It was after a night of drinking in 2015 when Andrew Strom jumped out of a third-story window.
He was suffering from depression and his life had become unmanageable after recently completing Iowa National Guard training. The suicide attempt from 35 feet fractured his spine and left him permanently paralyzed from the chest down.
After a stint in a Des Moines hospital, he was transferred to Lincoln’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, where he would spend five months working to regain his strength and learning a new skill set necessary for life in a wheelchair.
Three years later, Strom is one of six recipients of Madonna’s 2018 GOAL awards, which honor patients for outstanding courage and determination during their rehabilitation. Strom was recognized Friday at the rehab center.
When he arrived, "he was quiet, polite, calm and determined,” said Janelle Hansen, Strom’s inpatient physical therapist. “(He was) very matter-of-fact in how he approached learning about spinal cord injuries and how he would function with his injury. He always had a smile and always worked very hard to achieve independence.”
Strom, originally from Ankeny, Iowa, spent multiple hours each day at Madonna, working with equipment to regain strength. His family moved to Nebraska to be with him through his recovery.
He said one of his favorite rehabilitation exercises was learning to stand up on his feet with the help of equipment. At first he could only stand up a little at a time before his blood pressure dropped too low, but eventually he was able to stand for 30 minutes at a time.
Other rehabilitation included working with occupational therapists, exercising in a pool and playing catch with a physical therapist to practice keeping his balance.
“It wouldn’t even feel like I was exercising,” Strom said about one of the rehab machines. “But I was sweating and my heart was racing — but I still couldn’t feel it.”
He couldn’t go 75 feet by himself in a manual wheelchair, and needed help from others for most activities, Hansen said. But during his time at Madonna, Strom learned how to cook, drive and complete other tasks most take for granted.
“(He) always had such a positive attitude and ability to look forward, set goals and accomplish them,” said Molly Thomas, Strom's occupational therapist.
Strom joined Madonna’s wheelchair basketball team during his stay. There he met Lance Perez, the dean of engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Perez, who also suffers from a spinal cord injury, often discussed education with Strom.
“When he saw that I was an engineer and a professor at UNL while having a similar injury … it was motivation for him,” Perez said.
Strom is now studying engineering at UNL. He lives independently in an apartment and volunteers as a mentor in a youth robotics program at the Nebraska National Guard.
“… Andrew was in a bad place for a time, which is how we eventually came to meet," Hansen said. "… But he has chosen to be open and honest about where he’s been and what he went through. He has a YouTube channel on which he shares about depression and spinal cord injury issues. I think sharing your personal experiences like he does is quite inspiring. I am very proud of Andrew.”
Often during his inpatient stay, Strom would look at the pictures of past GOAL Award recipients in a hall of fame. He read their stories and looked up to them as he recovered, he said.
“What I enjoy doing is helping other people,” Strom said. “What I hope this award does is inspire other people, too.”