Lizz Cassler, a 17-year-old junior at Southeast Polk High School, was getting a ride from a friend on an icy day in December 2008 when the car they were in smashed into a truck pushing a plow. The force of the crash seriously injured Lizz and over the course of the next few hours, days and weeks, doctors were unsure whether she would live.
With the odds stacked against her, it would have been understandable for Lizz to lose her competitive spirit.
To the contrary, the car accident that left her fighting for life only fueled Lizz's internal fire. So determined to thrive in the face of the traumatic brain injury suffered in the accident, Lizz told all who would listen that she was going to run again. It was during intensive inpatient rehabilitation at On With Life that Lizz began to breathe life into her goal.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Lizz began inpatient rehabilitation at On With Life's Ankeny campus in April 2009. It was everything the Casslers were looking for.
"God put the right people in Lizz's life at the right time," Lizz's mother, Barb, says. "The therapists, the aides, everyone. It was a divine plan."
Lizz was an accomplished athlete prior to the accident. A leader on the soccer field, she had plans to play collegiately at the University of Northern Iowa. While the accident made that impossible, her competitive spirit took over during her recovery. She wasn't just going to be discharged from On With Life, she was going to run right out.
"I've always had a good work ethic," Lizz says while reflecting on those early days at On With Life. "When I would go to the gym for my therapy sessions, we would go by others on the treadmill and I was envious. I had to bypass them to go to machines that were not as difficult."
Seeing others with traumatic brain injury improve served as motivation for Lizz. She isn't real sure when she decided she would run again, but once the seed was planted in her mind, no one was going to tell her she couldn't.
"They [her caregivers at On With Life] have gone the extra mile from Day 1," Lizz says. "I told my physical therapist that I wanted to run and she put everything into that."
Lizz did run out. Tammy Miller, COTA/L, BS, CBIS, CCM, was an occupational therapy assistant during Lizz's inpatient
rehabilitation. She says it was a surprise to no one when Lizz achieved her goal.
"As caregivers, we are challenged each day to learn what makes each person tick; what motivates and inspires them," says Tammy, who now manages the outpatient service. "With Lizz, we could see that she had a certain sassiness and spark. She was going to set a goal and she was going to exceed it. She is a very determined young woman."
Going Further, Faster
Lizz was so determined that simply running out of inpatient rehabilitation was not enough. Lizz wanted to run further -- and faster. So, this spring she signed up to run a 5K. Gail McGaughy, PT, C/NDT, CLT, CBIS, who helped Lizz train for the race, vividly remembers the day Lizz announced her intentions.
"She walked in and told me she was going to do a 5K," Gail recalls. "I knew right then that she would."
Training for the 5K served as a part of Lizz's continued outpatient rehabilitation -- she comes in every few months for what Gail calls a "tune up." Gail says it was impressive to watch her continue to make progress.
"She was always looking to improve in each session," Gail says. "Because of her sports background she knew what it took to perform at a high level. She just had that in her -- and she was sassy. She wasn't going to let anything stop her."
On June 15, at the Miles for Miracles 5K in Ankeny, Lizz laced up her shoes with Gail and her first inpatient therapist, Shannon, at her side. The three of them set about marking another milestone in Lizz's recovery.
She finished the race in 44:04, running a 14:10 per mile pace, stopping to walk for just seconds about two miles into the race. All involved--Lizz, Shannon, Gail, Barb and others--broke into tears as the trio crossed the finish line.
"At the end, I was overcome with emotion," Lizz says. "I just started crying. It was a happy cry."
Refusing to Be Defined
Gail cried right along with the rest. She says watching a determined young woman thrive in the face of life with a traumatic brain injury was inspiring.
"As a therapist, it was emotional to see her finish and know that I played a small part in helping her achieve something remarkable," Gail says. "In the whole neuro rehab process, so many get defined by their brain injury. Lizz refuses to let that happen."
And Lizz refuses to stop.
"I want to continue to improve," she says. "I am a really goal-oriented person and I'm motivated by people who tell me I can't do something. "I feel like I have to keep going. I can't give up because God gave me this second chance."