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Cannon Falls grad survived 20 hours of surgery, accepted paraplegia

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Tess Pfohl and her dad, Bill.

WINONA — The phone rang, and all Tess Pfohl could do was pray.

It was the day before Thanksgiving, about three months since the 25-year-old Cannon Falls native had undergone 20 hours of surgery to remove a potentially fatal cancer that had wrapped itself around her spine. Pfohl had voluntarily chosen to become paraplegic in hopes of extending her life , but Mayo Clinic doctors were unwilling to discuss her chances of survival.

Mayo Clinic surgeon Dr. Michael Yaszemski said the world-class facility has performed just 160 such surgeries in the past 18 years.

Pfohl's uncertain future was made apparent once again on Nov. 24, when a spot was detected on her lungs, raising concern that cancer had already returned. After months of waiting — surgery was delayed until August to coordinate the schedules of Yaszemski's nine-member surgical team — the two-time state dance champion was forced to endure two more excruciating days of waiting while the clinic completed tests on the newly found spot.

Pfohl, who normally is an avid social media user , went silent during the wait. She returned only after breathing a sigh of relief when the Mayo Clinic called to report the spot wasn't cancerous. She's currently enjoying every day as if it might be her last.


"I think we all knew it was incredibly likely I might not survive the surgery," Pfohl said on Saturday from a wheelchair at her sister's house in rural Winona. "It's just so rare that I don't think (the doctors) knew either.

"We went into it hoping I'd beat the odds. I felt really strongly that I'd make it out of surgery — and here I am."

She expects to complete her final chemotherapy session in February and must undergo tests during an additional nine months without any cancer detected to officially be classified as being in remission. Her status would change to cancer-free after five years.

While each day brings new challenges and continued uncertainty, Dr. Yaszemski is among the hopeful. He told his latest patient that he hopes to see her again in 12 years because of issues with the rod that was inserted into her remade spinal column.

"He's hopeful, but it's all very real, and we have to take each day as a gift," Pfohl said.

Friends and family rally to rebuild

Tess' sister, Lynnea Pfohl, and her husband, Joe, live in a small house situated on 35 acres of land about 20 minutes southeast of Winona. They and their young children enjoyed years of idyllic rural living — until Tess' cancer diagnosis made their home a veritable beehive of activity.

Lynnea, a stay-at-home mom, immediately offered up the home's master bedroom to her younger sister, who had been employed as a social worker in Alexandria. Plans were made to renovate the master bath to accommodate a wheelchair.


Friends and family donated nearly $20,000 to enable a quick remodel — but Bill Pfohl envisioned something bigger and better for his daughter.

The Red Wing teacher drafted plans for a two-story addition that would virtually triple the square footage of the rural Winona home. It became a project of passion for the emotionally distraught father, who poured his heart — and retirement fund — into the project while his daughter underwent surgery and months of debilitating chemo.

The addition will include nearly 900 square feet of living space for his paraplegic daughter, including a bathroom twice the size of what originally was planned. A second floor was added to allow Bill and Gwen, his wife, a place to retire in two years and continue to help.

"Emotionally, this was my focus," Bill said. "When you're faced with an illness that's out of your control — like this stinking cancer — you need to focus on what you can do."

The addition is expected to be completed around Christmas and doesn't yet include a ramp access. However, Tess was hoisted up Sunday afternoon for her first look at her new living space.

"If I didn't have that to look forward to, I'd feel really insecure," she said. "This is security for me and comfort. Being in a wheelchair now, I need more space."

The addition is expected to cost six figures to complete, but tens of thousands were saved by a huge stable of volunteer laborers. The annual family reunion was shifted south and focused on construction; one uncle who lives near Fargo continues to visit every weekend to chip in.

Dozens of Bill's colleagues within the Red Wing school district also have jumped at the opportunity to help. Mandy Stokes, a physical education teacher, organized three groups of volunteers who have helped paint, lay flooring, attach trim and many other things on weekends. Other educators donated funds or food to keep the project on track.


"I felt so bad for them," Stokes said. "I can't imagine what the whole family has been going through. Immediately, everyone wanted to help. Bill calls it an addition, but it's really like a second house."

Looking forward

The large incision on Tess' back from the August surgery finally closed Thursday, making her body as complete as it will ever be. That's allowed her to slowly begin the transition to a new reality.

She went swimming for the first time Sunday at the Winona YMCA. Her painting side business is about to restart after months of inactivity. The close-knit family also played its first board game together in months.

"She was trash talking, and it was fun," Lynnea said of her younger sister. "That was the first time I felt like she was back."

Perhaps borrowing a page from her father, Tess' plans moving forward are ambitious.

A T-shirt fundraiser raised about $9,000, allowing her to order an all-terrain wheelchair to continue her outdoor hobbies. When the weather warms, she intends to explore 35 acres of hiking trails, play in the yard with her sister's kids and, potentially, resume her annual camping trips to the Boundary Waters with her family.

Tess said she dreams of visiting hospitals — hopefully with a service dog — and serving as a motivational speaker for those who are faced with similarly daunting health afflictions. Years down the road, she said she hopes to return to her previous post as a social worker.

Though Tess is hairless and physically weak, her father says her unbreakable spirit has given the whole family strength over the past few months.

"It's been hard," Bill said. "It's safe for her to let herself be really sad and depressed around us, but we also see her strength and willingness to keep (fighting). So many people have come up to me and said 'Your daughter is fantastic,' that I started to realize how powerful her spirit really is.

"If for some reason she were to die tomorrow, she's already made a tremendous difference in so many peoples' lives."

Bill Pfohl shows Tess around in the new addition as it nears completion.

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