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Reward turns tragic on the slopes

Katelyn Gierke (second from left) is pictured with her siblings (left to right) Ryan, Robyn and Abby, and friend Julaine, while vacationing in Orlando, Florida this past February. (Contributed)

What was meant to be a reward for good academic performance turned into a traumatic experience for a local teenager and her family recently.

Katelyn Gierke, a 9th grader at Sauk Centre High School and daughter of Bob and Pam Gierke of Villard, traveled with classmates to what should have been a fun-filled day skiing at Andes Tower Hills near Alexandria on March 10. The trip was a reward for students with strong academic performance.

At about 10 a.m., the students hit the slopes, which were icy due to melting and refreezing conditions. Katelyn and her cousin started down Frikadilly, which is one of the less difficult hills.

Katelyn fell. She managed to kick off her skis, but her momentum and the icy conditions sent her flying to the side of the slope where she hit her head on a post and then flew into a wooded area, hitting several trees. She was not wearing a helmet.

Katelyn was transported by ambulance to the Douglas County Hospital, along with a student from another school who was injured in a separate accident that morning.

Because of the severe head trauma, Katelyn was intubated and flown to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minneapolis, where she was admitted to the Pediatric Trauma Center.

MRI and CT scans upon arrival showed three skull fractures (on the top right side, behind the left ear and on the lower skull above the neck), a lung contusion and a small fracture to her thoracic (midback) spine.  The MRI showed a small amount of bleeding, but no injuries to her nerves or brain.  

Katelyn remained intubated for two days.  She was moved from the pediatric intensive care unit to the pediatric floor on March 15.

Due to the head injury, her hand-eye coordination, balance and vision were temporarily affected, but according to her mother, she made good progress and was talking and walking in a few days.

Katelyn was treated for a blood clot at the site of the lower skull fracture, which caused her cranial nerve to swell.  Doctors were concerned that pressure could cause injury to the nerve.  

On March 17, she underwent nerve conduction studies and electromyogram tests, which involve using electrical impulses to measure nerve damage.  The tests confirmed that her nerve is intact but is affected by the swelling. Testing was repeated on March 20 and showed only a 4 percent improvement.

 Doctors are currently weighing the risks and benefits of performing neurosurgery to relieve the pressure. Testing was to have been conducted again earlier this week to see if any further improvement had occurred.

“She may need a referral to a neuro-specialist as she has a difficult case,” Pam noted. “Her injury may actually be in her inner auditory canal, which is inoperable, and there would be other surgeries then to help minimize the function loss due to the nerve damage.

“So, we are just in a waiting game now to see if it will heal on its own in six to 12 months or she will have surgery or surgeries.”

Katelyn will be on a blood thinning medication for two to six months to treat the thrombosis in her basilar skull fracture and will continue physical and occupational therapy at HCMC until further tests determine the next step.

“We are hoping for discharge this week,” Pam said. “She will have months of therapy and they are undecided about if she will return to this school year, as it will take time for her injuries to heal. We are looking into specialists to decide what surgeries would benefit her nerve damage the most.”

The mother said that it has been family and friends, as well as faith (see inset) that have gotten them through this ordeal.

“Katelyn has had amazing support from her family, her friends and the community,” Pam said. “She is determined to play volleyball again soon and hopes to be able to golf yet this spring.”

Katelyn will turn 15 on March 29. The honor student plays volleyball and golf, served as a hockey manager this winter, and is active at her church and in 4-H.


One night in the hospital, Katelyn was having trouble falling asleep. She told her mom that she kept thinking of two numbers – 33 and 12, although she didn’t know what the numbers meant.

An hour later, Pam was reading a daily devotional sent to her by a close friend. The Bible verses listed for that day were John 16:33 and John 16:22.  

She looked up the two versus, thinking perhaps Katelyn meant 33 and 22, not 12. Katelyn later insisted the numbers were 33 and 12, so Pam also looked up John 16:12.

John 16:33: I have told you these things so that you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But, take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:12: I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.

“I didn’t know what that meant,” Pam said of the second verse.

The next day Katelyn’s sister, Abby, came to visit. Pam told her about the numbers but didn’t tell her what the Bible verses said. Abby’s response was, “He is speaking to her.”  Pam was amazed that her words matched what John 16:12 said.

“A few days later we learned about the pressure on Katelyn’s nerve and I believe that is what He was referring to in John 16:12,” Pam said.

“I feel like I am supposed to share so others can have faith, too.  I have always felt so lucky… to have my faith. That is how I know Katelyn will make it through this and do great things; she is just meant to do that.”

Tara Bitzan

Tara Bitzan is editor of the Echo Press. She joined the company in 1991 as a news reporter. A lifelong resident of Douglas County, Tara graduated from Brandon High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in mass communications and English with a minor in Scandinavian Studies from Moorhead State University. She and her husband, Dennis, and their children live near Alexandria.

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