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Recovery ‘continues every day’

August 30, 2018

A few months ago, Jon Wocelka moved into a new apartment.

That might seem like a ordinary rite of passage for most people. But for Wocelka, a 35-year-old Rochester man who suffered a traumatic brain injury after being struck by a car, the achievement was akin to scaling a mountain.

“It continues every day,” Wocelka said about his recovery.

Wocelka has no memory of the accident. Five years ago, he was walking along U.S. Highway 14 near Owatonna at 2 a.m. when he was stuck by a car driven by a drunken driver. Wocelka was told by his mom afterward that his heart flat-lined five times. He was in a medically induced coma for two months.

“My brain basically said, ‘Since we have a traumatic injury, I’m just going to shut down,’” Wocelka said.

And so it did. When he was awakened from his coma, he had to relearn fundamental tasks — how to use a restroom, how to feed himself, how to use utensils — as if he were a 3-year-old.

When he arrived at ABC Ability Building Center to continue his rehabilitation, Wocelka was frustrated and angry at the world. Prior to his accident, Wocelka had worked at a factory and tasks he had once taken for granted now caused him fits.

In spasms of anger at ABC, he would storm out of the building.

“I would just walk out of the building,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared to deal with it. I was just pissed off at the world.”

Then one day, Wocelka had a tough-love moment that began the process of reorienting his attitude. His Abilities Unlimited program coordinator, Vaugh Hanson, told Wocelka that he should view his opportunities at ABC as a privilege, not an entitlement. ABC didn’t have to accept him as a client. His volatile behavior was making things harder for other clients.

Wocelka had heard such advice before, but this time it stuck.

“Part of the discussion at the time with Jon was living in a group home, and he really wanted to get his independence,” Hanson said. “So the discussion when I started with Jon was that, if you want that, then there’s certain steps you need to take.”

On Sept. 13, stories of recovery such as Wocelka will be the focus of a fundraiser called “Unmasking: Brain Injury In Minnesota” at the Rochester Civic Theatre. The project, begun by the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance in 2016, features 250 masks, 20 of them from Rochester, drawn by victims of brain injuries. The masks tell the stories of their altered outlooks.

There are 26 clients with brain injuries who receive services in ABC’s Abilities Unlimited program, and funding is all the more dear to ABC after it was forced to take a 7 percent funding cut from the state Legislature. In June, ABC joined a lawsuit of nonprofits serving vulnerable adults against the state, seeking to continue funding at previously announced levels.

Last year, the first time ABC held the fundraiser, the event raised $25,000. The goal is to raise twice that amount this time.

ABC program manager Stephanie Anders-Folstad said AU has a broader remit than rehab facilities, which are largely focused on the physical aspects of retraining. AU works on clients’ emotional and behavioral issues, which are as critical as the physical side of rehab.

“That’s really what AU is developed for,” Anders-Folstad said. “It works on the impulse control, the anger. That’s where we started working with Jon, on his elopement, his anger issues, his frustration with the world around him because he didn’t understand it.”

Wocelka knows that some aspects of his old life will never come back. The accident left him legally blind, and his memory doesn’t function like it once did. He tried to learn braille but couldn’t.

But like moving into an apartment, he has goals that propels him forward. The one that looms largest is one day walking his daughter down the aisle. And his hard-won achievements have shown him that the hard work has paid off.

“The big thing to me is just recognizing that John made the tough choices and did the work,” Hanson said. “I personally think it’s phenomenal to see where he was and where he is now.”

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