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Story Last modified at 2:08 p.m. on Thursday, February 3, 2011

Couple copes, finds hope after accident

BY KAYLENE JOHNSON
For the Star

photo:News

Sharla and Nick Kuhlmann hope special treatments will help her one day walk again. Sharla broke her neck following a car crash in July.
PHOTO by KAYLENE JOHNSON

Nick Kuhlmann has that haunted look of someone shaken to the core. He has counted the days and hours since that terrible night last summer.

"It's been nine hours shy of 28 weeks since the accident," he said.

Sharla Kuhlmann sits in a wheelchair next to her husband. She has a ready smile and thoughtful eyes. She can move her arms and is animated as she and Nick tell their story. Both of them look younger than their 39 years.

It was late Sunday evening on July 11, 2010, when a family friend, Steve McNeill, arrived at the Anchorage airport after a two-week shift from his job on the North Slope. Since Nick had to work early the next day, the couple decided Sharla would pick him up. The plan was for Steve to stay overnight and catch a flight the next morning back to his home in Idaho.

On the way home, Steve suggested taking Sharla's new Audi for a spin, so they pulled off onto Hiland Road to switch drivers. They drove a few miles and turned around. Suddenly Sharla noticed Steve was driving too fast for the 90-degree curve ahead. She warned him that a sharp turn was coming up. Steve didn't respond. After a long shift on the job and very little sleep the night before, Steve had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel. The car launched straight off the curved road and flipped over before coming to rest on a boulder in the trees. None of the airbags in the car deployed.

It was a little after midnight. Steve and Sharla hung upside down by their seat belts. Sharla was bleeding from a long gash in her scalp. Steve's jaw was broken and he had difficulty speaking. Along with lacerations and other injuries, both had sustained spinal cord injuries – their necks were broken. It would be five hours before help arrived. The summer air grew cold. Sharla remembers her cell phone ringing. It lay just out of reach on the crushed roof of the car.

"I knew the calls were from Nick," Sharla said. "I kept trying to reach out for him."

To complicate matters, Sharla is a type 1 diabetic – her body does not produce insulin. She needs blood glucose checks several times a day.

When Nick woke up at 5:30 a.m., he knew something was wrong. After repeatedly trying to reach Sharla by phone, he jumped in his car.

"I didn't know where to begin looking," he said.

Donations

Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Chugiak is raising money to help the Kuhlmanns with their medical expenses. It has held a talent show, and will accept donations through Feb. 9. All donations will be matched by Thrivent Financial. Contact the church at 688-2157 or email orlc@mtaonline.net for details on how to contribute.

An hour later he received a call from 911 dispatch that his wife and friend were being transported to Alaska Regional Hospital. Fortunately, one of the rescue team knew that Sharla was a diabetic – the usual glucose IV given to trauma patients could have killed her en route to the hospital.

And so began a journey of heartbreak and miracles, a journey that continues as Sharla works toward recovery from her injuries. Every day Nick posts a journal entry in their CaringBridge Web site. Each day has its ups and downs.

"I'm a firm believer in prayer," Sharla said.

Nick agreed that some amazing things have happened since the accident. Like the time he walked into Pizza Man in Eagle River.

"This guy was sitting at a table playing with an iPad and I went over to ask him about it," Nick said. Nick thought it might be a device that Sharla could use since she has limited use of her hands. The man asked why all the questions and Nick told their story.

"Turns out the guy is Dr. Eric Holmberg, director of research for the Spinal Cord Society Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado," Nick said.

Holmberg was one doctor in the team that cared for paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve. Since that encounter, Holmberg has become an adviser in Sharla's recovery.

Along with the emotional and physical costs, Sharla's care and rehab have taken a dire financial toll. The couple felt lucky to find a used wheelchair for $37,000. They had to buy a used van and then a second van after the first one broke down. They will have to sell their home unless they can make major renovations to accommodate Sharla's wheelchair. One expense is the cost of hyperbaric treatments. The treatments are used routinely overseas and show promise for spinal cord injuries. But in the U.S. the treatments are waiting approval of the FDA and insurance won't cover the cost.

"There's a chance I will walk again," Sharla said. "That's what we're focusing on. We're hoping for the best and that's all you can do." That means paying out-of-pocket for the hyperbaric treatments.

Another challenge is Sharla's diabetes. She doesn't have finger dexterity, so she cannot feed herself or give herself shots. For now she lives for at Prestige Care and Rehab while Nick works in Anchorage. Even so, Medicaid is proposing only eight hours per day of care.

"We're in trouble," Nick said.

Last summer, Nick and Sharla planned to celebrate their 10th anniversary by taking a second honeymoon. Instead, they spent it in ICU at the University of Washington Medical Center. This year they're just focusing on one day at time. They are thankful for life and for each other and for the support of family and friends.

In the 28 weeks and some-odd hours since the accident, they have learned that every moment matters.

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The Kuhlmann's friend, Steve McNeill, also suffered severe injuries and is currently in a nursing care facility in Washington.

Kaylene Johnson is an Eagle River freelancer writer.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, February 3, 2011.