This past Saturday, Cassville High School held its commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2012. Amongst the 33 students that walked across the stage this past weekend, one who may have been as happy as any of her classmates was Saige Bierman, daughter of Brian and Michele Bierman, because that walk across the stage was more than the marking of four years of academic work at the school, but also marking another accomplishment in coming back from major back injuries she suffered in a fall into a rock quarry last fall.
The year 2011 looked to be a pretty good one for Saige. Last spring she had been crowned prom queen and she had her senior year at CHS in front of her. There was her last season in volleyball, and the ritual of applying for colleges. Things were looking perfect.
That all changed during the early morning hours of Sept. 22. Just hours earlier, Cassville had held their annual skit night in conjunction with homecoming week. At skit night, titles are given to different members of each of the fall sports teams, and Bierman had received the title ‘Miss Digger.’ After the skit night, she and several other students went out to toilet paper homes of classmates and coaches. They went out to one home near STH 133 outside of Cassville.
“It was going to be the final house,” Saige recalled.
An alarm was tripped on the property before the group of students had even started, sending them scrambling not to get caught. Saige and another person ran in the direction of a rock quarry, and soon Saige had become separated from everyone. Attempting to make her way through the countryside, Saige had accidentally walked beyond the perimeter of the quarry, and fell just under 50 feet to freshly blasted rocks below.
“All of sudden I did not know what was going on, I was just down in the rock quarry,” Saige recalls.
First to get to her was Josh Mumm, who did not have a cell phone, and had to search through the loose rocks for Saige’s phone, which she lost in the fall. Soon, classmates Tiffany Junk, Garrett Schauff and Dillon Olson were at Saige’s side.
“I felt fine,” Saige said of those initial moments after the fall, noting that she had actually gotten up and started walking around, not feeling the pain. A couple of her friends there were also lifeguards at the pool, and sat Saige back down, concerned that she may have severe injuries that walking would exacerbate.
Saige’s mother felt that there was a guardian angel watching over her that night. The quarry had just been blasted. If that had not taken place, Saige’s fall would likely have been closer to 100 feet. Having assessed the scene, Michele also noted that Saige had to fall just a certain way to not have any broken limbs or head trauma.
“We can’t say enough about what they did,” said Saige’s father, Brian. He added that they kept her down, called him, called the sheriff’s department, EMS and fire department.
Brian remembers the call to him about the accident. “Initially she told the boy not to scare me, so he did not say what happened, so it did not really sink in until he said ‘you have to come out here,” Brian recalled. A sergeant with the Grant County Sheriff’s department, Brian remembered that during the drive out, as he saw emergency vehicles, the possible severity of the accident hit him.
News traveled fast about the fall, as they were leaving, Saige’s brother, Dustin, received a text wondering what had happened to his sister.
The parents were two of the first people on the scene, meeting the fire chief at the quarry. “I am flashing the flashlight going ‘where is she, where is she?” Michele recalled. “In the distance, these little cell phones light up, her friends holding them up so we can see the light.” Michele remembered that when she got to Saige, she was waived off because Saige wanted to see her father first. “I was falling apart,” Michele remembered when seeing her daughter on the ground.
“Seeing this, it was hard,” Brian remembered about the scene. In fact, ever since that night, he was unable to go out to where Saige fell.
The family commended the work of responders, climbing the rocks to get to Saige, and bringing her down and to the ambulance. It was when she was loaded in that Saige said she began to feel pain. “I could feel every bump. It started clicking that it was serious issues,” Saige said. “They said she was going to be ok, but I have heard that before and the outcome wasn’t ok, so I was worried.”
Brian said the drive to Madison to meet Saige at UW- Hospital (she was taken by helicopter) was one of the toughest moments he can remember.
“It was really scary because we didn’t know what was wrong,” Michele said.
In the hospital, Brian remembers asking her to wiggle her fingers and toes. It brought some ease knowing things were moving, but he knew, once she tried to stand for the first time, the healing process was going to be long.
For the first four days at UW Hospitals, Saige had to remain on her back and could not move at all. Then, doctors had her stand and walk for the first time. “I knew I could get farther, but my dad was holding me back,” Saige quipped. “I wanted to walk the whole hospital.”
Doctors reviewed the extent of the damages: four fractures - three vertebra broken and her tailbone was shattered. Beyond those extensive injuries, there were only a few scrapes and cuts.
