Nicole Grehn lost control of everything when her heart stopped. She’s taking it back now.
by Joni Moths Mueller
Had she been in a car accident or running a marathon Nicole Grehn says it might be easier to understand. But she was standing — literally — in a gas station in Minocqua, Wis., when she collapsed. Her heart had suddenly stopped beating. Then a collection of lucky coincidences fell into line: the gas station attendant recognized the emergency and called 911; an ambulance driving past at that exact moment was empty; and Howard Young Medical Center stood directly across the street. Grehn was swept up and placed in the hands of ER doctors within minutes. That was just the beginning.
She was flown to regional magnet Aspirus Wausau Hospital, where she coded 40 times. From there she was rushed by ambulance to Milwaukee’s Froedtert Hospital adult trauma center, where she flat-lined 30 times. Her body began shutting down, her organs failing, sepsis spreading and her legs dying. Doctors hoped to save her life with bilateral above-the-knee amputation of her legs. It worked. Almost immediately her heart responded. Four days later, she woke from an induced coma. “For two days I didn’t know my legs had been amputated,” she says. “Then I lost it.” Just nine days had changed everything.
It took nearly four months to figure out what went wrong for the seemingly ultra-healthy 24-year-old. It was catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia or CPVT, with a mutation doctors hadn’t seen before.
But that’s the past, maybe fewer than two years in calendar days but light years ago in Grehn’s mind. Now she’s at Marquette in the generalist entry master’s program for non-nursing graduates. She’s going to be a nurse, a darn good one. She knows it because she saw the best nurses do their best for her. Of course it took her some time to arrive here. “I thought I’m never going to be able to do anything again. I’m screwed,” she says of the early days of trying to accept this contortion of her life.
After she got her first set of prosthetic legs, things began to change. “That was one of the best feelings in my entire life,” she says of the moment she stood. She still had to rely heavily on her wheelchair and crutches because standing was tough and painful. She wasn’t satisfied.
She began surfing the web to watch YouTube videos of bilateral above knee amputees walking comfortably and smoothly. “I saw that and said, ‘I want that to be me.’” She traveled to Hanger Clinic in Oklahoma City for a boot camp for amputees and began putting a plan in motion. “I rolled into the room and saw about 40 kindred amputees.”
Because of extreme phantom pain she was reluctant when asked to try standing on her amputated legs. But she decided to push on when a doctor coaxed her into stepping onto the palms of his hands. “There was no phantom pain for the first time in eight months,” she says, still incredulous. “The minute I saw that, I thought I can do this, I’m ready. I applied to Marquette that very night. I was nervous, but I hit ‘send’ on my application.”
The acceptance email came days later. “I was validated. They believe in me, believe I can do this, and they don’t even know me,” she remembers thinking. “That was a key factor in my recovery.”
Grehn says that losing her legs made her find a purpose in life and more confidence than she felt before losing her legs. “I’ve made a family of people I never would’ve had if this hadn’t happened to me,” she says of her friends at Hanger Clinic.
In three years she’ll be a nurse — no doubt in her mind — a nurse because she says it was nurses who got her through this awful ordeal. And she’ll be an orthopedic nurse because that’s where she can make a difference. “I’ll be able to give something totally different, to walk into the room of a fresh amputee and tell them that they can do this, that their life isn’t over,” she says, “that, yes, it’s going to suck, yes, it’s going to be hard work but it’s going to get better. I wish I’d had someone who could’ve told me that.”