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Chrysalis: A story of rural resilience of mother, farmer and Extension colleague Anna Peterson

This story is a special addition to RSDP Happenings – a story of rural resilience of mother, farmer and University of Minnesota Extension staffer Anna Peterson.

Anna Peterson receiving the Voyageur Award.
In 2018 Anna was honored with the Voyageur Award for her support of the Fargo-based International Water Institute’s River Watch program. The award is River Watch’s highest achievement.

“Mom, can I come with you guys tomorrow?” asks Anthony, Anna’s 13-year-old son, at bedtime. The next day is January 10, 2019 – Anna’s 42nd birthday – and she and her husband, Mark, have dinner plans with their snowmobiling club to celebrate.

“Not this time,” Anna says, grateful her birthday lands outside of farming season, affording her and Mark an evening out together. It’s not that Anthony can’t do it. They’re all avid snowmobilers, with Anna and Mark covering about 2,000 miles a year on the groomed trails of Greater Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But it will be a school night, the group ride to a restaurant might get late, and motherly instincts prevail.

The next evening Anna steps into the warm, black cocoon of her snowmobile pants, jacket and boots. The sun will soon set over the fields outside of Crookston, bright yellows and oranges dissolving into the still white landscape. “Mom will be back soon,” she reassures 4-year-old Vincent, who will spend the next couple of hours playing with Grandma. “We’re just going out for dinner.”

Tucked inside Anna’s sturdy snowmobile boots lie four delicate butterfly tattoos, one for each of her children: Carlie, 19, Haley, 16, Anthony, 13, and Vincent, 4. Anna has long loved butterflies, appreciating their serendipitous appearance at times throughout her life.

The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly has long captivated as a metaphor for human transformation.

The crisp air approaches 10 degrees that evening, but the 20 or so friends from the Driftbusters snowmobile club comfortably float across the landscape in the warmth of their protective gear. One closely follows the other, as though a flock of birds heading south for the winter. Anna rides her electric blue sled in the middle of the pack, the only woman riding this evening with the club she serves as secretary.

Anna and Mark’s fields fade in the distance, a thick blanket of snow concealing what will soon come alive with sugar beets, wheat and soybeans. Anna keeps in line at 55-60 miles an hour. It’s a familiar pace, though they typically don’t ride in the evening. Mark rides ahead of her, as they typically do – she calls him the peanut butter to her jelly. Anna doesn’t know who is immediately behind her, but she knows all she needs to know at the time – that she’s with experienced riders.

A caterpillar is designed to become a butterfly but does not know such a transformation will occur.

Anna in a hard plastic shell around her torso, casts on her arms while sitting on a hospital bed and a woman standing behind her supporting her.
Anna in the hospital. “Even through this rough time she never seems to stop smiling,” her daughter Carlie wrote.

Anna remembers flying over her sled, but not whether she tried to hold on. She remembers a flash of electric blue. She remembers the darkness of her goggles, face down, in cold snow. Mostly, she remembers shock and confusion.

A snowmobile pack typically rides in close succession, but the rider behind Anna this evening has been following from a distance – a blessing they will later realize. Why is there a log in the path? he wonders as he approaches. That log, it turns out, is Anna.

“Where is Mark?” she asks.

Anna can’t move her face, but out of the corner of her eye she sees her close friend Mitch. He’s removed his helmet and is cupping her bare left hand. “I don’t want you to get frostbite,” he says. Her right hand is also exposed to the biting snow, but Mitch can’t reach it because that arm is pinned underneath her. “You’re going to be okay,” he reassures. “We’ve called an ambulance, and someone’s gone ahead to get Mark.”

Anna doesn’t remember feeling pain. But at the time, she tells Mitch, “I’m in so much pain I can’t cry.”

Then there is commotion. Ambulance lights. Paramedics. Loud footsteps and frantic voices. Anna is placed in a neck brace and rolled onto a backboard.  

During metamorphosis, juices that earlier in life helped the caterpillar digest food now attack its body.

There is an ambulance ride and brief hospital stay in Crookston, the memory of which lies on the other side of a foggy window, visible only through finger streaks. There are X-rays and a CT scan, but Anna doesn’t remember these. She remembers the clink of hospital machinery and cacophony of voices surrounding her. She remembers being told they need to Life Flight her to Fargo. She remembers trying to soothe her children as Mark holds a phone above her. “I’m okay. I’m going to be okay. They’re going to take me to Fargo. I have to go by helicopter, but I’m going to be okay.”

