Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein's planned political comeback ended on Friday, April 13, with an accident that almost took his life as well.
Stenglein stumbled and fell hard in the alley behind his northeast Minneapolis home, suffering a traumatic brain injury. His college-student daughter Eleanor was with him and immediately called for an ambulance.
"I was never the most coordinated human," Stenglein said last week with his usual dry, dark humor. "I was always the last to be picked for a team."
Eight months ago, the prognosis was unclear for the 62-year-old father of three grown children. For a month, he was in intensive care at HCMC. He had a breathing tube and was semiconscious much of the time. He had three brain surgeries to stem the bleeding, relieve pressure by lifting part of his skull, to drain the blood with a shunt before a final procedure to, as he said, "put it all back together."
But with a traumatic brain injury, no one knew whether he would walk or talk, or proceed with plans to try to win back a seat on the Hennepin County Board after a hiatus in the private sector. Stenglein enjoyed the spotlight of the board where he and then-board Chairman Mike Opat put together the deal that built Target Field.
Amazingly, Stenglein has recovered much of his old life, saying he's at 90 percent, but, he says, "that's a far cry from 100" percent.
He lacked the stamina to run for office and didn't formally enter the race for the County Board. Now, he's in physical therapy three days a week, isn't as steady on his feet and has problems with his shoulder, adding that, "losing 50 [pounds] would help."
Stenglein said he's "foggy" when he gets tired and he's supposed to sleep to let his brain heal, but added, "You can only sleep so much. … You don't want to be seen as a total zombie. Every day I get a little better."
From 1996 until June 2012, Stenglein was on the board, representing Golden Valley, Medicine Lake, St. Anthony, northeast and north Minneapolis, as wells as parts of Crystal, New Hope and Plymouth. He stepped down to take the job as CEO and president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
Back on the job
An extroverted glad-hander, successful entrepreneur and mischievous quipster, Stenglein was a big-picture guy with minimal patience for operational minutiae. He quickly moved on to work in government relations. Since 2016, he has been working with Minneapolis developer Alatus. Now he's back on the job, taking the bus to work for now instead of driving. He's quick to point out the company's brisk sales in north Minneapolis.
Opat, who remains on the board, is a close friend and was a frequent visitor to the hospital, especially early on when he said the condition was "dire" with friends and family stuffing his hospital room.
His wife, Lynette Wittsack, said, "We've been very fortunate. You just never know" with brain trauma. But she added that as soon as he started to recover and speak, "We saw early on that all the personality was there and we were going to get the old Mark back."
A sore throat didn't stop him from cracking jokes with the nurses.
In his sedated state, Stenglein said, it was like "being part of a conference call but you're not participating." He recalled his daughter saying to him, "Dad, we're keeping an eye on your temperature."
He responded to commands. When the surgeon stopped in and asked him to wiggle his toes, he was able to do so. " I remember thinking, 'That makes him happy,' " Stenglein said.
But he had another month ahead of him in residential rehab where he was uncharacteristically depressed. "I had to learn to walk again. That was a pivotal point in my recovery," he said. "I felt so good about myself when I started walking."
He's under orders to "keep both feet on the ground at all times," he said. "I never liked ladders anyhow."
This was his second brain injury. The first occurred when he was 2 months old. He didn't have any white-light experiences with this fall, but in the immediate scramble afterward, Stenglein said, "I know I heard my father's voice. He's been dead for 20 years."
Stenglein said he heard the words, "Don't drop him." He surmised his father's words came from the recesses of his unconscious memory of what his father said decades ago during the first injury.
As for life lessons, he said, "Just value every day. Things can happen in a split second like they did to me."