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St. Paul School Superintendent Joe Wehrli rehabs in Bend as he recuperates from a crash that destroyed his truck, but not his spirit

SUBMITTED PHOTO - St. Paul School Superintencent Joe Wehrli's heavy-duty pickup was nearly totally demolished in an accident that left him with multiple injuries.

The rehabilitation process includes a healthy dose of gratitude for St. Paul School District Superintendent Joe Wehrli.

Wehrli's world changed dramatically on Nov. 30, shortly after the St. Paul Bucks dropped a state championship tilt with Adrian/Jordan Valley in Hermiston. The superintendent attended the game and afterward he headed west back to the Willamette Valley at the same time of the day when the sun seems to set directly down the path of Interstate 84.

"It was in the afternoon and the sun was right in my eyes. I put my hand up to shield it and there had actually already been an accident on 84 ahead," Wehrli recalled of that day. "The semitruck ahead of me had slowed down and I did not see his break lights."

Wehrli's pickup slammed into the rear of the semi. The impact was unforgiving and incredibly unsettling to the many St. Paul area residents who were also headed back home and either witnessed the accident or the mangled aftermath.

Wehrli was transported to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Wash., where it was discovered that he had a total hip dislocation, his femur went through his hip and surgeons had to put the bones back together. He also sustained a lower-leg bone break and some broken ribs.

Doctors had a specific trauma surgeon they wanted to operate, but that surgeon wasn't available. So, they put Wehrli in traction for a couple of days until the surgeon of choice was available. The day of the operation was Wehrli's 60th birthday.

"That sort of changed my plans from how I wanted to celebrate it," Wehrli said from his rehabilitation facility in Bend.

With his humor clearly intact, Wehrli evinced an optimism that many in health care emphasize is vital for recovery. He also counts his blessings.

"I feel very blessed. Looking at the truck I don't know how I came out of it with the limited injuries I have," he said.

He said he's also grateful it wasn't worse; grateful for the quality staff at Kadlec; grateful for the rehabilitation staff at St. Charles and that he has family living in that town so he can stay there comfortably as he undergoes rehab.

He said he feels especially relieved that his yellow lab, Annie, who was in a kennel in the bed of the truck, came out of the wreck unscathed.

"Tony Smith, our athletic director and football coach, got her from the truck, took her home and kept her until my son could pick her up," Wehrli said. "It's the little things like that I am so thankful for."

Annie will soon be rejoining her master as he progresses through rehab: "She'll be over here for the holidays."

While recovery will be a long process, Wehrli doesn't expect it to be anything less than a full one. He added that one thing that puts him at ease is the St. Paul community and the school district staff.

"Oh my gosh. I'll say a couple things about the St. Paul community. First, a number of community members were right there when it happened, because we were all coming home," he said. "I was glad we could get the word out that I'm going to be okay.

"All of the phone calls and cards coming in, that's been really helpful for my recovery. It's never a good time for something like this to happen, but with all things going on celebrating holidays, from a business standpoint this is a slower time of year for us."

The superintendent said the district staff pulled together and got the school operations in order and took much of his work worries off his shoulders.

The staff and community wouldn't expect anything less.

"The entire St. Paul Community is very thankful that Joe is making such great progress in his recovery," St. Paul High School Principal Patrick Schrader said. "As you know, many members of our community witnessed the aftermath of the accident and there was a lot of concern and worry. We were all very relieved when we heard Joe was okay and would be making a full recovery. We are very fortunate that his leadership in our school community will continue."

Wehrli looks forward to continuing his work.

"Fortunately, I have a high pain tolerance," he said. "I like being active and that helps motivate me to get back to where you were before, for sure.

"I'm already ahead of the curve on recovery. My goal is 100-percent return to normal activities and work, and the initial indications is that it's entirely possible."

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