Every high school senior looks forward to going to prom, preparing for college, and gaining more independence. But in Emma Kiefer's case, these important events seemed not only unlikely, but impossible.
Emma was a 17-year-old senior in high school, driving home from baby-sitting on a Sunday night when her vehicle was struck by a drunk driver who ran a stop sign. Emma was rushed to the hospital with critical, life-threatening injuries.
"As we were driving to the hospital in Fort Dodge, we could see LifeFlight coming in. Being an EMT myself, I know you can call LifeFlight from the field, but it's uncommon and only for the most serious injuries," said Angie Kiefer, Emma's mom. "I had a mother's intuition, and I knew it was for Emma."
The chaplain met Angie at the door - an indication of how serious Emma's injuries were. She had suffered a collapsed lung, a shattered pelvis, broken ribs, and multiple fractures. But the primary concern was the injury to the right frontal lobe in Emma's brain. Her condition was so serious that she was put into LifeFlight and transferred to Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines. Emergency surgery removed a part of her skull to help decrease swelling in her brain.
Emma spent the next six weeks in a coma, fighting for her life at Blank. Knowing she would need intense rehabilitation, the Kiefers began researching rehabilitation centers across the United States.
"We chose On With Life, not only for their expertise and amazing outcomes, but because they were so family oriented. We could be there with her during her stay and participate in her therapies," said Angie.
Emma arrived at On With Life unable to walk, talk, eat, or swallow. Therapy was initially very difficult for Emma, so therapists used Emma's interests to get her excited about therapy.
"Every session is tailored to each individual, which in Emma's case allowed us to be creative in our therapy sessions and incorporate things that were important for her," said Megan Ihrke, speech therapist at On With Life. "Any time you can personalize therapy to the individual, the individual is more invested, and the therapy is more functional. This was definitely true for Emma."
Emma had been a golfer, so Angie brought Emma's clubs from home, and Jacque Thole, physical therapist at On With Life, took Emma to an indoor driving range, where they worked on sequencing, balance, and endurance.
"We had to make the rehab experience real and functional for her," said Thole. "Once she saw that she could hit the ball again, she became so much more invested and engaged. We saw her real personality come through - she was laughing and having fun."
Every girl dreams of dancing at prom, but Emma was unsure if she would have the strength or ability to attend her senior prom. So for the first time ever, On With Life hosted a practice prom to help prepare Emma for the real thing. So without even knowing it, the prom, and the preparation for it, became a part of Emma's therapy. Her speech therapy sessions, became event planning sessions, physical therapy became a time to practice dance moves and music therapy sessions were used to work on developing playlists of favorite songs. Then, the night of the event, 15 of Emma's friends arrived in their prom dresses and tuxes to celebrate a truly magical night.
"It was the coolest thing I've ever been a part of," said Ihrke. "Emma's friends, family, and community really supported her though this."
At the top of Emma's wish list was to graduate with her class. So therapists and volunteers worked with Emma on reading, comprehension, sitting and endurance. They also worked on creating and giving a speech to her high school classmates on brain injury, something Emma was very passionate about.
"I didn't want them to treat me differently. I needed them to understand that I wasn't different; I'm still the same person," said Emma.
After being discharged from On With Life, Emma did everything a high school senior should do. She went back to high school. She danced at her prom. She played on the golf team. She graduated. She showed her 4-H projects at the county fair - her banana chocolate chip cookies were even selected for state showing.
Even though other outpatient therapy centers were closer to their home in Lehigh, Iowa, Angie and Emma made the decision to continue outpatient therapy at On With Life, with a focus on preparing Emma for college. In these therapy sessions, Emma worked on ways to be successful at college, such as navigating crowds while carrying her books, planning her schedule and developing good study habits.
In the fall, Emma attended Iowa Central Community College, just like she had always planned. She successfully finished her first semester of college, and while she had access to accommodations if needed, she did it all on her own and earned an A and two B+'s. Emma is now working toward an Associate's degree in early elementary education and then plans to transfer to Buena Vista University and pursue a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education degree with an emphasis in special education.
"This accident may have knocked me off course for a short time, but I didn't allow it to change my plans. It is really important that I still live a life I want," said Emma. "It's an adventure, and even I surprise myself sometimes by what I can do."
Prior to the accident