A life-changing horror turns into tiny steps of triumph
On Dec. 4, 1994, 12-year-old Ashlee Mickle and her brother, Aaron, 16, had taken off their seatbelts for a more comfortable snooze in the backseat of their parents’ car after a family skiing vacation. Their parents, Gwen and Jack, were teachers who loved traveling and camping during school breaks. That all changed that Sunday afternoon, when another driver crossed lanes to pass the vehicle in front of her. She hit the Mickle family head-on at 60 miles per hour.
Ashlee was the least injured member of the family, with a dislocated left hip and cracked pelvis. Gwen’s neck was broken at the fourth and fifth vertebrae; Jack sustained a bruised heart and lungs with many crushed bones. As bad as all that was, Aaron suffered worse: His traumatic brain injury put him in a coma for seven months.
Suddenly, the Mickles’ social network became a lifeline as they recovered from their injuries.
“My family was in the hospital until mid-February,” says Ashlee Mickle Brozak, D.P.T.’09. “I had to grow up fast.”
Ashlee and Aaron grew up in Colorado Springs, CO, adoring each other, Gwen says, although their personalities are very different. Born prematurely, Aaron was slow to walk, talk and develop fine motor skills; he started kindergarten unable to hold a pencil. Ashlee, on the other hand, was independent.
“She learned all the skills I was working on with Aaron when she was only a toddler. She dressed herself, made her own lunch and became her brother’s model and protector,” recalls Gwen, a retired music teacher. “When they were in elementary school, I had one child in remedial class and one in gifted and talented.”
Ashlee’s fearless determination helped Aaron overcome his fears while skiing, motorcycle riding and playing in the ocean. That combined with overcoming his early developmental challenges, Gwen says, helped prepare him “for the very long journey of working through traumatic brain injury.” In turn, his post-coma fight to regain some mobility at Craig Hospital in Denver, a facility exclusively dedicated to spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and research, inspired and influenced his sister.
“Even in his coma, he had physical therapy,” says Ashlee, who worked with a physical therapist on her own recovery. “When he stood up in the parallel bars and walked for the first time, I got it in my brain that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Aaron’s long journey involved countless small steps – being able to open and close his eyes on command; moving his wheelchair by himself a single inch; laughing at a joke because he understood it; learning to communicate using an Alphasmart computer. He now lives in a group home in Colorado Springs.
Ashlee is a physical therapist with Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Healthcare in an outpatient clinic and transitional care unit in Sparta, WI. “With people who are struggling from stroke or injury that is life-changing, I feel I’m able to connect on another level given what Aaron and my parents went through,” she says. “I believe from our experience, we’ve grown closer as a family. It’s made me a better person.”
The family made sure Aaron was in Des Moines for Ashlee’s graduation from DMU, and she made sure he was part of her wedding last year to Shannon Brozak, PA-C’08, who practices at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, WI. While the family had planned to transport Aaron in his wheelchair, he “had been practicing really hard to walk with his walker,” Ashlee says. “He was able to walk partially down the aisle for me.”
“Over the years I have been proud of my children for their many accomplishments,” Gwen says. “But I have never been as proud as when Aaron walked, albeit with assistance, down the aisle at his sister’s wedding.”