The woman who nearly froze to death in the parking lot of Summit Rehab Hospital in January has made an amazing comeback.

"I'm a miracle," she says.

She certainly is.

Kimberly Bender, working as a respiratory therapist at the Akron hospital, became ill during her shift on Jan. 25, a brutally cold Friday evening. She told a charge nurse she had a fever and was disoriented. At about 8:30, she headed to her car to drive home to Green.

She had been expected home about midnight, but when her husband awoke at 3 a.m., she wasn't there. He called her cellphone. She didn't answer. He called the hospital and was told she felt ill and went home.

A check of the parking lot behind the building revealed she never left. Just before 4 a.m., on an 11-degree night, she was found lying on the ground. She apparently had been there for more than seven hours.

When EMS arrived and began treatment, her heart stopped. It stopped again in the emergency room.

Her body temperature had dropped to 64 degrees. She was placed on life support, where she would remain for three days.

Her frostbite was so severe that doctors thought they might have to amputate her fingers.

But last week, sitting at a table at a Panera Bread near her home, Bender held out her fingers and smiled.

They were very much intact. In fact, they looked a lot nicer than mine. She joked that her nails hadn't quite grown all the way back out.

To be sure, Bender, 53, is still struggling. Her fingertips and toes are numb and painful. She gets bad headaches. She believes she is suffering from a form of PTSD.

On the other hand, she says, “I'm lucky to have my brain.” She has witnessed others being put on life support who weren't as fortunate.

Bender remained in the hospital for four weeks and underwent a complicated hand surgery late last month. A tendon was removed from her ring finger and transplanted into her thumb, and a pinched blood vessel was relocated to try to get blood flow back to her fingers. Time will tell how effective that will be.

At the restaurant, she slid a plastic cast off her left arm and wrist and showed me her 30 stitches.

“I can't work, of course. I can't open jars. … I'm very hopeful I'll be able to work again. But I don't know. I've got a lot more doctors to see.”

Bender still has no idea what happened that night. And she has no clue what became of her cellphone, which was never found.

When she pulled back her hair and displayed a huge bald patch on the back of her head, I asked whether she believes it's possible that, instead of the assumed scenario — she was ill and passed out — somebody came up behind her, struck her on the head and stole her cellphone.

She says she simply doesn't know. She can only recall bits and pieces of the evening, and believes her brain is repressing things to give her a break.

Husband angry

Three days after the incident, Kimberly's husband, Larry, expressed outrage that A.) the hospital would fail to examine one of its own employees who complained of a fever and feeling disoriented, and B.) Summa's security didn't routinely check the parking lot.

On the advice of her lawyer, Kimberly declined to wade into those topics.

When I asked Summa whether any policies have been changed as a result of the incident, the rehab hospital sent this written statement from CEO Michelle Dudek:

“[We have] completed a comprehensive review of the events that occurred that evening, and we believe that all of our existing policies support a safe environment. …

“We are thankful to all of those individuals who responded so quickly when she was found and provided critically needed care. We look forward to her continued recovery.”

Well, I'm not sure sending an employee on her merry way after she complained about feeling disoriented is a textbook approach. Perhaps that issue will someday be examined in court.

In any event, this is worth noting: When it came time for Kim Bender to start her rehab, she had no trouble deciding where to go — Summa Rehab Hospital.

“I love that place,” she says. “I love my job, and I've loved it for years. It's like a family there. I went there for rehab because I'd send my mom or dad there. … They took good care of me.”

She will need plenty more care to get closer to normal.

“Seems like all I do is doctor's appointments now.”

When asked if she's having any fun at all, she says: “Well, we're trying to do family lunches once a month. I binge-watch stuff, [mostly] sci-fi. Other than that, no.”

Worry wart

Her blended family — five kids and seven grandkids — has provided some lighter moments. Bender got a kick out of the concern expressed by her 5-year-old granddaughter, Wrenley, after she returned home.

“She came over and told me, 'Grandma, you cannot go outside without boots, coats and gloves and a hat.' She tells me that every time she sees me.

“I went to [her] house and there was pizza, and Wrenley said, 'Grandma, you can't have cold pizza!”

Bender laughs. “That was enjoyable.”

Her husband has been a rock. Larry Bender was in her hospital room so much that one of the nurses later told her they had adopted him as a family member.

“God has blessed me,” she says. “Prayers are the answer. I'm told I'm a miracle and have something important to do in this lifetime.

“And my husband — make sure you write how much I love him. Please.”

No way.

 

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31.