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Minnesota man regaining life skills after surviving head-on collision

Holly Gigure, a fitness and aquatics lead for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute-St. Croix in Stillwater, connects electrodes to Mitchell Radziej's arm before a rehabilitation session on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. His older sister, Quinn Radziej, who serves as his personal care attendant, holds her daughter Amara while they wait for the session to begin. Ginger Pinson / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
Mitchell Radziej works out during a weekly rehabilitation session at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute-St. Croix in Stillwater on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Among other injuries, his right leg was broken in multiple places during a car accident in May 2015. Ginger Pinson / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL—David and Kathy Radziej were on their way to a family cabin in northern Minnesota three years ago when they got a call from a hospital chaplain saying their youngest son, Mitchell, had been gravely injured in a car accident in North Dakota.

The message: "Get to Minot as fast as you can."

The couple arranged for relatives who own a small plane to fly them. When they arrived in the intensive-care unit of Trinity Hospital in Minot and saw Mitchell, then 25, David Radziej thought they asked them to hurry "because they were going to harvest his organs and wanted to know if he was a donor."

"Everything was broken," he said. "There was a huge long list of things on the wall that they were doing. I just said 'Oh my God.' So of course, I looked at his driver's license, and it said 'Donor,' so if they were going to ask, I knew what to answer."

Mitchell Radziej was returning to work in the oil fields of North Dakota on May 1, 2015, when he crossed over the center line of U.S. 52 near Harvey, N.D., and collided head-on with a 2011 Freightliner semitrailer traveling east.

Radziej, an insulating-crew foreman, was taken to a hospital in Harvey and then flown to Trinity. His skull, legs and right arm were crushed. He almost lost his right foot. Both of his knee bones were disconnected. He broke all the bones in his legs except for two. He needed 28 pints of blood.

Four days later, he was flown to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. He spent 211 days in the hospital and underwent more than 20 surgeries. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and temporarily lost his ability to speak. He still has no function in his right arm and walks with a brace on his right leg.

But Radziej, 28, of Arden Hills, said the accident is the best thing that could have happened to him.

"I needed to make some changes," he said. "It was a blessing that it happened. It made me who I am today."

Radziej, who was high on methamphetamine at the time of the accident, talks openly about his drug use. "I'd been using for about four years," he said. "I never slept."

"He was living a party life," said his sister, Quinn Radziej, who serves as his personal care attendant. "He needed to slow down. Probably not the most ideal way to slow down ..."

"No, but it was about time," Mitchell Radziej said.

Rehab begins

While undergoing rehabilitation at Capitol View Transitional Care Center in St. Paul, Radziej worked with Lisa Rae Caturia, an occupational therapy assistant, who told him about Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute-St. Croix in Stillwater.

"She is who made me come here," Radziej said during a therapy session last week.

When Caturia first met Radziej, he was barely able to get out of the bed. "We worked really hard on just getting him to be more independent, so we could get him out of the hospital to get him into doing more outpatient rehab," she said.

Radziej has undergone hours of speech, physical and occupational therapy at Courage Kenny.

The outpatient rehabilitation center specializes in treating brain injuries, spinal-cord injuries, stroke, chronic pain, developmental disabilities and autism. The Stillwater location, formerly known as Courage St. Croix, was founded in 1988; it became Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute-St. Croix in 2013.

"We are guided by our vision that one day, all people will live, work, learn and play in a community based on abilities, not disabilities," said Patty Radoc, the center's rehabilitation manager.

High pain tolerance

On a recent weekday ­morning, Radziej stretched, walked and relaxed for about an hour in the center's 92-­degree pool and then moved to the exercise room to work with Holly Gigure, fitness and aquatics lead.

Gigure attached electrodes to Radziej's right arm and put his hand in a mitt that was then attached with Velcro to a functional electrical stimulation arm bike.

"The electrodes are set on certain muscle groups, and the bike sends a current to certain muscles," Gigure said. "It forces the muscle to contract. These bicep muscles are very, very tight and always contracted. It's actually on a sensory setting to, hopefully, get the muscle to let go and relax a little. With triceps, we're trying to get them to fire and get stronger."

Radziej, who operated the arm bike for 40 minutes, said the electric stimulation is painful. "But I don't care because it's doing me good," he said.

"Other clients might answer that differently," ­Gigure said. "I think Mitch's pain tolerance is fairly high. He rides the line between uncomfortable and intolerable."

While Quinn Radziej watched, Gigure bounced 8-month-old Amara Armitage on her lap as she monitored Mitchell's progress. Amara is Quinn's daughter and Mitchell's godchild.

"A lot more happens here than just exercise," Gigure said. "Multiple clients come and visit with Mitch the entire time he is here. Everybody knows who he is and greets him by name. And everybody knows Quinn and Amara. The support and the camaraderie and community feeling are a huge piece of Courage Kenny, the connections and the friendships that are made here."

Radziej, whose nickname is Smiley, greeted every worker and client.

He said he has started talking to school groups about his accident and meth use. His goal is to become a motivational speaker.

"I'm very lucky," he said. "I know that. There's a reason I'm here."

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