By Carol Stiffler

Ace Depew slipped on the ice in his driveway on December 15, 2023, hitting his head with so much force it caused traumatic brain injury. It was a terrifying emergency.

His accident was the third horrific and life-changing event in a few short months; two other local men had accidents of their own and received spinal cord injuries. Suddenly, the area was organizing benefit dinners and fundraisers for three able-bodied men who had their lives turned upside down in an instant.

After an initial stay in a regular hospital, all three were transferred separately to the inpatient Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids. The 187-bed facility works with people who have suffered brain or spinal cord injury and aims to return them to as much of a normal life as possible.

The curiously named facility had an interesting start. In 1891, a group of compassionate women wanted to help the poor afford health care. They asked anyone named Mary, or who knew someone named Mary, to donate a dime. With their pooled money, the women covered costs for a single bed at the hospital. The size and scope of the group, which took the name the Mary Free Bed Guild in 1911, grew and grew. It began focusing on rehabilitation in the 1950s, and is still growing. Last year, an addition made room for 20 more beds. It’s no longer free, but accepts insurance.

Floors are securely divided, and though the Depews knew about the presence of the other local men, they scarcely saw any evidence of them. All three were invited to be part of this story.

Depew doesn’t remember much about his arrival to Mary Free Bed on December 30. His wife, Theresa, was by his side the whole time, even sleeping on a cot next to his bed every night.

“He wasn’t walking. He wasn’t really carrying on conversations,” she said. “He was awake, but he wasn’t coherent.”

Dr. Stuart Yablon, a physiatrist at Mary Free Bed, specializes in brain injury and worked with Depew there.

“He fell on the ice and hit it pretty hard,” Yablon said. “He had a skull fracture and pretty significant bruising on his brain. This is definitely more than a concussion.”

Depew had therapy sessions multiple times a day, working on his strength, balance, and speech. And three weeks later – today, if all goes to plan – he’s coming home. He’ll still need a few weeks of outpatient therapy, but Depew will be walking, talking, and looking much like himself.

It wasn’t magic. Depew fought hard for these results, working and resting, working and resting, working and resting.

“I can’t really tell the changes, because I wasn’t around at the beginning,” Ace Depew said. “I was out of it all. As of right now, they have me thinking I’m doing a good job with all of my rehab. They tell me quite regularly that I’ve made great progress, big steps. They continue to push me and make me do bigger and better things every time we meet.”

The facility has been “just shy of perfect,” Ace said. “With the personnel they have working here, how professional and knowledgeable in their fields, it’s been just amazing.”

Ace said he’s still trying to change how he sees and feels about circumstances, but he’s full of appreciation for the staff and facility at Mary Free Bed. And he’s beginning to feel like himself again.

“It was very important for us to get here,” said Theresa, speaking Monday from Mary Free Bed. “Probably the most crucial part of this for his recovery was to get here.”

Former Newberry resident and longtime band teacher Bill VanEffen feels similarly following his stay at Mary Free Bed in 2020. VanEffen had a devastating 18-foot fall from a tree stand in October that year. He’d just gotten up into his stand, which he built strong and sturdy, and was reaching for his bow when the bench he was sitting on collapsed, sending him backward. The resulting spinal cord injury left him in a wheelchair and no use of his legs.

“I should be dead,” said VanEffen, who has since perfected gallows humor. “Compared to that, I’m in great shape, by the way.”

VanEffen credits Mary Free Bed for teaching him how to manage well enough to get back to doing almost everything he used to do: He still tunes pianos, flies airplanes, and drives a car modified with hand controls.

“It’s an excellent place,” said VanEffen. “They taught me stuff that if I hadn’t gone there, I don’t think I could be at home. I really mean that.”

VanEffen said one of the first things he learned was how to sit upright without being able to balance with his legs. It’s much harder than you’d think, he said.

“Had I not learned, for instance, how to ‘slide board’ from wheelchair to bed, or to the car, or stuff like that, I would probably have been homebound,” VanEffen said. He uses strong plastic “boards” to slide his body out of bed and into his wheelchair, for example.

“It’s a different life, but if you make the best of it, it works,” VanEffen said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Depew is ready to be home and make the best of it, too.

“Ace wants to get back to his normal life as fast as he can,” Theresa said. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be a little different to start with. Hopefully within the year we get back to normal.”

Theresa said the experience has been the scariest of her life, but also beautiful. The overwhelming response from the community showed her that she and Ace live in the “most amazing place in the world.”

“We were on that hard end of it, but I feel so fortunate,” she said. “I want the community to know: Their support through all this has helped us. People have fed our children. They showed up in Petoskey. They show up here. They’re still bringing food to my house.”

If he feels up to it, Ace may attend tonight’s wrestling match in Newberry, which is also scheduled to be parents night. He’ll be there for his boys, Kennedy and Gaijye Depew. The crowd is likely to go wild.