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Clementine triumphs over brain injury, internal decapitation and cherishes second chance to ‘love’

Clementine's car after the crash

Clementine Sikiri was driving home from visiting a friend when her car was struck by a cement truck. She doesn’t remember the crash. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine at Mercy Health Saint Mary's Hospital

Clementine was taken to Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Hospital after the Feb. 20 crash. Following life-saving surgery to repair damage to her spinal column, she spent nearly two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine at Mary Free Bed

About two weeks after the crash, Clementine was transferred to Mary Free Bed for rehabilitation. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine in wheelchair

About two weeks after the crash, Clementine was transferred to Mary Free Bed for rehabilitation. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine and Chance

Clementine's brother, Chance, visited her every day, participating in therapy sessions, too. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine and therapists boomwhackers

“One of my favorite memories of working with Clementine was playing in a boomwhackers band with her and her brother, Chance,” said physical therapist Ben Wickman, pictured at left.
(Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine at Love's Ice Cream

Clementine was joined by her sister, Grace, on her first recreational therapy outing. They visited Love’s Ice Cream at Downtown Market. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine and physical therapists

Clementine said she “really connected” with her Mary Free Bed treatment team. She’s pictured here with physical therapist Ben Wickman and physical therapy student Heidi Garner. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Therapy with Kris Fowler

Clementine’s treatment plan included physical, occupational, speech-language and recreational therapies. She’s shown here working with occupational therapist Kris Fowler.

Therapy with Kris Fowler

Clementine’s treatment plan included physical, occupational, speech-language and recreational therapies. She’s shown here working with occupational therapist Kris Fowler.

Clementine Sikiri photo

Clementine shows off her Mary Free Bed Alumni t-shirt, signed by members of her treatment team, after her arrival back home. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine as a bridesmaid

The day after she graduated from Mary Free Bed, Clementine served as a bridesmaid in a close friend’s wedding. (Courtesy photo Clementine Sikiri)

Clementine with Mary Free Bed staff

When Clementine graduated from Mary Free Bed’s inpatient program on April 26, she celebrated with staff and family members.

Clementine's graduation

When Clementine graduated from Mary Free Bed’s inpatient program on April 26, she celebrated with staff and family members.

Clementine's graduation

When Clementine graduated from Mary Free Bed’s inpatient program on April 26, she celebrated with staff and family members.

Clementine with family at Mary Free Bed

When Clementine graduated from Mary Free Bed’s inpatient program on April 26, she celebrated with staff and family members.

Clementine with Amy Haroff

Outpatient occupational therapist Amy Haroff developed a plan to help Clementine increase strength in her arms, hands and shoulders. Amy also taught her how to safely return to activities of daily living, such as washing dishes, doing laundry and cooking.

Clementine with therapist Jacob Miller

Physical therapist Jacob Miller worked with Clementine in Mary Free Bed’s outpatient clinic to continue her recovery, focusing on strengthening her lower extremities, core and posture, as well as coordination activities.

Clementine with therapist Jacob Miller

Physical therapist Jacob Miller worked with Clementine in Mary Free Bed’s outpatient clinic to continue her recovery, focusing on strengthening her lower extremities, core and posture, as well as coordination activities.

Clementine with therapist Amy Haroff

To celebrate her recovery, Clementine hosted a “Celebration of Life” party on Dec. 1 to thank family and friends for their support and encouragement. Members of her Mary Free Bed team attended, including Clementine’s outpatient occupational therapist, Amy Haroff.

“It meant so much to be able to celebrate this gift,” Clementine said. “I’m overwhelmed with joy.”

Clementine's car after the crash
Clementine at Mercy Health Saint Mary's Hospital
Clementine at Mary Free Bed
Clementine in wheelchair
Clementine and Chance
Clementine and therapists boomwhackers
Clementine at Love's Ice Cream
Clementine and physical therapists
Therapy with Kris Fowler
Therapy with Kris Fowler
Clementine Sikiri photo
Clementine as a bridesmaid
Clementine with Mary Free Bed staff
Clementine's graduation
Clementine's graduation
Clementine with family at Mary Free Bed
Clementine with Amy Haroff
Clementine with therapist Jacob Miller
Clementine with therapist Jacob Miller
Clementine with therapist Amy Haroff

Clementine Sikiri says the theme of Proverbs 31:25 perfectly describes her.

“I’m clothed with strength and dignity. I laugh without fear of the future.”

Strength and dignity are tools Clementine learned while growing up. She was just nine when her family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan from a refugee camp in Rwanda, where they lived for several years under conditions and circumstances so difficult she prefers not to talk about them. While thankful for the opportunity to begin a new life in the United States, the transition was fraught with challenges and uncertainty.

Clementine and her family – her parents and 12 brothers and sisters – persevered, finding strength in their faith and support from the community, and made Grand Rapids their home. Now 25, Clementine’s found her own path empowering others as a refugee resettlement care manager at Bethany Christian Services.

“I’m very passionate about helping people who come here as refugees – who come here with nothing – to become independent and self-sufficient,” said Clementine, who graduated in 2018 from Grand Valley State University. “It brings me joy to help them create a life here, just like my family did.”

