The worry and concern were starting to bubble up. It was just past midnight and there was no sign of Chris. So Danielle Rand sent a text.
Chris Rand responded quickly, telling his wife of two months he was just out for a walk and looking at the stars. He told her not to worry and go to bed. He would be back shortly.
Danielle sat by the fire at their campsite at Wildcat Mountain State Park in Ontario, WI. Her border collie, Keita, was keeping her company. She decided she would stay up and wait.
Thirty minutes went by. Then another thirty. Then thirty more. Still no Chris. She sent another text. There was no response.
Chris had made his way up to one of the park’s main attractions, an observation point roughly 100 feet above the landscape. It had been a full day. He had gone for a three-mile run in the morning, put in a full day of work, drove across the state from their Menasha home and had set up two tents in the dark, as friends were coming the next day.
It was a beautiful, clear August night. So he decided to just lie down, look at the stars, and be alone with his thoughts for a minute. He dozed off, but was awakened by the need to go to the bathroom. He got up, a bit groggy, saw some trees and decided to step into the woods.
Instead, he stepped off the cliff.
Danielle didn’t know what to do. It was well past midnight now. Pitch black. Should she go look for Chris and end up putting herself in danger? What if he came back and she was gone? What if he just fell asleep and was perfectly fine?
She sent another text. No response. So she sat and waited some more. The texting system they had set up with their phones notified them when their texts had been seen and read. There were no notifications. She sent another text.
When he finally stopped, Chris had broken vertebrae in his lower back and neck, he had broken ribs, a broken sacrum, a damaged knee, numerous lacerations and part of his scalp had been torn away. To his knowledge, he never lost consciousness. After several moments he managed to stand up, only to fall immediately and roll further down the hill of rocks and trees.
He came to a stop a second time, not knowing where he was or exactly what happened. He tried to crawl back in the same direction from which he came. Mission impossible. He lied down, managed to turn himself in the other direction and saw headlights. There was a road ahead. He crawled on his hands and knees until he found it.
The fear in Danielle continued to build like a boiling teapot. She was in a strange place, by herself, in the middle of the night and the husband she had texted with just a short time earlier was no longer responding.
“I was worried, very worried. Like out of my mind worried,’’ said Danielle.
Aside from his smartphone, Chris had a smartwatch. He was one of those people. He was always connected.
She sent another text. Then another. Six, seven, eight texts now. Nothing.
“I’m seeing my messages pile up and not being seen, not being read,’’ she said. “It’s just panic. Building panic.”
She called her parents and allowed herself to shed a waterfall of tears for a brief time.
Then she sent another text.
Chris reached the road and managed to stand up, the swelling and adrenalin partially disguising his serious injuries. As he began to walk, his body felt like one of those inflatable Gumby-like figures you see in front of a car dealership, swaying back and forth with little to no control.
Perhaps it was his training as a Marine, or perhaps his own indomitable will, but he kept moving forward, a little over a mile before he spotted a house. It was now somewhere close to 3 a.m. Chris knocked on the door.
“I asked them to call for help, at which point I promptly collapsed right in front of them,’’ said Chris. “I must have been a sight.”
Sunlight was just starting to trickle in. Danielle was still in her chair near the fire, her stomach in knots and her mind overrun with anxiety, when a police officer walked into her camp.
“Are you missing someone?” he said.
He told her Chris had fallen, was taken to nearby St. Joseph’s Memorial Hospital, was alive, that his life was not in danger but he was severely injured. She needed to go.
She ran to the bathroom, pretty much accosted a couple coming out and begged them to watch her dog, and left.
When she arrived at St. Joseph’s she was met by a nurse who told her Chris was OK; to take a couple of deep breaths. He was OK. Then, she brought her to Chris’ room.
“You go in and see how he appeared at the time, and all those, ‘He’s OKs’ go right out the window,’’ said Danielle. “Because he doesn’t look OK. He doesn’t look OK at all.’’
Then, a doctor came to talk to her.
“Unfortunately he said to me, ‘Had he have sat down (after the fall), it’s entirely likely you could be planning a funeral today,’ which didn’t help,” said Danielle.
St. Joseph’s was unable to give Chris the care he needed, so they transferred him to Gunderson Medical Center in La Crosse, which was about an hour’s drive. Danielle rushed back to the campsite, tore it down, retrieved her dog and left.
When she arrived at Gunderson, again she was met by a nurse who delivered the kinds of news no one wants to hear.
“She made the damage sound like it was incredibly severe,’’ she said. “As if they weren’t sure he was going to walk again.” She was informed that if he moves, his spinal cord could be pinched or severed, resulting in possible paralysis.
She was taken to see Chris, and there were an assortment of braces and other restrictive devices hooked to him and his bed. She watched as a team of hospital staff gently rolled him on his side.
“It paints a picture that is even worse than what you’re being told,’’ she said.
And then the neurosurgeon came into the room.
“He was positive and almost cavalier about it,’’ she said, “which kind of put me back on my heels a little bit. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at the time.”
The last thing Danielle needed was mixed messages. But they continued right up until surgery. The neurosurgeon’s nurse practitioner remained positive and confident, the nurses and hospital staff not so much.
Because he was stabilized and there was an unusually high number of trauma cases that came into the hospital, Chris had to wait three days before surgery could be performed. When he was finally taken to the operating room, eight bolts and stainless steel rods were used to fuse the vertebrae in his back and a halo was installed to stabilize the broken vertebrae in his neck. It took about an hour.
“I can’t even get my car serviced as quickly as he performed that surgery,’’ said Chris. “I just imagined a NASCAR pit crew inside that surgery room. It was pretty incredible.”
Again, after the surgery, the neurosurgeon painted a rosy picture, even telling Danielle that Chris could use the bathroom, take a shower and walk around the ward once he returned from recovery if he felt up to it. And immediately, the 400-pound gorilla that had been attached to Danielle’s back was gone.
