A road to recovery paved by faith

Vree family looks to God to right a world turned upside down

(From July 26, 2012)

In June 2011, everything Worth residents Dan and Barb Vree knew about their daughter, Katie, changed with a single phone call.

Katie Vree, 17 at the time and heading into her junior year at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, was on a plane bound for Miami, where she was to board another flight to Guatemala. There,Vree was to be part of a mission trip with 30 of her classmates.

Ten minutes before the plane was about to land, however, Vree started to experience aching and then tingling in her shoulder, and the feeling eventually spread to her legs. When paramedics were called a second time about the matter they rushed Vree to Jackson Memorial Hospital on the University of Miami campus. Vree was at the hospital for two weeks while doctors ran tests to try to determine what was wrong. Whatever had stricken her had paralyzed her from the shoulders down. She couldn't move, couldn't even eat on her own.

Doctors originally believed Vree, a member of the Chicago Christian volleyball team, had suffered a spinal stroke brought on by a common virus that turned her immune system against her body. More than a year later, however, the Vrees are still uncertain what sparked the paralysis.

"We believe she has a form of transverse myelitis," said Barb Vree. "There are still certain markers they test for that don't exactly match up, but that is [the doctors'] best conclusion."

Transverse myelitis is caused by the inflammation of the spinal cord. The cause of 60 percent of all transverse myelitis cases remains unknown, while the other 40 percent may be associated with autoimmune disorders. Vree's condition is believed to have been caused by a virus that damaged her third, fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae.

Since that day last June, Vree, now 18, has slowly begun to regain feeling in nearly every part of her body. The right side of her body is starting to feel almost completely normal, and the feeling in the left side of her body is beginning to come back, albeit much slower than the right side, Barb said.Most importantly, Katie is finally pain-free.

"Our world completely stopped and turned upside down with that one phone call," Barb said."Our life is so different now."

When Katie returned home after her stay of more than five months at Chicago's Rehabilitation Institute, the Vrees chose to sell their home and move into a first floor condo so Katie could get around easier. The family has since purchased a new home - a one-level ranch - and is looking forward to moving into the residence they hope will make it easier for Katie to get around in her wheelchair.

"It is a big adjustment but a big opportunity for growth and recovery," Barb said.

Vree has been attending physical therapy three times a week, occupational therapy twice a week, and pool therapy twice a week.

Everyday, however, is not so rosy, Barb said. The Vrees have had their troubles adjusting to the new life; but when Barb and Dan start to question what the conclusion of this story is going to look like, they reflect on how far Katie has come.

"[Dan] always says, 'Look where she was a year ago and where she is now,'" Barb said. "She had a feeding tube and couldn't move at all."

"I'm not angry about what happened," Barb said. "Anger just gets you stuck. You have the choice to be bitter and angry but that just drives you farther from God. Thousands of people pray for Katie every day and we feel it. We really do."

Despite the changes to and challenges in their lives,one thing that has remained constant for the Vrees - their faith and reliance on God.

"Without Him, we wouldn't be able to take one step forward," Barb said. "He is with us. That is what we cling to."

The Vrees are a devout Christian family who are members of Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Oak Lawn. The church has helped the family financially with Katie's rehabilitation, and has given moral support. There are more than 2,000 messages on Katie's caringbridge.orgprofile, where Barb and Dan continue to tell Katie's story and document her recovery. People have been bringing the Vrees meals and cards, and have even offered to drive Katie to her therapy sessions.

"I have learned how important and critical it is to live day to day," Barb said. "I just ask Him for the strength to get through today. We are strengthened and provided for."

Katie, who has been homeschooled since stricken by her illness and has been getting tutored over the summer, is looking forward to the possibility of attending Chicago Christian two mornings a week beginning this fall. She is able to live her life as normally as possible with a little help from friends who take her swimming, to friends' houses for bonfires, and to do the things she did before her diagnosis, Barb said.

"I've learned in a bigger way that God knows my name," Barb said through tears. "He has a plan and a purpose for us. He is the 'great physician.'"

For more information about Katie Vree visit