Clementine’s passion and positivity for life – “I’m naturally an upbeat person,” she says – have fueled the way she’s handled her greatest challenge yet.

The crash

On Feb. 20, 2019, Clementine was driving home after visiting a friend when her car was broadsided by a cement truck. The impact was so great it caused her skull to separate from her spinal column, internally decapitating her. She was taken to Mercy Health Saint Mary’s Hospital, where doctors worked to save her.

Clementine’s injuries were life-threatening. In addition to her spinal column, Clementine experienced a moderately severe traumatic brain injury, her leg and jaw were broken, and she had a stroke during surgery that caused temporary paralysis.

“My doctor told me it’s a miracle I survived,” she said. “I’ve always known that life is a beautiful gift from God and should be cherished each day that you’re blessed with it.”

Two weeks after the accident, Clementine came to Mary Free Bed to begin rehabilitation. A halo brace attached to her skull stabilized her neck, her jaw was wired and she had a feeding tube. She also had a tracheotomy for mechanical ventilation to help her breathe.

“When Clementine arrived, she required two people to help her get to the edge of the bed and two people using a sliding board to get her from the bed to a wheelchair. She needed help to push her wheelchair, and her leg strength was very poor,” said physical therapist Ben Wickman. “Eight days later, she stood for the first time with two people assisting her. Six days after that, we started walking with her in the parallel bars.”

Clementine’s specialized rehabilitation plan was vigorous, and included physical, occupational, speech-language and recreational therapies as well as psychology services.

Recovery ‘a human story’

“When I was in the ICU at Saint Mary’s, they told me Mary Free Bed doesn’t play around and will put me to work,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t believe how far I’ve come. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t do anything for myself.

“I remember the day I got my voice back – March 15 between 3 and 3:30. It was very emotional … I talk a lot!”

During the next few weeks of her inpatient stay, Clementine continued to “make amazing progress,” Ben said.

“A great moment for me was walking with Clementine next door to Saint Mary’s and talking with the nurses who cared for her while she was there,” he said. “They were so happy to see her standing, walking and talking.”

Clementine’s recovery was challenging, said Dr. Stuart Yablon, medical director of Mary Free Bed’s Brain Injury Program. During her inpatient stay, she dealt with a combination of medical issues, complications and setbacks, he said.

“It hasn’t been an easy road for her … she’s endured a lot of pain while wearing this big clunky halo,” Yablon said. “But she’s the kind of person who reaffirms why I got into this field in the first place. She exemplifies resilience.”

Clementine endured seven surgeries (with one more to go) and worked diligently in therapy to improve her strength, endurance and coordination, all while wearing a halo that weighs seven pounds.

“I’ve been at peace, knowing I will recover with time,” she said. “The only time I was angry was when I was told I had to wear the halo longer – until August. I told them ‘I’ll just take it off myself!’

“But … I know I’m lucky. I was given the biggest gift – a second chance at life. There’s no reason for me to be angry.”

That spirit and determination, combined with the immense support of her family and community of friends, is what’s helped Clementine heal, Yablon said.

“She needed a bigger room,” he said with a laugh. “What I find most memorable about Clementine and her family, when dealing with not just one but several complications she encountered, is that each and every time, she took it on with grace and with strength and with resolve.

“Hers is not a medical story as much as a human story. It’s a story of perseverance and grace, of family sticking together during tough times.”

Next steps

Clementine made such good progress that she was cleared to graduate on April 26 from the inpatient program, just seven weeks after beginning rehabilitation. She and her family literally danced their way down the hall, into the elevators and out the front door.

Since then, she’s continued her rehabilitation with several months of outpatient therapy at Mary Free Bed combined with a home exercise program that also includes workouts at the YMCA with her recreational therapist. Her goal? Running the 10K race in the Amway River Bank Run on May 9 and maybe the Chicago Marathon one day.

“I want to recover, so I’m going to do what they tell me to do,” said Clementine, who understands her spinal cord injury will always limit some movement in her neck and prevent participation in potentially dangerous activities. She also continues to have limited sensation in her torso and the right side of her face.

“Mary Free Bed will hold a special place in my heart forever,” she said. “I became so connected to everyone. Every single day we did something that surprised me – things I didn’t think I could do … and I’m so thankful. Everyone was so professional and just … so loving.

“Life, to me, is about love. It’s about being loved, about loving people. Because when you’re gone, that’s what people are going to remember about you – that you loved.”

She’s using “the gift of a second chance at life” to “do what matters.” That includes going back to school to build upon her elementary education degree and pursue a master’s degree in social work.

“I’m passionate about helping vulnerable people,” said Clementine, who hopes to return to her job at Bethany Christian Services early next year. She also volunteers her time as a youth leader and with various community organizations. “There are more resources now than when my family came to the U.S., but furthering my education will help me make a bigger impact.

“Life can be taken from you in seconds. You can just exist, or you can live a rich, meaningful life. Life is so precious, and we aren’t promised tomorrow. Just love.”

VIDEO: Clementine plans to run in the Amway River Bank Run 10K on May 9 and maybe even the Chicago Marathon one day.

2 Comments

Josephine

Strongest girl I know, so proud to see how far she’s come and what she will accomplish!💞

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