“In that moment, you realized it was what you always believed,’’ said Danielle, “things would be OK.”
But again, once she saw Chris in recovery, she was taken aback. Chris was in tremendous pain from the invasive surgery. He was certain the surgery had gone wrong. The idea of him walking around his room in a few hours was immediately flushed from Danielle’s hopes; Chris was grasping the side of his bed in fear, not moving even one muscle.
“I don’t know how else to explain it except that you finally breathe and say, ‘Ah, ok,’’’ said Danielle. “Then, it’s not.”
Chris spent four years in the Marines, mostly in Hawaii where he was a jet engine mechanic. Once he got out, after a couple of odd jobs, he started his own business installing fiber-optic lines as an independent contractor. After that, he started a machine shop with his dad and brother and did that for seven years before the housing crisis and the economic collapse of 2010.
He was in his 30s now, but still not doing what he really loved.
“Ever since I was a child I was interested in art but I was always told, ‘There’s no money in that, kid. Don’t bother with it,’’’ said Chris. “But that love never went away.”
So he decided to enroll at UW-Green Bay and earned an undergraduate degree in art, becoming the first in his family to get a college degree. It was shortly after that a friend of his recommended him for a role in the Green Bay mayoral campaign of Jim Schmitt.
His love of art and knowledge of technology was a perfect combination to upgrade and improve the campaign’s online presence. He was appointed campaign manager and helped Schmitt win reelection in 2011 and 2015.
Things were seemingly falling into place. He met Danielle, enrolled in the MBA program at UW-Oshkosh and he talked Danielle into joining him on a project, visiting and camping overnight at all 49 of Wisconsin’s state parks.
Wildcat Mountain was No. 25.
Chris’ recovery was slow, painful, and frustrating. One of the therapists started pushing him to a point where Chris thought it was unreasonable. And then he was told he would probably have to be transferred to a rehab facility for a couple of weeks.
“The one thing you can guarantee is going to light a fire in him is if you tell him he can’t do something,’’ said Danielle. “And once you do that, his mission is to show you he can.”
In relatively short order, Chris was up and walking. He was using the restroom; daily tasks he needed to accomplish by the end of the day were completed by mid-morning.
And soon, he was on his way home.
“There was just a lot of pain,’’ Chris said of recovery at the hospital. “And I said, ‘You’re just going to have to function through the pain. This might be the new normal.’ So I’m pretty determined that way. One might describe it as bull-headed. But it was a determination and a desire to, I don’t know, against-all-odds type of thing.
“I feel like a lot of times I’ve been an underdog in my life but I’ve been able to come out on top just because of my tenacity and unwillingness to give up. It would have been very easy to just lie there and just say the pain is too much, please give me more pain killers and it would have been very easy to do that because it was real.”
The determination to get out of the hospital allowed Chris to check off one goal. And soon after he got home, he found the next.
The Ice Age National Scenic Trail was turning 40. And if you could hike a total of 40 miles on the trail in October, you’d get a certificate and a patch. To Chris, that sounded more like an Olympic Gold Medal. He told Danielle he would do this.
“I would love to tell you I was an encouraging and supportive wife and so ‘Go get 'em,’ but if I’m being honest, I was mad,’’ said Danielle. “I was very mad.
“I was very worried. He couldn’t drive at the time, so I wasn’t sure what his expectations were. Is he expecting me to drive him to this place? I have a full-time job. How is this going to work? Then, he explained Jeremy was going to accompany him.”
Since the day they first met, Jeremy Robillard has always been there for Chris when he needed him most.
“We moved (to Kewaunee) starting my freshman year and the first day of school, I did not know a single soul,’’ said Chris. “It was 1989 and Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie had just come out, and I had the bat symbol dyed in the back of my head; I’ll tell you it’s tough to make friends the first day of school like that.
“And Jeremy saw some kids not treating me so nicely and he kind of stepped in and he’s like, ‘Hey, leave him be.’ He took me in, introduced me to his friend group, and two guys he introduced me to, along with Jeremy, are my core friends to this day.”
Despite Jeremy’s willingness to help, Danielle was still filled with trepidation.
“There is a difference taking your walker down a paved sidewalk in your neighborhood and then there’s walking on a trail full of tree roots and unforeseen things under leaves and hills and little potholes on a winding trail where you can’t lower your neck because you’re wearing a neck brace,’’ said Danielle. “So it was very scary for me to let him do that, not that I could have stopped him by any stretch of the imagination.”
When he began Chris could only walk a quarter-mile, with a cane. Then it was a mile, then three, then he began to use trekking poles and he’d go five miles, then seven.
His progress did not come without a cost, as the longer hikes resulted in three days in his recliner for recovery. But he made it. He earned his certificate and his patch.
“I’m a bit selfish in the fact that … there are different types of marriages, right?’’ said Danielle. “There are marriages where people get married and they want to spend dinners and weekends together and there are marriages where when you come home you just want to go to your own room and deal with each other when you have to.
“And then there are marriages where you want to spend all of your time with them. I am immensely proud of him. Words cannot express. I am also a little perturbed I could not join him on that journey.”
You would not be surprised to know Chris has set himself another goal. He wants to run a half marathon by the fall of 2021.
“I have no doubt that he’ll do it, but it doesn’t mean I’m not rolling my eyes,’’ said Danielle. “Mostly because he’s going to want me to run with him, and I don’t run. So, when Chris sets a goal it happens. It’s one of the things I really admire about him. Again, it can also be an incredibly frustrating thing to deal with 24/7. He’ll get there, he always does. We’ll all get there.”
There are always two totally different stories following an event like this; the story of the survivor, and the story of the person caring for that survivor.