After 25 years of celebrating GOAL awards, you might think the excitement has waned. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Our Lincoln Campus honored four outstanding recovery stories and truly exemplary former patients who worked hard, remained positive and inspired others through their determination and drive. On Oct. 11, this year’s honorees returned to Madonna, reuniting with the staff who cared for them and sharing in the celebration of their accomplishments.
Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals established the GOAL Awards in 1994 to honor patients for outstanding courage and determination as they completed their rehabilitation, returned to their communities and resumed their life roles. Care teams submit nominations and a committee of staff members selects the recipients. A dedicated and faithful father, a promising young athlete, the survivor of a plane crash, and a 10-year-old with a contagious smile – their stories could not be more different, but they are united by their perseverance and their journeys will inspire Madonna patients and staff for years to come as their photos are displayed among other recipients of this distinguished honor.
John Abkes was critically injured while on a family vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when a rogue wave slammed him into the ocean floor. John’s recovery from a spinal cord injury brought him from being barely able to move a finger to taking center stage dancing at his church Christmas pageant. Fighting back has given John a whole new outlook on life and helped him rediscover what really matters. “Faith, family, friends, the rest is just noise,” John said. Since recovering at Madonna, he and his wife Julie have welcomed two granddaughters, further inspiring him to live in the moment and enjoy everything around him.
Brandon Breunig looms larger than life, literally and figuratively. The 6-foot-6-inch standout athlete fought back after a devastating one-vehicle crash in 2016, resulting in a spinal cord injury, to help his Wahoo Bishop Neumann teammates clinch the Nebraska Class C-1 state basketball championship just a year later. He moved on to graduate college, returned to his love of running and waterskiing and serves Nebraska’s agriculture community through his job at Frontier Cooperative. “This experience has made me look at the bigger picture of life. Playing sports doesn’t mean the world to me like it used to. It’s just one aspect of my life. I’ve had thousands of great memories and a whole life ahead of me,” Brandon said.
Sheila Copley, a former Madonna employee, never planned to return to Madonna as a patient, but the physical therapy assistant determined this was the best place to recover after a plane crash crushed her T-12 spinal vertebra, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. The Denton, Nebraska, woman dedicated herself to returning to the job she loved and her roles as a wife and mother, relearning to drive, perform household chores, cook and navigate life in a wheelchair. She credits her family and faith in God for her remarkable outlook during an often difficult recovery. “I leaned on him so much; I feel so blessed,” she said. “I know he took care of us that day,” Sheila said.
The youngest GOAL award winner has possibly the biggest smile, after battling back from a rare neurological disorder that affected the right side of his brain, severely limiting his mobility. When Madonna staff met Ulises Ornelas, they knew they were in for a treat, with his outgoing personality, love for baseball and ice cream and heart for serving others. His rehabilitation journey was highlighted by a trip to Memorial Stadium to cheer on the Nebraska Cornhusker football team, an outing to the Lincoln Children’s Museum and implementing his idea of a lemonade stand to offer refreshment to patients and staff while raising money for other children on the Lincoln Campus pediatric unit. After two months of hard work, his goodbye was bittersweet. “I don’t want to go,” Ulises said. “I will miss my Madonna family.”
To view videos and hear more about this year’s recipients, click here.