STURGEON BAY, Wis. — Nine years ago, Kayla Wilke of Sturgeon Bay was comatose in a hospital and her parents were struggling to understand that their vibrant, athletic daughter likely would never talk or walk.
Wilke, now 29 years old, fell 34 feet from the roof of a Stevens Point building early in the morning Nov. 13, 2009. She initially landed on a first floor awning and was catapulted onto the cement sidewalk. Her upper right side struck the sidewalk first, followed by her head and the rest of her body.
While it was a fall that Wilke miraculously survived, the miracles didn't end there. Wilke's courage and fortitude, along with her faith in God and the work of medical teams which didn't give up, overcame the grim prognosis.
"It really is a miracle because she broke so many bones, her neck, her back, and others. Thankfully, she didn't land on her head, but her entire right side from her hip up, so many bones were broken and her lungs were collapsed. It was horrible, horrible, horrible," said Cheryl Wilke, her mother.
Kayla Wilke's dreams of being an athletic trainer were shattered by the fall, but not her athletic tenacity. Besides learning to talk and walk again, she is celebrating three years living in her own apartment, running in half marathons and holding a job at a local hotel.
"I am thankful for every day. I know God saved me and that I survived and can walk and talk, it's something I will never take for granted," Kayla Wilke told the USA Today Network-Wisconsin .
While her speech often slowed as she struggled to find the words to express her thoughts and her walk was slightly impeded by her right leg, Kayla Wilke has a buoyant personality that wasn't daunted by the fall nine years ago. She's overcome her inability to walk and talk, and is in training at the Door County YMCA, Sturgeon Bay, to run a full marathon in 2019.
"Our Y is wonderful; everyone there is supportive and helpful," she said. Her favorite form of exercise is running on a treadmill, where she is working to strengthen her right leg.
The consistent workouts at the YMCA stimulate the nerves and muscles throughout her body and she dreams of a day when her right leg is completely functional.
"I know I could do a marathon, but my leg after about seven miles, it sort of lags," Kayla Wilke said.
Kayla Wilke is a testament to God's grace, her mother said.
"She's come a long, long way," Cheryl Wilke said. "That first day, doctors didn't know if she would survive the fall. That she survived for 72 hours was a miracle. Then we were told, she's going to survive, but it was likely she would never walk or talk, again."
Kayla Wilke was a 20-year-old college student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point when she fell from the roof of a Stevens Point building where she and friends had gone to smoke cigarettes during a party.
Drinking was involved and Kayla Wilke was also drunk when she fell, her mother said. No one saw her fall and police investigated.
"Police told us it looked like she slipped on the pea gravel and fell," Cheryl Wilke said.
First responders were on the scene within minutes and an ambulance helicopter flew her to the former St. Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield where she was treated for six weeks and later transferred to the former Columbia St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, where she began therapy to walk and talk.
"It was amazing. They taught her to walk," Cheryl Wilke said. It included one person holding Kayla Wilke in a standing position and another person on the ground moving her feet one at a time to "walk her first a couple of feet and then several feet," she said.
Since the brain trauma, Kayla Wilke abhors cigarettes and, while she only eats "healthy food," she'll periodically have a beer, her mother said. Her daughter has also become very organized and structured, Cheryl Wilke said.
Kayla Wilke's memories go up until Halloween, 2009, then kick back in around 2011, she said.
"I really don't remember that first year after the accident but I've been told, apparently, I liked to smoke," Kayla Wilke said as she wrinkled her nose in distaste.
Short-term memory is difficult and Kayla Wilke said it's one of the reasons she enjoys living and working in Sturgeon Bay.
"My name is Dory," Kayla Wilke joked, alluding to the affable and big-hearted "Finding Nemo" character who suffers from short-term memory loss.
When Kayla Wilke travels outside of her familiar surroundings, someone needs to constantly be with her.
"Something as simple as being in a different place and using the restroom. I might not find my way back," Kayla Wilke said.
Maintaining structure and organization are keys for Kayla Wilke to manage her day and one of the reasons she appreciates living in an apartment.
"I love my family, but I really need to have no clutter because my brain feels cluttered," she said.
After six weeks of therapy at St. Mary's Hospital in 2010, Kayla Wilke was transferred for another six weeks of therapy at HSHS St. Vincent's Hospital in Green Bay.
"We have so much to be thankful for and a lot of it is the wonderful medical teams that helped her start all over and didn't give up," Cheryl Wilke said. She also said the prayers and prayer chains of hundreds of people across Door County also helped to buoy the family's spirits while Kayla Wilke healed.
Similar to the tender Dory character, Kayla Wilke has a generous and giving spirit, her mother said.
"She was like that before the fall, but it's become even more so since that happened," Cheryl Wilke said.
Cheryl Wilke added that the family is thankful for many things: the police and first responders, the doctors and medical staff, and those who prayed and continue to pray for them.
"Prayers make a difference — we might not see it right away, but in the long run, God answers our prayers," she said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Green Bay Press-Gazette.