Rising up


Rising up

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.”


  1. Nicole, your story is so inspiring and you will help others who have lost hope. You will make a brilliant nurse because you have been there and you understand how tragedy can translate into meaning. May you continue to be blessed along your journey.

    1. My Facebook friend what a touching story I never asked u what happen but I thank God for this here I’m thrill an as u know I’m a double amputee to so stay Blessed

  2. I saw you in that ICU bed, you had so many people working on you. you had so many pumps filled with medication keeping you alive, so many doctors in and out of that room. But more then that, you had so many people cheering you on. your room was full of picture of you. The waiting room was full of friends and family and supporters praying and cheering for you. When your gurney rolled down the hall with you on it the halls were lined with loved ones giving you their love and strength to keep fighting, and then there was your mother. She never gave up hope she never stopped believing in your strength and courage. When the doctors told her they may have to take both of your arms, I asked her how much farther she was willing to go and she looked at me and said, how can I let her go when I see how hard she is fighting. When I see how much life is left in her, she’s not giving up and neither will I. You are a miracle. You have strength that is undeniable. You have faced things and dealt with things that would make most people give up. You have a journey that I am proud to be able to see unfold, and I know that anything you set out to accomplish will be conquered with your faith and courage, and most of all your humor and your smile. Also with all the love and support of your family and friends who will never stop believing in you. You go girl! Nicole strong!!!

    1. Wow. My mom told me that story, about you asking her that. She is a pretty amazing person, strength comes from somewhere right? Thank you for sharing this. Im so blessed to have had people like you around for support.

  3. Nicole, we are all very proud of your achievements, you are a true superstar with so much to offer, your patients will be blessed to have you as their nurse, it’s a real honor to know you! Hopefully you can make it back to Bootcamp in April.

    1. Kevin! This means a lot coming from you. Many people will probably read this comment and not know who you are and how you have helped to shape my journey. From the very first moment I met you, i knew that you were obviously a special soul as well. I know you will say, that it is all up to you, you do the work, I provide the tools, but reality is you impact people in a way that could make someone feel like they can take on the world, and that’s just what I am doing! I am hoping to make it to bootcamp! School is hard to miss! But bootcamp is totally worth it! Look forward to seeing you soon!

  4. Some patients rock your heart and soul. Yep Nicole you are so strong and I am so proud of you! Can’t wait to call you my colleague !

  5. You are a blessing ! I fill in my heart you will be the best nurse to everyone that you touch. I’m so happy to hear of your great progress and truly wish you the very best. You are one amazing woman and inspire everyone, may God help you with this journey. Love to you, I’m a friend of your grandma Linda!

  6. Wow just meeting you the other day at St Lukes and reading your story has inspired me so much, God is real and you are a living testimony it was such a pleasure to meet you and the sky is the limit!!!!!!

  7. What a beautiful and awe- inspiring article on an amazingly strong young woman. God had a purpose for you and it is great to see you fulfill that.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four × two =