Ann Arbor woman gets through broken neck with unbreakable spirit
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
There’s a sign in Casie Karczewski’s bedroom that reads, “I’d rather be dumped by a horse than by a boy.”
Unfortunately, the 25-year-old Ann Arbor woman, who has ridden horses without incident her whole life, was recently “dumped” by a boy -- literally. In a freak accident, a male friend dropped Karczewski on her head at an Independence Day get-together, but instead of a broken heart, Karczewski suffered something much more painful: a broken neck.
Now, for at least eight weeks, the extremely active young woman will be sidelined from her many roles in life.
In addition to her job at Cafe Felix in Ann Arbor, Karczewski has been a nanny to her “second family,” the Dubins -- 12-year-old Matthew, 10-year-old Alex and 7-year-old Lauren --for years. She is also a student at Eastern Michigan University, where she hopes to graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in occupational therapy.
Karczewski is also an inveterate runner. On Memorial Day, she won the Fallen Heroes 5K run in Lansing. The run honors soldiers from Michigan who have died in war. Karczewski has first-hand experience with that. Her brother, Donald Roy McCune II, died from injuries he received while fighting in Iraq in 2004. He became the first solider from Washtenaw County to die in that war.
Now, due to the accident, Karczewski won’t be able to work her two jobs, jog or ride horses at her parents’ farm in Lapeer County, where the accident occurred. The painful halo neck brace screwed into her skull will make it hard to do much of anything, including sleep at night.
“I’m like a horse with blinders on all the time,” she said of the brace. “It’s like a big metal cage on my head. It’s a constant pressure. (The screws are) literally through my skin, through my skull.”
The ebullient young woman isn’t letting the accident break her spirit, though. Neither are her family and friends, who have rallied around her for emotional and financial support.
“I’m just a very physically active person,” she said. “I still want to train for a marathon, I still have school to look forward to.”
Courtesy of Mike Dubin
The day of the accident
Every year, Karczewski’s parents have a barbecue and bonfire to celebrate the Fourth of July at their hobby farm in Lapeer County. Family and friends convene at the farm, pitch tents to sleep overnight, eat, drink and have a general good old American time. In the morning, there’s a big breakfast to look forward to.
This year, the party was held on Saturday, July 7. Karczewski said there was alcohol served, but that it did not factor into what happened. Bartending is one of her duties at Cafe Felix, and she knows when people need to be cut off.
She said she’d had a few beers, as had her male friend, when he picked her up in jest and threw her over his shoulder.
“A bunch of us kids were horse playing and he hoisted me over his shoulder, and then when he went to put me down, I was backwards on his shoulders, so the front of me was at the front of him,” she recalled. “Instinctively, he went to put me down on my feet, but I was backwards. He put me down, dropping me accidentally on my head. It was just pain throughout my whole entire body. I definitely heard a cracking noise.”
When she heard the cracking noise, she thought it was just the sound of bones cracking like when you go to the chiropractor. She stayed on the ground and regrouped. Her mother wanted to call 911, but Karczewski just wanted to go to bed.
“I was sore like when the wind’s knocked out of you,” she said. Karczewski went to sleep. When she woke up, the pain was intense.
“The next morning when I woke up was when it really hit me,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything. I was stiff. I was worried about getting back to work on time in Ann Arbor. I drove through the pain.”
Karczewski drove all the way from Lapeer County to Ann Arbor with a broken neck.
She didn’t go to work, though, because the pain was too severe. Instead, she went home to get more rest before going to an urgent care center, where she was misdiagnosed as having misaligned vertebrae. Personnel there administered pain medications and sent her home.
Karczewski slept all day Sunday, then woke up Monday with “searing, hot pain,” she said. The next stop was the emergency room at the University of Michigan Medical Center, where a CT scan revealed her neck was broken.
“They found out right from that that I had several fractures in my C4,” she said.
There were two options: surgery or a halo brace. Surgery would have involved putting a plate in her neck and fusing the vertebrae together, which would have made it difficult for her to move her neck for the rest of her life.
Karczewski opted for the halo, which is expected to yield better results over the long run, even though it is cumbersome and will force the active young woman to sit still for a couple of months.
Like two months of house arrest
Before the accident, Karczewski had plans to make “vision boards” with her friends. A vision board is essentially a big poster board with inspirational images and quotes tacked onto it.
“My vision board will now be completely different than a week ago,” she joked.
She admits it’s going to be difficult to sit on the sidelines for so long. “I can’t do anything. I can’t work, I can’t drive, I can’t run, I can’t ride my horses. That’s my whole summer. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “It’s like house arrest. I can’t leave my house unless someone comes and picks me up.”
Sleeping has posed a problem, too. The bulky halo makes using a bed uncomfortable. Instead, Karczewski sleeps in a reclining armchair. She didn’t have one before the accident, but afterwards, a friend stepped up and got her one.
It was part of a trend. A lot of friends have come out to support her. They have even started a Web site to help raise money. While Karczewski still has medical insurance through her parents, and there is a possibility to collect some sort of disability payments down the road, being out of work for the next several months will nonetheless be a financial blow for the young woman.
Get well cards from friends and co-workers of Casie Karczewski sit on a table by the door.
As her good friend and co-worker at Cafe Felix, Blisse Beardsley, pointed out, there will need to be a lot of specialty purchases to help Karczewski get through the next couple of months.
It wasn’t easy getting Karczewski to accept the help, her friends say, but they believe she’ll get through the ordeal.
“I think she’s one of the strongest people I know,” Beardsley said. “She can definitely handle it, but I think it’s just going to be such a challenge because she’s so independent.”
Mike Dubin, the father of the three children that Karczewski cares for, has practically watched her grow up, she’s worked for the family for so long.
“Casie has been through far more in her life than most people should have to and will endure,” he wrote in an email, citing the death of her brother in Iraq. “She has come out the other side of all of these challenges a remarkable young woman.
“My only concern for her in this time is that she take the time her body needs to heal. She is not one to let grass grow under feet. But I am so thrilled to see her friends rally around her, spend the time with her to help her in this early stage of healing, and help to build the support she will need to get through the next several months.”
Karczewski is expected to make a full recovery, but has a long road of doctor appointments and X-rays ahead of her.
In the meantime, friends like Beardsley stay close and wait for her to get better. “I don’t know how many times I’ve started to cry,” she said. “Cas doesn’t cry, but I cry.”