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Deb Waechter

Deb Waechter poses for a photo that appears in next year’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital calendar.

The words were printed on the back of her shirt.

Deb Waechter wore it that Saturday in 2014, the first Good Life Halfsy, when she ran 13.1 miles just 10 months and a day after surgeons sewed her head back up.

A photo of Waechter wearing that running shirt is on next year’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital’s calendar.

The 50-year-old mother of two is standing in front of the Lincoln Community Playhouse, her gray T-shirt telling her story in big black letters: "I have a brain tumor ... What’s your excuse?"

The photographer had her put it on backwards, Waechter said last week.

It made sense.

She no longer needed Halfsy runners to see why she was making her way slowly — but surely — toward the Haymarket.

But Madonna needed its patients to see what was possible.

It’s been a decade since Madonna first started printing its wall calendar, a combination holiday card to supporters and staff and an inspirational marker of time that hangs in every patient’s room.

Each month features a former patient — young and old, stroke patients, patients with brain injuries from car accidents, spinal cord injuries — living their lives.

It motivates current patients, said Tami Rudder, Madonna’s marketing, media and public relations specialist.

Many use it to cross off the days until their release.

Then the calendar goes home, Rudder said.

And a new one is hung in its place.

* * *

Deb Waechter’s moment in the Madonna spotlight comes in November.

“That picture is all Deb,” said Gail Finsand, a speech language pathologist at Madonna. “She came in with such a bright spirit.”

Finsand worked with Waechter after she was released from inpatient care at the rehabilitation hospital in Lincoln in March of 2014.

She’s the person who alerted Rudder to her former patient and her exceptional spirit.

“She had such a commitment to recovery,” she says. “These patients really have to commit to a home program and she absolutely did.”

Waechter’s brain tumor had been benign but potentially deadly. A rare and slow-growing tumor called an epidermoid that she’d likely had since before birth.

“It’s not a good thing to have in your head,” Waechter said.

And it was beginning to press on her brain stem and make its presence known.

She’d developed double vision. She’d noticed her legs and feet losing feeling and strength. She tripped on carpet. Stumbled and turned into walls.

But she figured it was fatigue from running. Or clumsiness. Or her habit of always being in a hurry.

When her sight didn’t improve, she was referred to a specialist who made the diagnosis.

She prepared her will.

Her seven-hour surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha went well. The complications came later. She developed a brain bleed and needed an emergency intubation. All of her cranial nerves were stretched. She had a paralyzed vocal cord and swallowing was nearly impossible.

A five-day stay turned into three weeks, followed by a month at Madonna, followed by more months of outpatient treatment.

Waechter started her stay in the stroke unit. She had to learn to walk again, to swallow, to talk above a whisper.

It was six months before her feeding tube was removed.

Her goal: To eat at her daughter’s high school graduation.

She did.

She returned to her old job in finance, but it was too much. She couldn’t sing in musicals. She couldn’t run without wearing out. She still struggled with double vision.

It took time and more than just showing up for her therapy.

“I think she really saw that the therapist can help me set the course, but I am the one who ultimately has to do it,” Finsand, her speech therapist said.

And she did.

“She took it a day at a time and she was grateful for each step in her progress.”

When Madonna asked her to pose for its calendar, Waechter answered a long list of questions about her therapy and recovery.

She wrote about her challenges and her blessings. Going back to college (she graduated this month with an associate’s degree in human services from Southeast Community College).

Helping coach new runners. Helping out at the Community Playhouse, auditioning for roles again.

“I have traveled some and enjoy each and every moment I am blessed to wake up on this earth,” she wrote.

Her two kids are grown up now. John Mason is 24. Emma Louise is 22. She has a part-time job at the front desk at the Legacy Estates on Van Dorn Street that she loves.

Her husband, Matt, and her children and her family got her through, she says. And so did UNMC and Madonna.

“I will be indebted to them forever.”

She gives herself a little bit of credit, too.

“To me attitude is everything. I knew the only way to overcome any of this was to work my butt off.”

* * *

Madonna’s Lincoln campus has 271 beds; its Omaha hospital, open since 2016, has 105.

The patients on this year’s calendar come from all over the Midwest — Kansas, South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska.

A Lincoln police officer who suffered a traumatic brain injury after an on-duty assault. A Millard West senior who hit his head in a skateboarding accident that almost killed him. A Sioux City mom temporarily paralyzed by Guillain Barre Syndrome. A Wichita college student who suffered a stroke and went on to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees with honors.

“Oh, so many stories at Madonna,” Rudder says. “And just 12 months in a year.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK.

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Columnist

Cindy Lange-Kubick joined the Lincoln Journal Star in 1994 and has loved covering life in her hometown ever since. Will write for chocolate. Or coffee.

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