Mark leaning over Anna while she lays in a hospital bed.
Mark and Anna Peterson

And then she remembers quiet. The helicopter ride brings an overwhelming feeling of peace, as she lifts high above the fields her sled has just traversed. Headphones muffle the noises, with voices softly trickling in like a mom’s soothing whisper. Pain floats away with the fields beneath.

Some of the caterpillar’s tissues remain and help form the wings, legs, antennae and other organs of the new butterfly body.

Sanford Medical Center in Fargo has two helipads – one reserved because a heart doctor has clearance to work on the United States President. “I’m on top of Sanford,” Anna briefly observes, buoyed by her Presidential treatment.

“You’re going to feel a pinch. Just take a deep breath,” a nurse says leaning over Anna, inserting a catheter. “Okay, we’re done.”

“But I didn’t feel that,” Anna says, her eyes searching the beige hospital room for Mark. Her breathing calms with the site of his familiar brown hair and gentle face entering the room, having had to make the 70-mile trek from Crookston in the family car.

The room fills as doctors enter. “Can you wiggle your toes for us, Anna?” one asks. “How about this foot? Okay, good job, Anna.”

And then noises drown her memory again. There are more X-rays and an MRI.

A 2008 study found evidence that a butterfly can remember things learned as a caterpillar.

It’s 3 a.m. when Anna is settled into a room. It’s in the ICU, and her new residence tells her it must be serious. The neurosurgeon arrives at 6 a.m. – two hours earlier than expected – and wants to get to work immediately. The pace of things quickens.

Mark, Anna’s dad and sister-in-law are at the hospital. They still haven’t been told anything concrete about Anna’s condition, and her dad is getting frustrated by the lack of information. Later, they will understand that the doctors, at that time, were just focused on making sure she would wake up again.

Anna is in surgery for 6 hours that morning, and loses 3 pints of blood. The surgeon puts a small cage in her back – a titanium vertebra with two little sticks where her L1 (first lumbar vertebra) used to be. He wants to insert a couple more pins higher up in other fractured vertebrae, but he can’t. He has to get out of there.

Metamorphosis takes place within a protective casing called a chrysalis. The chrysalis is a transitional period of rapid change.

It’s two days after surgery, and Anna’s mom stands beside her bed. Anna can wiggle her toes. She can slide her feet back and forth and do a small flutter kick. The large scar that now traverses her spine begins at a monarch butterfly tattoo she selected years earlier.

“Did you know that when you got here you were a paraplegic?” the doctor asks. His words are a cold bucket of water in their faces, instantly waking them up to the gravity of the situation.

“No, I did not know that,” Anna replies.

Gratitude wells in her like music rising to crescendo as she realizes the odds she has overcome to still be here. She can’t yet know what physical abilities she has or might regain, but she knows, with the certainty of the sun, that she is grateful.

“From that point forward I was just determined to get home,” she’ll later reflect. “I just didn’t let myself think any other way. I haven’t let myself think any other way. I’m a mom of four kids, and I had to come home.”

Anna will later learn that she shattered her L1 vertebra into her spinal cord, causing significant nerve damage to her legs. Her left leg is dramatically impacted and to a lesser extent her right, and she has no feeling in her pelvic area. She has also fractured her L2, T12, T3 and T8 vertebrae and broken both bones in her left arm, her right wrist, and two ribs.

According to entomologists, butterflies know when they are touched but do not have receptors that would register pain. For humans, it is the experience of pain that often transforms.

Anna Peterson in a hospital bed covered with a bright patterned blanket her daughter made.
Anna with the blanket made by daughter Haley.

If home is a place we carry inside of us, Anna’s family and friends help her carry it with her, like a beautiful wooden canoe whose portaging requires a crew. The first week in the hospital Anna’s 16-year-old daughter Haley stays by her side, coming to the hospital every day after school and doing homework by her mom’s bed. Haley knows her mom loves blankets and makes a fleece tie blanket with a flower pattern of soft pinks, mauves and blues. For the duration of Anna’s stay in the hospital, the blanket will soften her institutional room. Nineteen-year-old Carlie, a freshman at Bemidji State University, makes the two-and-a-half-hour drive every weekend to sleep in the hospital with her mother.

There is a “girls’ night” when a dear friend of Anna’s brings popcorn and movies. And the school break that gifts Anna an overnight visit from Anthony, thanks to the hospital crew’s help with seeking the necessary approval. Anna and Anthony order pizza and watch a movie, as though it’s a Friday night at home. And because he is with her, in a way it is.

