CANNON FALLS — When Tess Pfohl finished chemo in early 2015, her family and friends wanted to celebrate. Puking and weak, the 2007 Cannon Falls High School grad reluctantly declined while she healed and gathered her strength in relative solitude.
After 14 months of painfully slow recovery, a Celebration of Life will be held Sunday at First English Lutheran Church in Cannon Falls. The free event begins at 5 p.m. and will include a silent auction, live music, a comedy show and words from the Pfohl family. More than 200 people are expected to attend.
The gathering has two main purposes: bring people together to celebrate Pfohl's recovery from life-threatening surgery, and raise money to help purchase a specialized van that accommodates her wheelchair.
"I just want to sit with everyone and catch up," Pfohl said Thursday. "The celebration of life thing is exactly that. This is going to be a birthday party and 'Holy cow, you survived the surgery' party. I can finally breathe and feel normal again. Yeah, I'm in a wheelchair now, but that's my new normal."
Pfohl, 27, underwent a 20-hour surgery at Mayo Clinic in Aug. 2014 to remove a cancerous tumor that had wrapped itself around her spine. She opted for the risky procedure knowing it would make her a paraplegic and still didn't guarantee her long-term health.
Her affliction is so rare that Mayo Clinic surgeon Dr. Michael Yaszemski declined to speculate on Pfohl's odds of survival before leading the complicated surgery that required nine specialists. However, all signs have been positive thus far — and friends leaped at the chance to celebrate with their friend about a month after her birthday.
"Now, she's back to being Tess," said Caitlyn Duncan, an organizer who first befriended Pfohl during elementary school. "She's back to being that bright, bubbly, sunny girl that we've all known our whole lives."
Duncan and Renee Redfield, Pfohl's godmother, don't have a specific fundraising goal in mind for the event they've planned. Wheelchair-operated vans cost between $25,000 and $35,000. A YouCaring website has raised nearly $1,000 thus far, with thousands more expected to come in during the weekend.
Duncan has collected dozens of silent auction items from businesses and supporters in the Twin Cities, Cannon Falls and Rochester. Redfield's family is handling most of the entertainment.
"There's just a lot of things that she needs, and they're not cheap," Duncan said. "Of course, Tess is kind and thoughtful so she doesn't want to be constantly asking for money, but everyone … is happy to help.
"The goal is to get her this wheelchair-operated van. It'll give her her independence back and her life back."
Pfohl was a state champion with the Bombers Dance Team, but she now dreams of rejoining the work force and embracing a public speaking career. Plus, she hopes to drive herself to the gym or to routine medical checkups, among other mundane activities most take for granted.
The former social worker now lives with her sister in rural Winona, while her grandparents just bought the house next door. Family and friends built a handicap-accessible addition about a year ago, though the bathroom remains a work-in-progress.
"My independence is so important to me," Pfohl said. "I probably do too much on my own now, but I'm just champing at the bit to get a car, be independent, get a job.
"I'm so happy I'm here. I have a purpose. My faith … is constantly telling me to keep going. I can't just be a well enough person to take myself out of bed, use the bathroom, get dressed and then wait around for the day to end."