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Paralysis caused by surgery gives man, family a new perspective on life

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Terry Sibert's life was on the right track. A recovering alcoholic and former dabbler in meth, he hadn't touched either for 15 years. He had a rewarding job as a project manager at Brenton Engineering. The 47-year-old had als...

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- Terry Sibert's life was on the right track. A recovering alcoholic and former dabbler in meth, he hadn't touched either for 15 years. He had a rewarding job as a project manager at Brenton Engineering. The 47-year-old had also just remarried in January.

Best of all, it was to his ex-wife, Colleen. The two had divorced in 2005 but reclaimed their love and started their lives over -- together. This time it was going to be different.

"When we remarried, the one commitment we made was that we would keep God as the center of our relationship," Colleen said.

The couple bought a home near Lake Latoka, Colleen moved back from Duluth and planned to find a job, their four grown children were happy to have the family together, and life was good.

A health issue was the only down side. In 2003, Terry had open-heart bypass surgery after suffering a heart attack. In February 2009, he had the bypass repaired and also had an aortic valve replaced after suffering an aortic aneurysm.


Throughout the next year, he experienced middle back pain and weakness in his right leg. In January 2010, around the time he and Colleen remarried, it was discovered he had a tethered spinal cord, in which tissue attachments cause the spinal cord to become attached to the spinal column.

The only solution was surgery.

On February 26, Terry walked in to the hospital in St. Cloud. He never walked out.

Halfway through the operation, the monitors "went dead," indicating there was no firing of the nerves from the chest down. The doctor determined the best course of action was to halt the surgery.

When Terry woke up, instead of having his health back on the right track, it had completely derailed. He was shocked to learn he couldn't move his legs and had no feeling from the chest down.

For the next two days, he had glimmers of hope, as doctors said the feeling could come back, and he experienced movement in his legs a couple times. But on the third day, all feeling and movement were completely gone.

He was paralyzed. And it would most likely be permanent.

"Talk about your world getting turned upside down," Terry recalled of the horrible news. "It felt like falling into a black hole. Just total disbelief. It's difficult to get your head wrapped around that."


"He wanted them to go back in and fix it," Colleen added.

But it was too late. The only choice he had was to learn to live with it -- and to get through life in a wheelchair.

Terry spent a month at a rehabilitation facility in St. Cloud relearning the basics he had always taken for granted -- getting dressed, getting around the kitchen, hygiene, etc. Then he spent another month at the Galeon in Osakis, undergoing both physical and occupational therapy.

"By the time we got to Osakis, things were starting to come together mentally, like this is possible to do," he said.

But shortly after he arrived there, his father died. In the midst of his despair, Terry had to remind himself of the good things. Most importantly having his wife back in his life.

"I couldn't have done this without Colleen," he said. "A lot of things have fallen into place. Gratitude is what has to be behind all this -- then you get a peace inside and you think, we can do this."

Also helping him cope is what he considers his new purpose. Even after the tragic turn of events, Terry has not been tempted to return to drugs and alcohol. He wants to use his paralysis to spread the message that recovery is possible, no matter what.

"I think that's what I'm supposed to do with this," he pondered. "This chair is going to help me relate to more people. I think because I've put my life in recovery, that this didn't mess that up. I'm going to be more able than ever to carry that message."


That doesn't mean there aren't days when he gets angry and frustrated.

"Absolutely! That usually happens when I start second-guessing my choices before the surgery," he said. "You want to blame. You want someone else to be responsible. The biggest reason behind the anger is when I ask why. But I have professed for a long time that the question "why" has no purpose. I won't ever get an answer as to why I'm sitting in this chair."

Instead, he is focusing on what he can do. The Siberts are remodeling their home to make it wheelchair-accessible (see related sidebar about an upcoming fundraiser). Terry had his vehicle modified with hand controls, and on June 17, he got his license to drive. He is returning to work in August. He is becoming self-sufficient and is relying less on Colleen.

"My limitations will be up here," he said tapping his head. "It's all attitude. I'm getting there."

It has been a tough lesson, but Terry has learned that there is no obstacle too great to overcome and to count his blessings.

"This has given me a different perspective on life," he concluded. "It's a hell of a price to pay if that's what it cost us, but I learned what is important in life, which is God, family and friends. There have been a lot of blessings. The biggest blessing of all is that our family has been brought together through this."

The Alexandria Echo Press and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.

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