The hospital crew doesn’t know Anna loves butterflies, but they can see she is a social butterfly and that her bright spirit has made a difficult time also beautiful. One day they gift her a butterfly memento with a saying titled “The Miracle of Each Day.”

And there are the dark days, when Anna’s friends seem to know she needs extra support. Their texts and calls pick up these days, as though weather forecasters sensing something is in the air. A close friend will later share that on days Anna seemed down, Mark would reach out to her friend network and ask them to send extra love and support that day.

Anna also draws heavily on her own resilience, a deep internal well she continually replenishes. She keeps a journal by her bed, handwriting goals and motivational words on a daily basis. She prays and reaches into the depths of her faith. She finds gratitude in life-altering changes, like the closening of a vital family relationship, and even in small moments, like when a woman from church visits and gives her a butterfly ornament to hang in her room. Anna draws joy from her children, and shares vulnerabilities with friends. More than anything, she leans into the security of her relationship with Mark, who stands steadfastly behind her like a tree blocking the wind.

“He has had to care for me in ways we could never imagine, but you do it,” she’ll later reflect, wiping tears from her cheeks. “This is our life now, and he’s just been amazing.” There is more to say, about the depths of love she feels from Mark and her own overwhelming love and gratitude for him, but, like a fragile wing, these are words too delicate and precious to fly openly.

A group of butterflies is sometimes called a “flutter.”

Anna strapped in a machine to help her relearn to walk with a therapist on each side of her.
The first day Anna walked without using her arms for support at Sanford Medical Center in Fargo.

Anna spends 7 weeks in Fargo, in the hospital and adjoining rehabilitation facility. At first, physical therapists visit her hospital room daily. A lift system attached to the ceiling hoists Anna out of bed, dangling her like a puppet. Floating in her room, Anna gets used to her legs again.

On her first day of rehab, Anna writes, “I will not look back, but only look forward from this point on.” The passage inscribed in her journal page that day says it’s a day, like every day, to rejoice in.

When she progresses to a walker, Anna can’t bear weight on her upper body so she pushes on braces attached to it with her elbows and forearms. Gritting her teeth, she talks to her legs. “Move. Move!” Her muscles shake beneath the hard torso shell that she has to wear any time she’s vertical. “Some days are better than others,” Anna writes, “but every day I make some type of progress.”

Therapists help Anna sit at the edge of a table and learn how to stand. The effort is so taxing that she struggles to breathe and perform the exercise at the same time. But Anna doesn’t boast of her struggle. “Humility before grace,” she writes.

Anna and Mark live in a split-level home, so therapists help Anna learn to navigate stairs with crutches. She starts with a 2-inch step and then progresses to a 3-inch. When Anna conquers a 5-inch step, her return home inches closer. But Mark’s measurements reveal that the home steps are 7 inches and not the assumed 6. The disappointment strikes a blow, but Anna reaches into her determination and replenishes her well. “I have focused on staying positive throughout my journey,” she writes, “and that positivity has helped me carry through the struggle.”

Occupational therapists teach Anna strategies to dress and shower. Without her shell on, Anna must lay horizontally to put her clothes on. A pincher stick to pick them up proves invaluable. “I had two choices,” Anna writes, “lay there and be the victim of my circumstances, or make the best of every single day.”

Anna and Mark at their wedding reception table with other guests.
Anna and Mark on their wedding day in March 2013.

There’s a car inside the rehab facility, and Anna labors to learn how to get in and out. But in the weeks before she returns home, Mark runs into a deer on the way to Fargo one day, wrecking the front of Anna’s car. On the day she returns home, Mark will pull up in his mom’s large SUV. “We didn’t practice this,” she’ll say. “No, we didn’t,” he’ll gently reply as he lifts her into it.

Butterflies have a protective exoskeleton on the outside of their body.

Mark and Anna married six years earlier, starting a new life together in March 2013. They’d met by chance, on a stop on the way home from a trip Anna had made to Grand Forks with girlfriends. Mark was in the area for a snowmobile ride in honor of a friend who had died. Several years earlier, Mark had been given his own second chance at life through the gift of an organ donation.

On their sixth anniversary, Anna will write, “Life is not what we expected right now, but we will keep making it our best life for us.”

