After nurses helped save Avery Gerleman’s life 10 years ago, she vowed to become a nurse like them.
She’s almost there: Gerleman is scheduled to get pinned as a licensed practical nurse on Dec. 20.
But the latest twist in her story? Erin Hageman and other nurses who helped save her at Wesley Medical Center have coached and encouraged her while she works as a nursing assistant at Wesley.
She works at times in the same pediatric intensive care unit where her nurse friends cared for her as a patient.
“It’s awesome to work with them,” Gerleman said. “Sometimes when a patient has a problem, they’ll look at it and say, ‘Yeah, you had that, too.’ ”
It’s the latest turn in a story that has been told as far away as the Vatican in Rome.
The Vatican and the Catholic diocese in Wichita are investigating her survival as an “alleged miracle” made possible by the intercession in heaven of a long-dead Korean War hero, Father Emil Kapaun.
The Vatican is considering Kapaun for sainthood but wants to first find verifiable miracles attributed to him.
“I am glad I am alive,” said Gerleman, 23. “And I am glad I have been working with the nurses who took care of me.”
Gerleman recovered so completely, including from severe lung damage, that she played soccer for Hutchinson Community College. She plans to run a 13-mile half-marathon for a cancer fundraiser in Memphis on Friday.
“I didn’t train nearly enough, I’ve been so busy,” she said. “So this could really hurt.”
It’s nothing compared with what she endured as a child.
No one at Wesley in 2006 thought Gerleman would survive after she began coughing up blood at a soccer game and her parents took her to Wesley.
Doctors said she had a catastrophic auto-immune disorder that was destroying her internal organs.
“She was so critical all the time that we thought on many nights that we were going to lose her,” said Hageman, who has been a registered nurse in Wesley Children’s Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit for 11 years.
“She got put on a ventilator and on dialysis, and there were nights when it took two of us full time to take care of her.”
Doctors put Gerleman into a drug-induced coma. Her lungs filled with blood. Her kidneys shut down. Her heart nearly stopped beating.
Doctors thought she would die and told her parents that. Their daughter was 12.
She lay near death for 86 days, with her parents, Melissa and Shawn Gerleman, nearly always beside her. Devout Catholics, they prayed at her bedside to Jesus and to Kapaun, a priest and U.S. Army chaplain from Kansas who had been dead for 55 years.
On some nights, Hageman, also Catholic, prayed with Shawn and Melissa Gerleman.
Two of the doctors caring for her, Lindall Smith and Michelle Stuart Hilgenfeld, both Protestants, said later that what happened next was the most mysterious medical recovery they have ever seen.
After 86 days, most of it spent in a coma, Avery began to get better.
Smith and Stuart Hilgenfeld told a Vatican investigator they believed her survival was a miracle. One of the inexplicable things they saw, they told the Vatican official, was that she should have had severe scarring damage to her lungs and kidneys. But scans done on her body shortly before she was discharged showed no damage.
They said this was like peering into a building after it burned – and seeing no burn marks on the walls. It did not make sense.
Those same doctors also told her that if she survived, she would need to breathe oxygen from a tank for the rest of her life.
But six months after Avery walked out of Wesley, she was playing competitive soccer again.
‘They inspired me’
Hageman says that when Gerleman began working at Wesley, she and other nurses who had taken care of her years before all welcomed her happily.
They teased her, too.
“We told her that while she was out (in a coma), we snuck in at night, dressed her up and put makeup all over her,” Hageman said. “We didn’t actually do that, but it was fun to tell her we did.”
Gerleman said she had only a dim understanding before she got sick about who Kapaun was. But she has since learned much more.
Catholics in Kansas pray often to him for help; he was a Kansas farmer’s son from Pilsen who joined the priesthood, then joined the Army as a chaplain in World War II.
In the Korean War, he earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, for acts of bravery on Korean War battlefields. Kapaun and many of his regiment’s soldiers were captured in 1950; he died of starvation and disease in a prisoner of war camp in May 1951.
The Vatican has maintained files on him since then and has investigated his life to determine whether to name him a saint.
Bishop Carl Kemme, the head of the Wichita Diocese, went to the Vatican last year and spoke about Gerleman’s survival and other “alleged miracle” evidence involving Kapaun with Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Vatican official heading Kapaun’s sainthood investigation.
Gerleman earned her LPN license at Wichita Area Technical College; she plans to attend either Hutchinson Community College or Butler Community College to obtain her registered nurse license.
Newly minted nurses are given the right to dedicate their nursing pins to someone.
“All the nurses and others who took care of me, they inspired me,” she said. “I can’t name them all at the pinning.”
But she wanted to name them here: Besides Hageman, Smith and Stuart-Hilgenfeld, there was Chris Durham, Tomas Hernandez, Jennifer Goeken, Sally Phillips and Marla Porch.
“There were a lot more.”
When Gerleman gets her nursing pin on Dec. 20, she will dedicate it to all of them.