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Five years ago, 34-year-old Alex McKiernan’s life hummed along comfortably. He and his wife, Chloe Diegel, were raising their three children, a 3 ½-year-old little girl and 9-month-old twins. The couple worked hard at their family business, Robinette Farms, just outside of Lincoln.

But that idyll changed Jan. 7, 2014. McKiernan was delivering a load of produce to Lincoln when another vehicle rear-ended his car near Saltillo Road and Highway 77. He suffered severe injuries, damaging his spinal cord and paralyzing him from the waist down. He didn’t require surgery but was admitted to Lincoln’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, where he spent two months receiving inpatient care. That hospital stay was followed by outpatient rehabilitation that required three to five visits each week for nearly two years.

“I was learning to walk at the same time our twins were learning to walk,” McKiernan says.

Five years after the accident, McKiernan reflects on his long recovery and healing process. He uses a wheelchair, but he’s able to stand and walk with the assistance of crutches, allowing him to work on the farm and help raise his girls. An arborist and a rock climber before the accident, he scaled a route on El Capitan in Yosemite for six days and five nights last October.

He credits the care he received at Madonna for the strides he’s made during the challenging rehabilitation.

“I feel really fortunate to be where I am now. Madonna is an amazing place with so many available resources to help you start your new life, your new normal,” McKiernan says. “I don’t think Lincoln often realizes what a gem they have in Madonna. They have the expertise to deal with severe and complex injuries while also helping patients work on all aspects of their recovery.”

McKiernan firmly believes the technology available at Madonna contributed to his recovery. Specialty equipment such as the Exoskeleton (a wearable bionic suit that helps patients with lower extremity weakness to stand and walk) and the Lokomat (a computerized gait-training system) enabled him to get up and walk before he was physically able to do so himself.

That equipment, he says, would not have been available if not for the Madonna Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the work and mission of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals. The foundation was established in February of 1972 to accept donations and gifts, enabling the hospital to enhance its patient care and services.

Since 2000, the foundation has raised more than $25 million to support the work of the hospitals, says Suzanne Sughroue, Madonna Foundation director of development. With campuses in Lincoln and Omaha, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals employs more than 2,000 people with the mission of using a holistic approach to heal a patient’s mind, body and spirit while helping them get back to their fullest life possible.

“Madonna really has been built by the community,” Sughroue says. “To have the technology, expertise and facilities to do what we do is stunning. It’s all been achieved through philanthropy.”

Sughroue ticks off a list of facilities, services and innovative, cutting-edge technology funded through the generosity of the community: the Institute for Rehabilitation and Science and Engineering, a living laboratory that develops and patents new technology; the Hazel Abel Tallman warm water therapy pool; patient and family housing; the Kit Scott Therapeutic Learning Center, a one-room day school for children and adolescents; the James E. Ryan Chapel; the Alexis Verzal Children’s Rehabilitation Unit; a 3D printer and much more.

She says the foundation has raised its funds through three recent large campaigns, a first-ever gala held recently (see related article on page 6) that netted more than $150,000, and traditional face-to-face meetings. The Dish and Bloom Luncheon featuring James Farmer is planned for April 24 at the Lincoln Country Club, and a run/walk event is also in the works.

“The foundation focuses on how we can help the hospital bridge the gap between insurance reimbursements and what it really costs to provide the world-class rehabilitation that makes a huge difference in the lives of our patients,” she says.

From specialized wheelchairs and remote-control cars, to robotic arms and legs, to funding research and nursing scholarships, to facilitating adaptive sports and awarding grants, the Madonna Foundation collaborates with its lay advisory board, the foundation board, hospital leadership, doctors and staff to find the best ways to help patients and their families.

“What’s amazing is how our work is making an impact not only in Lincoln, Omaha and the Midwest, but throughout the country,” Sughroue says. “There are a lot of success stories.”

Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals has provided specialized care to patients from 45 states during the last five years, including people suffering from traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries, to stroke victims and others. They treated 2,295 children and adults during the last year, helping them live the best possible lives.

“Our patients are the sickest of the sick. Madonna serves the top 1 percent of the nation for the medical complexity of patients’ needs,” Sughroue says. “It’s hard, but it’s gratifying to know if they’re going to get better anywhere, it’s going to be here. There’s so much hope here.”

McKiernan felt that hope during his rehabilitation.

“Madonna was amazing,” he says. “The resources I was offered were state-of-the art, some of the best in the country.

“My body is not what it used to be,” McKiernan adds. “While I was grieving my losses at Madonna, they showed me a lot of new opportunities. I’m not the same person I used to be, but in some ways, that’s not a bad thing.”

He supports the work of the foundation as often as he can, attending the Nov. 30 gala and participating in a recent patient peer-to-peer fundraising challenge to raise money for a bionic leg.

“A lot of people have helped get us where we are,” Sughroue says. “The community has built Madonna. Without that support, we wouldn’t be around. It’s very humbling and gratifying, and we are really lucky. The community should be proud of the difference they make. It could be any one of us needing care, and it’s in our own backyard.

“It is so gratifying to help individuals who have a generous heart connect with what we’re doing at Madonna. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

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L Magazine editor

Mark Schwaninger is L magazine and Neighborhood Extra editor.

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