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Backbreaking fall

When Bonnie Harder's foot slipped off the top rung of her ladder stand during Wisconsin's gun deer season, she found herself free-falling 14 feet to the forest floor.

Bonnie Harder

When Bonnie Harder's foot slipped off the top rung of her ladder stand during Wisconsin's gun deer season, she found herself free-falling 14 feet to the forest floor.

As soon as she landed, the 53-year-old Spooner, Wis., hunter knew she was seriously injured.

"I was screaming, 'My back, my back, my back!' " she said recently during a rehabilitation break at the Miller-Dwan Rehabilitation Center in Duluth, Minn.

Her husband, Rick Harder, heard Bonnie's body hit the ground, and then heard her screaming.

"It was the most horrible sound I've ever heard in the woods," he said.


The fall crushed a vertebra in the middle of Bonnie's back. The accident occurred at8:30 a.m. Nov. 20, the third morning of Wisconsin's gun deer season. By that evening, she had been moved by helicopter to St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. The next morning, she underwent surgery to rebuild the broken vertebra with titanium hardware.

Now she's learning to walk again.

Bonnie has joined the ranks of other unfortunate deer hunters who have fallen from their elevated stands. A survey by Deer & Deer Hunting magazine revealed that about one in three hunters who hunt from elevated stands will suffer a fall at some time during their hunting lives.

Some are luckier than Bonnie. Some fare much worse, becoming paraplegics or quadriplegics.

Bonnie, who describes herself as a positive person, has chosen not to look back. She tackles each day's rehabilitation schedule, and she's been gaining every day. Since the day of her fall, she's been receiving inpatient treatment at Miller-Dwan. She's been home for one weekend and for two four-day breaks over the holidays.

Ask her how many hours a day she does rehabilitation, and she pulls a schedule from her plastic chest brace. She tallies the day's activities.

"Six," she said. Bonnie remains partially paralyzed from the waist down, but she can see progress.

"I've been on the walker," she said with pride. "I started out going 15 feet and stopping three times. Now I'm up to 37 feet without stopping at all."


Doctors aren't sure how far Bonnie can go in recovery. Every spinal cord injury is different. Every patient reacts differently.

"It's going to be a long haul," Bonnie said, "but they predict I'll be able to walk again - maybe not at 100 percent."

Rick and Bonnie were hunting near each other in the woods on that frosty November morning near Spooner. Bonnie was sharing a double-seated ladder stand with her 18-year-old son, Alex Arndt. At about 8:30 a.m., she decided to climb down from the stand.

"I'd had too much coffee," she said.

The ladder rungs were frosted. Bonnie's boot slipped off the top rung, and she fell.

Both Bonnie and Rick are volunteer hunter safety instructors for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," said Rick, 52.

Arndt used his cell phone to call 911. First responders from a fire department six miles away were able to drive a pickup to within 30 feet of Bonnie. They put her on a back board to immobilize her and drove her to a waiting ambulance. After evaluation at the Spooner Health System emergency room, she was transferred to Duluth.


The ordeal of rehabilitation has been a challenge for both Rick and Bonnie, who own Northern Paradise Homes, a modular home business in Trego, Wis. Before the accident, Bonnie also worked part time as a server at Timberidge Roadhouse near Hertel. Wis. The couple has been married for seven years.

"We're managing," Rick said, "but it's been a big struggle. It's been a real load on the other end, keeping the business running."

Francy Chammings, a psychologist for the rehabilitation unit at Miller-Dwan, sees tree-stand injuries such as Bonnie's each year.

"One fellow last year was paralyzed from the waist down. We had another one who came through this year with a head injury," Chammings said. "It's a life-changing thing. There's no doubt about it. It affects not only the person it happens to but the whole family."

In a mid-December rehabilitation session, Bonnie used her arms to support herself on parallel bars as she moved her legs forward. She swung one leg forward, put as much weight on it as she dared, then lifted and swung the other leg forward.

"Doing good, honey," Rick said.

He was videotaping her workout to document his wife's progress. Bonnie has had to accept a slower pace during her recovery, she said.

"I'm one of these people who wants to get things done," she said, pounding a fist into her other hand. "I'm learning to be patient."


Full recovery from a spinal injury takes one to two years, said Dr. Thomas "Skip" Silvestrini, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with Miller-Dwan. He likes Bonnie's progress.

"She's doing really, really well," Silvestrini said in a telephone interview last week. "When I first saw her, she could wiggle her toes and move her feet, but there wasn't much movement in her feet or knees. From a pure rehabilitation standpoint, she's doing very well."

Chris Thorson, her physical therapist at Miller-Dwan, smiles when asked to assess Bonnie's attitude.

"Incredibly positive - and occasionally skeptical," Thorson said.

Bonnie says she's sometimes skeptical when Thorson suggests a new phase of rehabilitation - such as when he mentioned stairs.

"Chris is very, very good," Bonnie said. "He pushes, which is good."

Away from the hospital, life goes on for Rick. He has built a ramp to allow Bonnie wheelchair access to their home. He tends the family business.

Bonnie will continue therapy as an inpatient at Miller-Dwan until later this month, then begin rehabilitation on an outpatient basis.


And next fall?

"I'll be back out hunting," Bonnie says, "from a ground blind."

Sam Cook is an outdoors writer for the Duluth News-Tribune, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper

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