by LAURA HAYES
The day started like any other. It was September 2008 and Gary Satka was outside, winterizing his swimming pool. Earlier that morning, he had bought an air compressor to blow out the plumbing lines.
When he was done, Satka had difficulty turning off the air compressor and decided to just pull the plug. As he walked over to the plug, the compressor blew off the top of his circulation pump, hitting him in the head.
Anyone else would’ve been killed in that instant, doctor said, but today Gary sits at the kitchen table in his wheelchair, alive to tell his story.
“I’m just lucky that my wife and grandson were in the house,” Satka remembered. “They heard it and called 911.”
He was airlifted to Winona Health where Satka said he stayed for mere moments before being transported to a La Crosse hospital and then a Rochester hospital, where he had emergency brain surgery. Both the right side and frontal lobe of his brain were damaged, affecting his mobility and paralyzing his left arm.
Doctors told Satka’s wife that they weren’t sure if he was going to make it. The accident led to three brain surgeries, which Satka estimated cost him around $80,000 each, and medical expenses amounting to around $2.5 million, draining Satka’s life savings.
He was later told by doctors that his accident would’ve killed most people instantly. “They [doctors] said they’ve never seen anyone with as much brain damage and lived as I had,” Satka said.
He remained in the intensive care unit for around a week. After surgery, a surgeon came into his room and told Satka that he would have severe deficits.
“‘You’ll never walk again,’” he recalled the surgeon saying. “I looked her in the eye and said, ‘You don’t know Gary Satka.’”
By his own strength and determination, going to the gym every day, Satka was able to take that first step out of his wheelchair and learn how to walk again, albeit with a cane at times.
“I never said, ‘Why me?’ Something happened to me, and I just wanted to be back to the way that I was because I have to take care of my family,” Satka said.
A self-proclaimed “gym rat,” Satka said that before the accident he would regularly exercise and after he was injured, he continued to go. At 63-years-old, Satka said that he may be in better shape than he was before the accident, with the exception of his left arm and leg that were affected by the damage to the right side of his brain.
If you go to the gym on any given morning, you might see Satka, who goes every day and exercises for an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half. Satka said that every day he goes on a rowing machine for 13 to 14 minutes before working on his core muscles on an oblique machine and doing 700 to 800 crunches on an inclined plane.
For the first time since he was injured, Satka started working with a physical therapist, who told Satka that he would help him walk without his cane. This physical therapist gave Satka several exercises, including exercising on two to four leg machines at the gym.
“In order to walk and get my balance right I need to have strong hips,” Satka explained.
Satka practices at home at Golden Hills, a group home where Satka resides, walking from his room to the living room or kitchen. “He’s real determined about getting better and he works hard at it,” employee Damon Manns said of Satka. “He really pushes. He’s not going to tell you he can’t.”
Satka attributes his strength to how his parents raised him. “I’m taking care of myself; it’s all for my family,” Satka said. “All I want to do is get my family back together.”
He has three daughters and two grandsons — one of whom, Leif, is taking his own first steps.
“He’s doing so well,” Satka said. “The first time you learn is easier than the second time you have to learn. I found that out.”
Satka is working on becoming independent, and is currently working with Winona ORC, an organization that provides job opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
His story has touched those around him, from the other residents at Golden Hills, some of whom exclaim, “He can walk!” to the friends he’s made while exercising at the YMCA.
“It inspires me to keep going,” Satka said.