He can’t remember much of the accident, or the following couple of weeks for that matter; but friends and family help Bob Pacocha fill in the missing pieces of a fall that changed their lives.
Forty-year-old Pacocha’s living room is dedicated to the outdoors. Earth-brown walls adorned with mounted deer heads, a pile of shed antlers intertwined with a strand of white Christmas lights and furniture etched with carvings of wildlife fill the room.
Even his career was centered around the great outdoors, when he had a job as a lumber buyer for a local company.
The Pacocha’s moved to Fountain City, Wis. 17 years ago when they purchased 240 acres of prime hunting land, which they planned to dominate with rifles and bows.
Last September his life changed drastically.
Pacocha, two of his cousins and his 9-year-old son, Dylan, were prepping and replacing tree stands for the upcoming deer-hunting season. They were clearing branches that could cause interference with their bows while shooting. If an arrow hits a branch it can make the arrow go in an undesired direction, slow it down or break it.
No one saw exactly what happened, but right as Dylan stepped back to avoid the possibility of a falling branch or stand, Pacocha lost his grip or his balance and plummeted roughly 22 feet to the ground where Dylan was standing.
“I didn’t have many fears of heights,” said Pacocha.
The fall shattered his T11/T12 vertebra, caused breakage to his T5/T6 vertebra and damaged his spinal cord, instantly making him a paraplegic and forever confining him to a wheelchair.
“What I did that day, I did a thousand times,” said Pacocha. “I think that is just the outdoorsmen in a lot of us. We are adventurous and just think nothing will happen.”
Meghan, the Pacocha’s 13-year-old daughter, was interrupted from her morning ritual of Facebook browsing when her brother Dylan came running up to the house in a panic.
“Every emotion that you can get, I think I went through,” said Jenny Pacocha, Bob Pacocha’s wife, referring to when Meghan called her and told her of husband’s accident.
Melanie Ganschow, a long-time friend of the Pacocha family and First Responder, missed the initial emergency pages. It wasn’t until she heard a helicopter hovering around her home that she turned the pager’s volume up to hear her friend’s name.
Ganschow feels guilty, but the reaction to seeing a good friend severely injured may have prevented her from doing her job properly or it could have put the family further on edge seeing a familiar face working on Pacocha.
“It was gut-wrenching watching the helicopter fly by and knowing Bob was in there,” said Ganschow.
Due to Buffalo County’s rolling hills, cell phone service is patchy. But thankfully on this day, the calls for help went through. Within minutes, the Fountain City First Responders, the fire department, an ambulance and friends and family were on their way.
As Pacocha was drifting in and out of consciousness after the fall, the medical staff marked his body to indicate to the hospital staff where he had lost feeling. Once the crew stabilized him, they medicated him to a state of unconsciousness and slipped a breathing tube in place. The crew then drove him up the country road in the bed of a neighbor’s pickup truck to an awaiting MedLink helicopter that airlifted Pacocha to Gundersen Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wis.
The emergency room staff broke the news to Jenny Pacocha that Bob Pacocha’s injury was life altering and permanent after a brief evaluation of his condition.
“Everyone cried for days,” said Jenny Pacocha. “We were worried about how Bob was going to take this being he was such an outdoor and active person.”
Pacocha spent the next three days under heavy sedation to avoid going into shock before he underwent a five-hour surgery. Rods and pins were placed in his back to allow for proper healing.
The next nine weeks were spent recovering and adjusting to life without feeling below his sternum. Pacocha tried to maintain composure during the days when many family members and friends came from all over to visit. But he mourned his loss when he was alone during the night.
Jenny Pacocha didn’t leave her husband’s side for the first 11 days of hospitalization. She visited everyday after to learn and practice new methods of caring for her husband to be prepared for his return home.
“Basically, I could probably be a nurse,” said Pacocha.
While in the hospital, his body fought against the drastic changes. He battled through pneumonia, high fevers, blood clots, swelling and other unexpected complications. The doctors told him it would take six to nine months for his body to adjust to the trauma.
On healthy days, Pacocha passed the time during his nine-week hospital stay by engaging in physical therapy, visiting with friends and family or relaxing with the television, computer or a book.
While Pacocha was in the hospital, friends and family stepped up to help care for the couple's two children. They signed up for a meal train where every night someone brought dinner to the house so Jenny Pacocha didn’t have to worry about preparing meals during such a challenging time.
“My dad loves macaroni and hot dogs, so that’s what we (used to eat). We were probably used to that,” said Meghan when she compared her dad’s cooking with the strange foods that were brought over.
With hopes of her husband returning home as soon as possible, Jenny Pacocha knew right away that changes needed to be made to their home to make it wheelchair accessible.
Mike Schabacker, a close friend of the Pacocha family, a local plumbing company, a local electrician and other family friends spent about a month modifying the Pacocha home to make it safe and accessible for Pacocha to return to.
The crew widened doors to fit the wheelchair and they replaced lips in the floors with small ramps. Even the couch needed to be elevated to make transferring from the wheelchair easier. Modifications were made to the master bedroom and a downstairs wheelchair accessible bathroom was added. The improvements were made just in time for Pacocha’s return home. They even had a few days to spare.
“If it was the old house, we would have never been able to bring him home,” said Jenny Pacocha.
Not only did the Pacocha’s house have to be changed, but so did their method of transportation. The family mini-van had to be replaced with a Chevy Impala for it’s wider doors and lower seats, which makes transferring easier for Pacocha.
