Smart healing, better living

The road through the nature preserve near Detroit Lakes, Minn., was a favorite bike ride for Jean Melicher and her 7-year-old grandson. But on June 8, 2012, the unexpected nearly took her life.

Jean took a bad fall, hitting her unprotected head and knocking her unconscious.

An ambulance rushed her to the local hospital, then on to specialized care at Sanford Emergency Center in Fargo. Imaging scans showed a severe traumatic brain injury. Lifesaving neurosurgery and a week in the Intensive Care Unit followed.

“I don’t remember any of it,” says 61-year-old Jean, now home in Fargo. “But I do remember waking up in the Rehab Unit at Sanford South University.”

A critical window

Successful recovery from traumatic brain injury requires high-level rehabilitation. Sanford speech pathologist Jena Gorden, one of several therapists who worked with Jean, explains why.

“After a brain injury, there’s a critical window of time when intensive, individualized rehabilitation can help rewire the brain appropriately,” says Jena. “Without it, brain-injured patients can easily become the ‘walking wounded.’ They appear normal on the outside but inside things are very scrambled. Long-term limitations can be devastating.”

Jean’s 18-day stay in the rehab unit included twice-daily physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. Between therapies she napped, worked closely with her rehab nurse and functioned as best as she could. As her husband Kevin and family members can attest, she behaved oddly at times.

“We have big laughs now over some of the things I said and did,” says jean. “But that was my brain in its early stages of recovery. I ordered a glass of Pinot Noir from my nurse, I demanded to know who stole my luggage and I wanted the phone so I could call a cab to get me out of this ‘very bad hotel.’ In reality, I was in the best possible place and the care I received was wonderful. We’re extremely fortunate to have this rehab facility in Fargo.”

Accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Rehabilitation Facilities, Sanford Rehab in Fargo is also accredited for brain injury rehabilitation.

Learning the tools and using them

Jean embraced all she was taught in rehab, including brain exercises, strategies for accomplishing tasks and the limits of her fragile but healing brain. Mental exhaustion and overload can occur quickly.

“I often tell patients we therapists have the easy job,” says Jena. “We provide the tools to help them recover but they decide what to do with them. Jean’s a shining example of what happens when a patient uses the tools to the fullest. She also stays positive and has a very supportive family.”

Jean recalls her biggest challenge was accepting that life would be different. She was still the vibrant, intelligent, compassionate woman her family and friends knew, but her cognitive abilities were drastically altered.

“Basically I started this rehab journey with a 6-year-old brain,” says the retired first grade teacher. “I had a lot of work to do.”

Inpatient to outpatient

Jean progressed faster than expected. By July 3, she was able to go home, continuing with therapy on an outpatient basis. Good communication among staff ensured a seamless transition.

“Leaving was scary. I honestly wondered if I could get along without my rehab team,” says Jean. “Before I left, they introduced me to my outpatient therapists. That gave me confidence.”

Jean participated in twice weekly outpatient occupational and speech therapy at Sanford. She recently graduated from occupational therapy and today continues speech therapy. After all therapy concludes, she’ll still continue her home exercises. The brain takes 12 to 18 months to heal, sometimes longer.

Jean receives comprehensive follow-up at Sanford’s outpatient brain clinic where a multidisciplinary rehab team assesses her progress and makes recommendations.

“They put you through many tests, but that’s good. At my appointment in October, I found out I could get my driver’s license back,” says Jean. “It’s part of getting back to normal.”

Cheers for ‘Team Melicher’

Jean recalls another moment of normalcy: Attending an NDSU Bison football game with her family.

“I had my Plan A and Plan B as I always do these days, and I was well prepared, including excellent earplugs,” says Jean. “Kevin and I made it through three quarters and we left happy.”

But the team that gets Jean’s biggest cheer is her very own “Team Melicher,” all the family members, friends, neighbors and medical professionals who’ve helped her recover.

“Team Melicher has been unbelievable,” she says. “With patience and humor and smiles, they’ve put me back together again.”

To learn more about rehab at Sanford, visit

Posted Date: November 2012

Smart healing, better living

Months of rehabilitation put Jean Melicher back on track after a devastating brain injury. Hard work, supportive family and an expert rehab team joined together to make healing as quick and easy as possible.