Tristan Kaldenberg’s story made the newspapers in Littleton and Bangor, Maine, where he attends Husson University. In March 2017, a truck driving the wrong way on Route 95 collided with Tristan’s car, and he was severely injured. The Jaws of Life rescued him, and he was airlifted to a hospital for treatment of multiple injuries, including several broken bones. A month later, he walked into Emerson’s Center for Rehabilitative and Sports Therapies, on crutches, to continue his lengthy recovery.
Successful rehabilitation begins with setting a goal, and Tristan had one: he wanted to return to college in September walking unassisted. It was April, and he had a long way to go. He couldn’t put weight on his left leg, his jaw was wired shut, he had lost 30 pounds, was weak, and he was facing more surgery.
“Tristan was the most complex trauma case I have ever seen,” says Rachel Kim, DPT, his physical therapist. “The challenge for me was: how much do I push him?”
Ms. Kim got her answer right away. “I was already pushing myself as much as I could,” says Tristan. “Rachel was awesome. Together, we made steady progress, but I couldn’t help wanting it to come faster.”
That progress was hindered by nerve pain in his ankle and foot, which made his rehabilitation more difficult. “We didn’t know the extent of Tristan’s nerve damage or how long it would last,” says Ms. Kim. “He had no range of motion in his ankle, so we used different strategies, including stretching and massage, to help Tristan get through his physical therapy sessions.”
Despite Tristan’s nagging nerve pain and ongoing surgeries, he never missed a session at the center, and he came ready to work. “I knew Tristan would achieve his goal of getting back to school — no crutches or cane — by September,” says Ms. Kim. “Not only is he young and athletic, but he was motivated, and he had so much support from his family and friends.”
He never doubted he would get back to full strength and function. “I’m a track runner,” Tristan explains, noting that he was on the track team at Littleton High School and continues at college. “Also, I have to go hiking. I’m an Eagle Scout.”
Hard work, one-on-one attention pays off
Ms. Kim and Tristan hit some important milestones during his recovery. “We had to get my left heel down, which was a big problem,” Tristan says. “It was due either to the nerve damage or something being wrong with my calf muscle.”
After many weeks of working on the range of motion in his ankle and trying a variety of exercises, it happened. “We got my heel flat on the floor,” Tristan recalls. “I remember thinking: this is such a small thing. Why does it seem like such a big thing?” It was a big thing, because it was critical to the process of walking normally again.
The next milestone had to do with his big toe. “I couldn’t move it at all,” he says. “Then suddenly, I could wiggle my toe — slightly. Everyone at the center starting clapping.”
Ms. Kim remembers that round of applause. “Everyone got involved in Tristan’s rehab,” she says.
Casey Kaldenberg, his father, was there for many of his son’s rehab sessions and was impressed with what he observed. “Rachel was the right person to help Tristan,” says Mr. Kaldenberg. “She built a rapport with him right away. The one-on-one attention he received at Emerson was outstanding.”
He believes that Tristan’s positive attitude played a role in his successful rehabilitation, and he acknowledges the entire medical team and strong network of friends in Littleton who supported the family from the time of Tristan’s accident.
During Tristan’s final sessions with Ms. Kim, he had progressed well beyond walking without assistance; he was doing lunges and squats. “Our last session was on August 24, and Tristan left for college the next day,” says Ms. Kim.
Life got back to normal for Tristan, who gained weight and reports that he feels good. He is majoring in health sciences and plans to become a physical therapist. “I was interested in it before, but my experience has made me want it more,” he says.