The Pacocha’s were frustrated when the hospital staff yo-yo’d with Pacocha’s date to return home. Eventually, Jenny Pacocha demanded the staff set goals for her husband’s recovery, instead of throwing around possible dates.
On November 17, Pacocha made his way home.
“(It) was gun hunting weekend, he didn’t want to miss that,” said Jenny Pacocha.
Although Pacocha would not have the opportunity to hunt when he got home, it was important to him to be back in his own environment and talk deer hunting with the guys. He also didn’t want to miss Meghan getting a deer while she was hunting with her grandfather.
Bob Pacocha was very weak when he first came home and needed a lot of assistance. Bi-weekly therapy sessions, daily upper-body workouts and practice transferring continually make him stronger and more capable of being independent.
“For six months along he’s doing very well,” said Jenny Pacocha. “Eventually he’s not going to need me to help him as much.”
Pacocha quit her job as a housekeeper at a local nursing home but continues to operate an in-home hair salon. The flexibility of working at home allows her to maintain a new full time job, assisting her husband with everyday tasks.
Because of the trauma, Pacocha helps her husband use the bathroom, something his damaged body can no longer do on its own. The couple gets up in the middle of the night so Jenny Pacocha can pull the pillows and reposition her husband to prevent the development of pressure sores.
Eating an entire box of macaroni and cheese is no longer an option for Pacocha; even his eating habits had to change. Consuming smaller portions became important to prevent weight gain to due to his inability to engage in many forms of physical activity.
Smaller meals, along with a tight-fitting brace that wraps around his torso, assist the body in the digestion process.
Life is different now for the Pacocha’s. Tears sneak up in Bob Pacocha’s eyes when he recalls his old freedom to hop into his pickup truck or take a night walk to roam his land and admire the wildlife surrounding him.
“The guy lived and died for deer hunting,” said Brian Wolfe, a close friend and neighbor of the Pacocha family.
The Pacocha’s children had to make some changes too to accommodate their dad’s new condition. Meghan said her dad’s accident has forced her to grow up. Her and her brother, Dylan, picked up extra chores to help their mom maintain the house. But the hardest thing is seeing the emotional changes in their father.
“He used to hold everything in. I never used to see my dad cry before,” said Meghan. “And now if he has a bad day, I always see him cry. Probably seeing my dad cry is the hardest thing.”
The only time Meghan allowed herself to cry in front her father about the accident was when he was under sedation and couldn’t see her.
“He needed to be strong. So if I was strong, then it would be easier for him,” she said.
While the accident altered everyone’s lives, the changes weren’t all bad. The accident brought their family closer and it has also helped to create stronger bonds with good friends.
“We weren’t as close as we are now,” said Meghan. “It made us realize the important things.”
Jenny Pacocha said insurance has been accommodating when it comes to hospital and medical expenses but it does not cover the expenses to help Bob Pacocha regain his mobility outdoors.
Fundraisers such as fish-fry benefits and “hat day” at Meghan and Dylan’s school helped to raise money and educate others about preventable hunting injuries.
Mike and Amanda Schabacker, close friends of the Pacocha family, created one of the most successful fundraisers put on in Pacocha’s name. They hand-printed 350 T-shirts to help pay for the expenses their friends have.
A benefit was also held specifically to raise the $11,000 needed to pay for an Action Trackchair, a one-person wheelchair seat on tracks, like an army tank. The chair allows Pacocha to be mobile off concrete and go through mud, snow and wooded areas not accessible by a normal wheelchair. The Action Trackchair can accommodate hunting equipment, giving Pacocha a bit of his old life back.
What happened to the Pacocha’s has inspired others to take greater safety precautions while hunting. Now, no one hunts in a tree stand on the Pacocha’s land without using a safety harness.
Marilyn Benz, Executive Director for the National Bow Hunter Education Foundation, said more people are hunting out of stands than ever before.
She said in many states, deaths from falling from tree stands equal or exceed firearm deaths. Many states require firearm or hunter safety before they are allowed to hunt, but there is no requirement for learning tree stand safety although awareness of these injuries is increasing.
The Pacocha family won a trip to Texas for a week of wild boar hunting from the North American Squirrel Association early next year. But planning for travel with Pacocha’s new condition is complicated due to his wheelchair and the need for intensive personal care.
The trip from Wisconsin to Texas by car is nearly 24 hours, which could be draining on the family, and the flight, while much shorter, would be difficult to find a private area for personal care and maneuvering a wheelchair may be troublesome in a plane’s narrow isles.
This year, bow hunting is out of the question due to an upcoming surgery to remove the rods and pins in his healing back. Without the metal pieces, Pacocha will gain a little bit more upper-body movement back.
But the nearly fatal injury has not taken the outdoorsman out of Pacocha. He plans on getting back out in the field for gun hunting with Meghan and Dylan in the fall and he is particularly eager to take his daughter to Hayward, Wis. this fall with hopes to bag a black bear.
Life is different for the Pacocha’s but they take it one day at a time and everyday the family learns something new. Most days are celebrated as Pacocha continues to gain strength but some days are filled with memories of what used to be.
Now, Pacocha follows behind when Dylan searches for morel mushrooms, their favorite springtime treat. The two used to enjoy venturing through the wooded land together in search of a fallen Elm tree where morels are found.
The Pacocha’s are adapting to a new normal and Pacocha is learning to live life on wheels.