Saige’s parents remember that even that week in the hospital, their daughter showed rapid signs of recovery. “We couldn’t hold her back,” Brian said. Three days after she returned home, Saige went to sit on the bench with the rest of her volleyball team.
The community and the Biermans worked together right away to help the healing process, both for Saige and her classmates, who were initially unsure how she was doing. Within days of the accident, the Biermans began working with the school district on getting information out about Saige’s injuries, and how to move forward with her return to school.
The day she fell, during the homecoming football game, her fellow members of the volleyball team created a large card and had people at the game sign it, many writing messages to Saige. Donations were given for gas cards for the family to make trips to doctors in Madison, and the football team signed the game ball for her.
The night she came, dozens of friends and family went to the Bierman home to see her and see what they could do. Volleyball teams from River Ridge and Highland sent cards and gifts.
“I think everyone in Cassville sent me a card, flowers or something,” Saige reflected, surrounded by many of those items that fill the family dining room prior to graduation. “ I think knowing all of those people were out there, praying for me, boosted my confidence that I could make it back from this. Just knowing I had that kind of support that everyone is there for you, it’s a feeling I cannot even described.”
“It wasn’t just Cassville, but all of Grant County that did this,” Michele added, noting that Saige received a prayer shawl from a church in Lancaster, something she slept with for the first three months.
“It was awesome, I couldn’t believe the people, we had their support,” Brian added.
After her first four days on her back, Saige was introduced to equipment that would become part of her life for the next few months of her recovery - a brace supported her back, and went around her head.
“It was horrible to be honest,” Saige said of the brace. “It was the most uncomfortable thing you can imagine.” For those first few months, she had to wear the brace whenever she was not lying down.
District Administrator Lee Kulland and District Advisor Bruce Boyum worked with the family to accommodate Saige, who returned to school two weeks after the fall.
Saige got an extra set of books for home so she didn’t have to haul them home every night. While they created a place for her to work away from her classmates, Saige said she did not wish to sit away from them. She eased into the school day, sometimes getting tired in the first days back, but Saige said she did not want to fall behind in any significant way.
She noted that she felt nervous going back to school. “Having that brace, I knew they would stare, but I also knew they understood,” Saige recalled. She added that her classmates welcomed her back, and responded by helping when she needed it.
“Support from my teachers was phenomenal. They would not let me fall behind.”
Senior year is the time most parents are looking to start letting go of their children as they prepare for when they leave the home. In the Bierman house, the opposite was happening, as Saige relied on her family to help her as she recovered.
“It was like I was becoming a little kid again,” Saige said of the help she needed. For example, unable to bend over, she needed help putting on socks those first few months. Her dad jokes that she liked some of the pampering. “It was useful,” Saige quipped.
“It was nice having my little girl back at the time,” Michele said, adding she felt that it brought them closer together. Michelle did say that she feels it will be a little more difficult to let go, but Brian noted his brother is close by to come to her need since she will be four hours away.
“The bigger thing was holding her back,” Brian said. “She wanted to go, and push herself, and we said ‘no, you can’t do that. We had to have the doctor tell her that because if we said it, it wasn’t official.”
As 2012 progressed, Saige began to have her life. While there was a setback in taking the brace off for good in January, it finally came off in February (it now resides in the family’s basement). She started to go to physical education class, and while she was not cleared for sports, she has been able to be more active.
But still, she needed to take her recovery slow. In January, when she was told that something was not healing correctly, she pouted on having to put the brace back on. She is still not able to play volleyball, but is hoping she can for her graduation party. “She would be frustrated, and we would then get frustrated,” Michelle said.
Still, things went well. Her parents were amazed at her recovery, and Saige’s grades improved. She said the experience made her a better person, one who is more responsible, and knows that things take an effort to make them happen.
Michele said she learned a bit about her daughter through this. “She just seems like she can just get through anything. I don’t know if I would have done as well.”
Brian said he learned about his daughter as well. “Maybe it was because she was young, or active, or stubborn, but she healed. She knew if she didn’t get up and start walking she might never get up.”
Saige said she appreciates thing more now, especially her parents. “I just know I could rely on them on anything. When I was at my weakest point, when I was frustrated, they were there for me.”
She also learned something about herself. “I can make it through anything. No matter what life throws at me, I know I will be able to get back up.”