Gretchen Lange remembers only one thing from the fateful pre-dawn moments of May 21, 2010 -- seeing headlights coming at her. Lange worked at Hudson-based Cardinal Health and was driving home to Ellsworth after a night shift about 4:20 a.m., traveling south on Hwy. 65 about three miles outside of River Falls.
The Plymouth Neon of a young couple crossed the line and struck Lange's vehicle head on, killing the 24-year-old male driver, Andy Lindberg, and seriously injuring his wife, Kimberly. News stories on the fatal accident reported Lange to be in critical condition.
Mandy Ray of River Falls talked to the newspaper not only about an upcoming benefit for her stepmother (see related sidebar) but also how the tragic accident continues impacting her family. They feel terrible that someone lost their life, and struggle with the parts of Lange's that will never come back.
Many in the area may know the Hastings native who moved to Ellsworth in 1985, working at three different Hudson-based businesses over the years. She managed the MR Convenience store and an Auto Stop before working nights at the Cardinal Health products facility.
Ray describes the injuries her stepmother sustained, marveling at the miracle that she's alive. Doctors expressed their amazement that she survived the crash.
The engine came through the dash and crushed Lange's legs, shattering both feet and breaking every bone in both legs, a few of them in two places; the impact also broke her left hip, sternum, pelvis in three places and five of her lower vertebrae.
Her stepdaughter says the only part of her stepmom's body that wasn't affected was her face. The family suspects that a feature of Lange's Chevy Lumina -- a steering column that collapses into the engine upon hard impact -- might have saved her life.
Ray says Lange has had 21 surgeries so far -- mostly on her legs, hips and feet. She was in the hospital for five months then in a nursing home for a while. She is home now but faces many more surgeries.
"It's been two years of constant hospital," said Ray of the time since May 2010.
Despite multiple surgeries and best efforts, doctors eventually had to amputate Lange's right leg below the knee.
"They tried to save it, but the infection kept going up higher and higher," Ray said.
Her stepmom recently got a prosthetic leg, but so far, using it hurts. Her entire left hip is now metal and often a source of pain. Ray says the treatment for Lange's broken vertebrae and pelvis was to let them heal 'on their own.'
The benefit Saturday will help with the family's hospital and medical expenses, which have now topped $2 million. Ray said both drivers' personal injury coverage totaled about $150,000; Lange has long since exhausted the limits of her health-care insurance coverage.
Her stepdaughter says it isn't unusual for Lange to receive medical bills that are five digits, not counting the cents.
Doctors told Lange at age 45, that she'd never work again; they say it is possible she'll walk someday. Ray said there is no real outlook or timeline for full recovery; the prognosis is lots of different therapy and tiny bits of progress.
Ray said the most difficult thing is knowing what an active person Lange likes to be and seeing how the accident and injuries have zapped her strength and some of her spirit. She feels afraid of many things she wasn't before and struggles with depression.
Lange lay in the hospital for six days before her family saw her lips move a little. It took more time for her eyes to open.
Ray said her first words, as the family prepared to exit the hospital room and get food, were "don't leave." They were grateful to hear her say something because doctors had been concerned about swelling in her brain.
"She's been in our lives since I was five," Ray clarified, adding that it was painful for her and her sister when their stepmom didn't recognize them at first.
She said Lange will attend the benefit Saturday; the family recently got a wheelchair accessible van they're learning how to use. Ray also ran down the family tree with many connections in the region.
Lange and Ray's mother, Debbie Lee, both live in Ellsworth. Lange is a native of Hastings; her brother still lives there and her father just moved from there.
Ray moved to River Falls eight years ago, is married to Tim, and has two children, Triston Lee and Kyra Ray.
She (Ray) has a sister, Kristi, and a brother, Bill, who live outside River Falls.
Ray said all Lange's loved ones do what they can to support her but know she is dealing with a lot. She still doesn't remember the accident, except for the headlights.
According to Ray, Lange hates not being able to work. The family hopes her spirit will return fully and recently had an encouraging sign when Lange talked about learning computers better and using them to eventually do some kind of work.
Ray said it's just great to see and hear Lange thinking about goals and the future.
Benefit set this weekend
All are welcome at the benefit to help Gretchen Lange 2-10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at the River Falls Armory, 815 W. Division St.
The day includes catered food and sodas, live music, a silent auction with many gift baskets and fun activities for children and adults.
Volunteers and gifts in kind are welcome up until the benefit starts; call (715) 222-2121. A benefit fund has been set up for Lange through Associated Bank in Ellsworth, and monetary help is welcome. People may send or deliver donations to Associated Bank branches; contributions should be labeled "Benefit for Gretchen Lange."