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Setting a New Course

The tingling and numbness started in his lower legs and gradually worsened. Rick Giesel and his wife Susan blamed their new mattress. Or maybe it was all the boxes Rick hauled while moving to their new home in Fargo.

But a spinal tumor? That wasn’t on their list. Imaging tests in July 2011 clearly showed the tumor pressing against his spine, threatening the simplest activities -- like walking.

Rick recalls his reaction to the diagnosis. Before telling anyone, including Susan, he took a moment by himself in his parked car outside the clinic. He prayed that God would give him the courage and strength to get through this.

“The diagnosis was shocking. And at that point I didn’t know if it was cancer,” says the 59-year-old. “All my life I’d been so fortunate with my health and had always been active -- hunting, walking, hiking, golf.”

Within a week, he underwent surgery to successfully remove the tumor, which proved benign. Next came the most difficult challenge of all: learning to walk again.


Rick had no feeling in his right leg when he began his two weeks at Sanford’s Rehab Unit. He struggled with coordination, balance, weakness and pain. Just getting out of his hospital bed and walking across his room required the help of two people and a walker.

But early on he set his course. “My goal was to walk and be independent again. I also decided that even though it would’ve been easy to be depressed, I wouldn’t succumb to that. A positive attitude would bring positive results. But you have to realize it wasn’t just me,” he says. “I had Susan and a first-rate rehab team by my side the whole way.”

In addition to being a patient, Rick viewed his experience through another set of eyes: those of a health care executive. He’s president of Sanford Health Network.

“I was a little like one of those secret shoppers,” he says laughing. “Many of the people involved in my care didn’t realize my Sanford connection. I was just one of the many patients they helped – and Susan, too. We were both treated like family. For a couple people who were new to the area without relatives close-by, that meant a lot.”


Rick put 110 percent into rehab, treating it like his fulltime job. Each morning he received a schedule outlining a full – and tiring -- day of tasks: occupational therapy, physical therapy and more. Safely, steadily, he achieved one incremental goal after the next, including:

    • Getting out of the hospital bed without help.
    • Navigating his room without a wheelchair.

“My first big accomplishment was one lap around the physical therapy gym -- with a walker,” he says.

Morning and night Susan brightened his day. She’d join him for breakfast then return that evening for dinner, bringing a different international meal each night. Over a glass of wine (with doctor’s permission), they’d talk about their day, just as they would have at home. Weekend visits from their beloved black Labs lifted his spirits, too.


The expertise, passion and dedication of the rehab team inspired Rick. And unbeknownst to him, he inspired them. They noticed important characteristics he brought to his rehab journey:

    • A positive attitude. Says Dr. Scott Fillmore, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist: “Rick was one of the most determined, motivated patients I’ve ever worked with. And always with a great attitude.”
    • Seeing beyond. Says Jessica Pladson, inpatient physical therapist: “Rick never felt sorry for himself. Instead he encouraged other patients on the unit. He was also interested in what we as his rehab team were doing, including the theories behind the exercises.”
    • Playfulness. Says Dana Wermers, primary nurse: “Rick’s and Susan’s sense of humor made it a joy to work with them!”
    • Ongoing goals. Says Kathy Erhardt, inpatient occupational therapist: “Rick really wanted to drive again. He went through our specialized program and today he’s driving.”
    • Hard work – and gratitude. Says Tara Haj, outpatient physical therapist who continues to work with him: “He’s willing to do whatever it takes, including the most challenging exercises and activities. And he always says ‘thank you’ at the end of every session, even when he’s sweating and very tired.”


Today Rick is back at work at Sanford. Impeccably dressed in a crisp white shirt, he has the presence of an executive -- but not the confident, rapid gait. A slow, deliberate walk with no assistance satisfies him … for now.

“This whole experience reset the bar,” he says. “I woke up this morning, that’s good. And my wife was next to me, that was good. I knew this was going to be a good day.”

Posted Date: December 2011