Man tells tale of recovery from cerebral hemmorage

On a November morning in 2011, Kraig Lee was hit with the worst headache of his life. The 58-year-old Wannaksa, Minn., farmer took several over-the-counter pain pills. They didn't help. He called his wife, Bonnie, who was at work at the family's ...

Kraig Lee poses for a portrait in Grand Forks, ND on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Kraig suffered a brain aneurism three years ago at the age of 58. He has a picture of his head after the surgery on the screen of his phone to remind himself that he should be thankful every day that he is not in that situation anymore. (Forum News Service/ Joshua Komer)

On a November morning in 2011, Kraig Lee was hit with the worst headache of his life.

The 58-year-old Wannaksa, Minn., farmer took several over-the-counter pain pills. They didn't help.

He called his wife, Bonnie, who was at work at the family's hardware store in Wannaska.

By the time she got home, he was lying on the floor. He needed to go to the emergency room in Roseau, Minn., he told her. He thought he might have had a stroke.

Kraig was rushed by ambulance to LifeCare Medical Center in Roseau, 18 miles north, where a brain scan revealed there was bleeding in the brain.


The scan was sent to hospitals in Grand Forks and Fargo, but neither could handle his case, Bonnie said.

By mid-afternoon, Kraig was on a medical helicopter headed to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, where extensive surgery and his long journey to recovery would begin.

'What am I doing here?'

At the hospital, a neurologist was surprised that he blinked his eyes and asked what was happening and why he was there, he said.

"The neurologist (later) said, 'I thought you were coming in dead,' " Kraig said. "I was way too coherent. Doctors had not seen anyone do that."

It was a positive sign, suggesting that the area of the brain which controls language was not damaged, he said.

Kraig noticed the doctor's last name on her badge.

"He kept asking her where she was from," Bonnie said. "He thought he knew her dad.


"She said, 'You don't know my dad; I'm from a small town in North Dakota.' "

But Kraig had met her father, a business owner in Grandin, N.D., through his work as a truck driver, which he sometimes did to stay busy and supplement the farm income.

That recognition was another good indicator of his mental capabilities, she said.

Kraig was diagnosed with a brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation), an abnormal tangle of arteries and veins which ruptured and caused bleeding into the brain. The AVM was located above and behind his right temple.

The next morning, he had surgery to stop the bleeding, Bonnie said. They put him in a medically-induced coma "to allow the brain to rest."

About a week later, four surgeons performed another operation, lasting five hours.

"They bore a hole in my head (to remove the AVM)," Kraig said. "Then they pushed the brain to one side" and removed an aneurysm, near the brainstem, that had not ruptured. (An aneurysm is a weak area in the wall of an artery that supplies blood to the brain.)

Doctors didn't know what caused the AVM to develop or what made it rupture, he recalled. "They said it was something that was programmed into you from when you were born."



"(After the surgery) I was a complete paraplegic," Kraig said. "I couldn't chew; I couldn't move my fingers."

When he had recovered from surgery, he was transferred to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, where he received physical, occupational and speech therapy for nearly two months.

"I had been in training for hockey and other things, but I've never done anything as physical as that," Kraig said. "You have to learn to walk and everything all over again."

"He had six hours of therapy every day," Bonnie said. "It was hard work for Kraig. He wasn't always the happiest person."

"(The situation) is really hard on the family," Kraig said. "The family has to leave you there."

Although members of his family visited him, they had to return home, he said. "We have a business to run."

Therapists told Kraig he'd be in a wheelchair 24 hours a day for the rest of his life, said Bonnie.


"It was one of the scariest times I ever had," he said.

They told Bonnie to "make your home all handicapped-accessible," Kraig said.

She had other plans.

"One time, he saw another man in a wheelchair with a joystick," Bonnie said, "and he said, 'I'm going to get one of those.' I said, no you're not-you won't need it. You're going to be walking."

"He went from wheelchair to walker to cane."


The idea that he may be confined to a wheelchair motivated him to work harder in therapy, he said. But sometimes, the challenge was overwhelming.

At his lowest point, he wanted to give up, he said. He did not want to be a burden to his family.


"I begged the nurse to remove everything. I wanted it over with."

With time and continued therapy, though, he started to walk and function better.

He was encouraged and motivated when he began to see evidence of his progress.

"I got more hopeful," he said.

Today, he needs no assistance to walk.

"It's a long process, but it's easier every day-sort of," Bonnie said.

Kraig credits his therapists for the progress-and the rapid rate of progress-that he made, he said.

"Therapy is extremely important. I wouldn't even be walking now if not for the therapists."


"(The Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute) is not a fun place, but it's a wonderful place."

People should not assume that patients who have completed rehabilitative therapy and returned home are fully recovered and can all of a sudden do things they could do before, he said.

"I look like I'm 100 percent, but I'm not."

He has read about families that didn't realize their loved one's level of function isn't fully restored and "were pushing them and making them miserable," he said.

Although he had health insurance, uncovered expenses mount up fast.

His neurosurgeons were not part of the Blue Cross Blue Shield network, he said. "I think that was a $200,000 bill."

Whenever his wife comments on money woes, "I say, 'Didn't they tell you down there (at the institute) that if they keep me alive, I wouldn't be cheap to keep around?' " he said with a laugh.

He was approached by Farm Rescue, a non-profit organization which helps farm families going through crises, he said. He didn't accept their assistance.

"I saw others who were in worse shape."

Effects still evident

Lingering effects from the AVM rupture "are neurological-nothing debilitating," Kraig said.

He struggles at times with short-term memory, although overall, it's improving.

"If I'm working on a cash flow (calculation) and get disturbed, I can't concentrate or remember things," he said.

"I call it 'triple five.' It might be five seconds, five minutes later and, after that, it might be five years before I remember it again."

His left side was most affected.

"If I trip, my left leg will not catch me. It's kind of delayed and slow," he said.

If he has trouble manipulating a tool with his left hand, he'll find an alternative.

He also had vision problems in his left eye and a temporary hearing deficit that required him to wear a hearing aid for six months, he said.

"It's been a challenge, a big challenge."

He offers encouragement to others who are facing a serious health situation.

"You've got to watch so you don't get beat up by depression," he said. "You've got to keep a positive mindset."

As he looks back on everything he's gone through, Kraig is grateful for the decisions that, in the long run, contributed to a positive outcome, he said.

"All the decisions that were made along the way worked for me," he noted. "At Sister Kenny, someone said, 'You know, I think you got the best of the best (of health professionals) in the area.' "

Kraig has returned to the institute for follow-up visits with doctors who say they are amazed at the progress he's made, he said.

"I'm doing things that I should not be able to do."

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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