‘It’s rare to find someone as upbeat and driven’

Published 11:00 am Thursday, March 2, 2023

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Alden woman remains positive in spite of physical losses

By Kim Gooden, for the Tribune

ALDEN — “It is what it is” has been Kari Nesje’s motto ever since losing both arms just below the elbow and both legs just above the knee back in 2017.

“There’s nothing I can change about it,” she said, demonstrating the upbeat attitude her husband, John, said she has always had.

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It all began on Jan. 26, 2017, when she felt sick in the middle of the night. By the next morning, with her husband and daughters already gone to work and school, she knew something was wrong so she called 911. Within 10 minutes of arriving at the emergency room, she was unresponsive, began aspirating and went into septic shock.

The cause was streptococcal pneumonia, and it attacked her body because she didn’t have a spleen to fight it off.

She was transferred to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, where she was put on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation for four days. ECMO is a form of life support for people with life-threatening illness that affects the function of their heart or lungs. It keeps blood moving through the body and keeps the blood oxygen and carbon dioxide in balance.

“It kept my kidneys and major organs from failing,” Nesje said.

Unfortunately, the fluids built up inside her body and literally burned her skin from the inside out, and because ECMO concentrated the circulation on her organs, the circulation to her limbs was reduced and they turned black.

After nine days at St. Marys, she was transferred to the burn unit at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where she was hospitalized for five months. During that time, she was on kidney dialysis for three months and they performed the amputations on her arms and legs and did major skin grafting on the remaining parts of her body that had been damaged.

At the end of May 2017, with all of her organs functioning as they should, she was sent back to St. Marys Hospital for physical rehabilitation.

“I couldn’t push myself up or do anything for myself, so they strapped two-to-five-pound weights to my arms for physical therapy to get my muscles built up,” Nesje recalled. “Then I learned how to transfer myself to my wheelchair without needing a Hoyer lift.”

Meanwhile, her husband, family and friends were busy getting the house ready for her return.

“The only modification we had to make inside the house was to widen the bathroom by three feet and install a roll-in shower and different sink,” John Nesje said. “Then we added a deck and ramp to the front entry of the house.”

Once she got home, many adjustments had to be made by Nesje, as well as her family, because there was very little she could do for herself. She was unable to dress herself, go to the bathroom without help, brush her hair and teeth, prepare meals, and get her wheelchair up to the bed so she could transfer in and out.

And while she is still unable to do those things, she said they have all adjusted well.

Asking for help and accepting help to do things she can’t do for herself anymore has been the hardest transition, Nesje said.

But her husband and daughters, other family and friends, and the Alden community where she resides have been wonderful.

“Over the years a lot of people in town have helped. Before I could drive, people would come and help me get ready and take me where I needed to go,” Nesje said. “The best thing about small towns is that everyone chips in as much as they can.”

Ultimately, Vocational Rehabilitation Services helped her get back some of her independence by paying for modifications to their van so that she could drive again.

But before she could drive, she had to take driver’s training.

The first step was to pass a permit test which she was able to take online. Then twice a week in June 2022, she took an instructor driving course at Courage Kenny

Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley. When she completed the course, she had to take a closed course road test in Plymouth.

“I passed on my first try,” Nesje said proudly.

Among the things she can do for herself now is transferring herself in and out of the house and the van in her wheelchair, which allows her to drive by herself.

“Being able to drive has given me back at least 50% of my independence,” Nesje said. And she does not hesitate to exercise that independence.

Now she drives herself to her job at Home Depot in Albert Lea, where she has been employed for almost two years. Her job responsibilities include assisting customers at the self-checkouts if they scan something wrong, walking customers through how the self-checkout works, greeting customers and occasionally helping customers at a regular register since she is able to work the touch screens there.

She likes her job and appreciates the help she gets from co-workers with things she can’t do for herself, like putting on and taking off her apron and her driving sleeve.

Store Manager Aaron Mangan sees what many shoppers see when they encounter Nesje at Home Depot.

“It is rare to find someone as upbeat and driven as Kari Nesje,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to work with Kari for the last year and a half, and it never ceases to amaze me how one individual can have such a positive impact on the culture in our building. Our objective as a leadership team is to create an environment where associates want to work and customers want to shop, and Kari helps to make that possible.”

Shopper Sandy Anderson agreed.

“She is amazing,” Anderson said. “She is helpful and always has a welcoming smile.”

Further evidence of her independence is the fact that last summer she drove herself to Camp Courage South at Maple Lake, where she spent 10 days doing things like ziplining, tubing, fishing, swimming, mini golf, and, for the first time, horseback riding.

“I love it there,” she said. “It gives me 10 days of vacation and it gives my family 10 days of vacation, too, because they get a break from helping me. I’ve gone there three years now on camperships from Tee It Up for Campers.”

When the counselors at camp found out she had driven herself there they told her, “If we’d known you had a car, we would have made you take us out on the town!” she recalled with a laugh.

She also likes to go out to Myre-Big Island State Park where she can use the track chairs they have available to drive through the trails in the park, and she enjoys driving her wheelchair around town in Alden when the weather is suitable.

She admits the only time she gets bummed is in winter when she can’t be outside.

While Nesje has prosthetic arms and legs, she does not wear them a lot because she can’t wear them when she drives. Also, she finds it hard to balance on the legs and there is not a lot she can do with the hands because the angle of the arm isn’t right for picking things up.

She does, however, have a prosthetic feeder that slips over her arm so that she can feed herself. This prosthesis swivels, which helps it stay level for eating.

She also has a prosthetic claw to operate the gas and brakes in her van and a rubber sleeve for steering.

Nesje said what has kept her going through everything she has endured is “John and the girls. Being here to watch him grow old and the girls grow up. And family. And I’m just too stubborn!”

“She’s always had a zest for life,” her husband said. “She’s never down, she’s always upbeat. She has a million reasons to complain, but I never hear her do that.”

Her sense of humor and positive attitude are evidenced by the sticker she personalized for the back window of her van. It says, “Look, No Hands.”