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West Union Woman Champions Back Injury
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West Union Woman Champions Back Injury

WEST UNION – Sandy Bishop says the sun is shining a little brighter now ... six months after a fateful accident in the yard of her home that would have left her dead if her husband and a neighbor hadn't been just footsteps away.

It was a Friday afternoon, July 19, 2013, and just two weeks after her daughter Gayle's wedding, when Sandy decided to tackle some yard work. Mowing the lawn with a different mower, she climbed a small hill and suddenly the machine tipped backward, pinning her beneath.

The irony, is no one should have been there to save her. Yet her husband Gary, and neighbor Steve Bartenhagen were standing by the front door to the family home and witnessed the whole thing. While the 1,200 pound lawnmower shut off automatically when it left it's wheels, it had Sandy pinned beneath, her back bent backward at the chest.

Her first thoughts were of being unable to get air in or out of her lungs and she was sure death was upon her. And the pain – was excruciating. Bartenhagen lifted the lawnmower from Sandy's chest – something he's sure he could never do on any other given day. Once EMTs arrived, Sandy, who never lost consciousness, says she began to think perhaps she had a shot at surviving the ordeal.

At the time of the accident, Sandy worked for Palmer Hospice in West Union and earlier that day, had spoken with some of the same people in the hospital that just hours later, she would see again in the emergency room.

"It felt good to be taken care of by friends," she admits.

Bishop was life-flighted by MedLink to Gundersen Lutheran in LaCrosse, Wis. after she was stabilized at Palmer Lutheran Health Center. Her diagnosis of a flailed chest was augmented by eleven broken ribs, and pulmonary contusions. Both her sternum and several vertebrae in her back were broken.

"With every breath I attempted I could feel bones moving," she says. "And I felt every bump in the pavement as they wheeled me out to the helicopter." After that point, the ride on air offered a little more comfort, even if the pain she felt was beyond description.

Steve Bartenhagen drove Gary to LaCrosse and the couple's daughters, Gayle and Renee met them there when they could. Son Kyle was on active duty with the National Guard several hours away in Minnesota, but was eventually able to join his family. Son, Troy, serves with the U.S. Army in Hawaii, so stayed in touch via phone calls to family members, as he had just been back in Iowa for his sister's wedding. Sandy's sister, Nancy McIntyre, of Hawkeye, was also there to hold Sandy's hand when needed.

Although pain medication was administered immediately upon the EMTs' arrival, Sandy says a spinal block finally began to offer some relief. She was hospitalized in LaCrosse for about a week before she was released to skilled care at Palmer Lutheran Health Center back in West Union, which she called home for the next eight days. 

In early August, Bishop began to continue her recovery from the couple's rural West Union home. She worked with physical and occupational therapy departments attempting to regain strength, and learning to walk up and down stairs.

Throughout, she has been required to wear a 'turtle shell' brace for her back any time she was not sleeping.

For Sandy to get up and out of bed in the morning, she needed assistance putting her brace on before she ever stood up. That posed a challenge in that none of the children still live at home and Gary is a truck driver who doesn't always return home each night. 

That's where the help of neighbors came in. Barb Spies, Peg Kuhn and Linda Gibson stepped in as needed, arriving early to help Sandy get fitted in the brace that held her back and ribs. Through the fall, Bishop received Home Health services for PT and OT. An aide visited to provide baths, and the Bishop home was modified to allow her to get around with a walker at first, then a cane.

In September, returning to Gundersen in LaCrosse for a re-evaluation, Sandy learned that X-rays showed several vertebrae were collapsing. Surgery took place and the fractured vertebrae were removed and replaced with hardware with immobilizers in her back.

At that time, Bishop was told she'd have to continue wearing the back brace another three months.

At a five week check-up in mid-November, she learned the plate on the left side of her spine designed to fuse three of her vertebrae had slipped about a centimeter and threatened to damage her spinal cord. Although surgery was recommended, action was delayed for three weeks when a peer review was requested by her insurance company. Bishop admits the news not only made her cry, but she was depressed about her grim outlook.

Finally, on Dec. 6, eight vertebrae were fused and the hardware holding the discs was moved to a different position. This time, surgeons deflated her lungs, entered from her back and even removed one of her ribs to access the area. Although it was like starting all over again, Bishop says she managed to keep her chin up through the holidays while looking ahead to her Jan. 21, 2014 follow up in LaCrosse. 

When that Tuesday arrived, Bishop was thrilled to learn her injuries had finally healed to where doctors felt comfortable giving her a date when she'll no longer have to wear her back brace.

Throughout the ordeal, controlling her back pain was a challenge. Bishop's turtle shell was modified a couple of times as she lost 70 pounds over the six months of her recovery, as pain medicine dulled her appetite.

Getting a positive report on Jan. 21 has allowed Sandy to start thinking about riding her yellow, Honda Goldwing motorcycle again, this summer. She also learned she'll be a 'Grandma'  this August.

The accident July 19 that nearly took her life, made her realize how fleeting life can be. These days she lives by a motto similar to the words on a plaque she saw while shopping: "In the blink of an eye everything can change, so forgive often and love with all your heart. You may never have that chance again."

Bishop says her accident has changed in her life in so many ways. "I felt so loved and supported every step of the way.

"Palmer is very dear to me," Bishop said of the hospital and it's related departments. "The services offered here locally have always been the Bishop family source of health care. There is no place like home. To have these resources available to us makes this a strong community. I know first hand how dedicated the employees are to the care they provide. I am forever grateful."

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