of hope or encouragement, I got it. One time it was something that Don did to show progress. One time it was a letter from a friend. One time it was a CaringBridge message — just something that lifted my spirits and gave me hope.”

This is twice, now, that Don has survived a significant medical scare — he shouldn’t have survived that heart arrhythmia six years ago, and the brain bleed of 2020 could have just as easily taken his life.

But here he is, at age 63, around to tell his story, to love his family, to work, to worship, to pray and to contemplate his place in the world.

So what is that, Don? What is your purpose?

“I think to be willing to express my faith to other people,” he says. “It’s so easy just to go on with life and be involved with your work and just keep going, but to look for opportunities to say something to people you meet …

“I remember thinking this while I was at QLI and there were a couple of times where I would say something and share, and a couple of times it was reciprocated; whoever I was talking to felt that God was part of life. He made us want him to be part of our lives. It made me realized that, even when we’re in situations that maybe we don’t want to be in, or look to be in, that maybe there are people who need some encouragement or some words of affirmation.

“That’s part of what we need to do; that’s part of what I need to do,” Don says. “God is part of my life and has brought me through a trial that was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. But I survived it and would like to testify that God is good.

“I don’t necessarily understand it, but I will sure accept it,” he concludes. “Sometimes I feel guilty why I seemed to be extended grace and other people weren’t, but that’s not something I’m going to have to answer for here in this life. Maybe that’s something that someday we can all understand.”


You can read Parts 1 and 2 of this story in the Dec. 24 and Dec. 31 issues of the print edition. There is also a link with this story at freemansd.com