The butterfly’s patterns and colors can be seen even before it emerges from the chrysalis.

child standing in front of a farm field growing with a tractor in the background and blue sky and sun.
Anna’s son Vincent at the family farm.

Anna walks into the house for the first time with a walker. Little Vincent stands at the top of the stairs with his grandma, shaking with excitement. Earlier that day Vincent had told Alexa, the family’s virtual assistant, “My mom’s coming home today.”

The dark countertop cylinder with access to the full knowledge of the Internet had replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand that.”

Shortly after her return home, Anna returns to work at the University of Minnesota Extension, where she has worked as an Executive Administrative Assistant in the Crookston office for the past 7 years. She fights back tears describing the help she and her family have received. “I’ve worked with U disability services, and they’ve been so helpful with getting me back to work.”

While Anna was in the hospital, a colleague organized a vacation donation drive. The resulting contributions meant Anna received regular paychecks for the duration of her time away – a critical form of support for Anna’s family. Anna’s face flushes and tears well in her eyes discussing the kindness of her vacation donors. “I’m so grateful to the U for just everything,” she adds, “health insurance, vacation donation, disability services.”

Anna and Mark don’t know what lies ahead, but they know they’re grateful. Anna still has no feeling in her pelvic area, and extensive nerve damage in her left leg. Her upper thigh remains mostly numb, but she’s progressed to walking with a cane. Down the road Anna can have nerve testing to learn more precisely what potential regrowth there is, but it’s too soon for that. For now, pain signifies that nerves are regenerating.

“Will we have to cath me for the rest of my life?” she asks, propped up one April morning in her living room recliner. “Maybe, but I’m alive...and grateful.”

Anna views the large scar that travels along her spine and the companion scars on either side of her right arm as beautiful reminders of where she has been – the markings between chapters.

The butterfly breaks through the chrysalis, pumps blood into its new wings, and flies.

The night before Anna shares her story for this piece, her leg reverberates with what feels like continuous electric shocks, the pain of which not even medication can alleviate. But the pain is also a gift in Anna’s mind.

“How do you feel, Mom?” Anthony will often ask her. When she replies that she’s in a lot of pain, he breathes a sigh of relief. It means his mom is healing.

Anna sitting on hospital bed with three therapists around her as they prepare to stand her up to try using a walker.
The first day physical therapists helped Anna stand with the assistance of a lift.

Anna and Mark hope she might be able to lose her shell before he gets in the field. Mark currently helps her catheterize four times a day, and drives her to and from the office. They are looking at hiring an assistant to help Anna when Mark needs to be in the fields. Anna’s mom and four children continue to help in every way they can. Carlie comes home from college every other weekend to pitch in around the house and help her mom with some of her more personal needs. Friends have organized a meal train.

Anna’s therapy looks different these days. Mark drives her to Crookston three times a week for two-hour sessions, where she works on balance. Therapists intentionally set Anna off balance, asking her to navigate challenging obstacle courses to rebuild her strength. “My therapist told me that sometimes you have to lose your balance to find it again.”

Butterflies use their antennae to help them balance, sensing the direction of the wind.

On Easter Anna asks Mark if he can point out the accident site as they drive to her mom’s for dinner. What Anna hadn’t seen that evening was a large drainage ditch running north to south, slicing the group’s eastern trajectory. There hadn’t been enough snow to fill in the large gap, and the invisible dip had catapulted her off her sled. Sometimes things happen in the blink of an eye, and not in the same way for everyone even when on the same path. On the other side of the ditch are caution signs.

“Why aren’t there caution signs over here?,” Anna asks Mark, anger now welling where these past three months she has rallied only gratitude.

“I don’t know, Anna,” he says, his face flushing with emotion. “But there will be next year. I'll mark it myself.”

Table full for NWRSDP materials at an event with staff behind the table and students asking questions and looking at materials.
Anna in February 2018 with Extension colleague Linda Kingery, executive director of the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP).

Antennae not only help butterflies balance, but they are used to touch other butterflies.

Anna was recently asked to speak at a Women’s Leadership Event being held by the Crookston Chamber of Commerce in October. Her unfailingly positive outlook and ability to feel deeply grateful through a changed existence has inspired those around her. Anna’s title for her talk is “In the Blink of an Eye.”

One day in late March, she writes in a public message for friends, “Choose to be joyful. We all have different circumstances. Whatever yours is, choose joy.”

Anna did, by appreciating everything around her.

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Caryn Mohr, May 2019

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

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