For Gabi Cepek, hearing her name announced before a varsity volleyball game is a frequent experience. But on October 6th, the Seward High School junior got a special introduction. With the Bluejay student section chanting her name, an emotional Gabi returned to the court to play for the first time all season.
On February 15th 2022, Gabi was on her way to school when she was in a serious car accident, a day her mom will never forget.
“She was awake and alert but in a lot of pain,” Michelle Cepek remembered. “Once they got her in the ambulance, I was right by her side. She appeared in good shape, and she didn't have a scratch on her, but her arm looked like a gummy worm. The ambulance called for a life flight because of the nature of the accident and the fact that they couldn't stabilize her arm for transport. At the time, they had no idea about her internal injuries.”
First responders took Gabi to Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln where it became unclear if she would survive. With her life in doubt, Gabi then was transported to UNMC in Omaha where she had surgery for her liver and kidney.
“I just thought, what does this mean?” Michelle said. “Will she ever be able to play volleyball again? Most of all, will we have her or is God taking her home? So many things go through a parent’s mind, and you can't help but think the worst, but hope for the best.” For Gabi, it was weeks after the accident before she finally started to feel alert.
“I had to push myself to stand, and I couldn’t even walk,” Gabi said. “The first time I tried to stand up in about two weeks was when the feeling of everything sank in. It was really hard for me to understand everything that happened was real because it felt like a fever dream. I kept saying to myself, ‘How could this happen to me? Out of everyone, why me?’ I knew that it was going to be a really long and hard road to recovery but I was ready to work and fight the hardest I have ever had to.”
UNMC suggested inpatient care at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals, but Gabi wanted to go home. With drains coming out of her stomach, she couldn’t shower by herself or even stand on her own. But with a determined attitude, she started to make progress. In May, Gabi started outpatient therapy at Madonna.
“Gabi was still very fragile when she came to us to start therapy due to several fractures, liver and kidney lacerations, and a brain hemorrhage,” Angie Gerner, Madonna’s outpatient pediatric program leader, said. “She was in a lot of pain and still had a drainage tube in place for internal lacerations. She had several restrictions we had to work around in addition to severe decreased activity tolerance.”
Knowing that returning to the volleyball court was a key motivator, Gerner made sure to focus on therapeutic strengthening and return-to-sport activities.
“Finding an interest or a purpose for one’s progress is essential to therapy for motivation,” Gerner said. “If there is little reason to return to prior function, the challenge of therapy becomes daunting. Where there’s a will, there is a way.”
Gabi shared that same mindset and slowly started to build her confidence back up as Gerner pushed her through intense therapy.
“I remember when I first came to Madonna, I couldn’t even walk for more than 30 seconds,” Gabi said. “Angie has helped me so much physically and mentally. She made me realize that it is ok to not always be tough, and that it’s ok if you can’t do something right away. She has worked so hard to make me who I am today and to get me back to normal workouts.”
With the possibility of returning to play with her teammates this fall, excitement grew for the Cepek family. On October 3rd, UNMC cleared her to play volleyball and the next day, Gabi passed her sports physical. By October 5th, she was practicing and on the 6th, almost eight months after her accident, the crowd roared as Gabi checked into the match.
“It was unreal putting on my jersey and walking onto the court to warm up,” Gabi said. “When my name got called on the lineup, I was filled with so many emotions. All the hard work, pain and difficult weeks and months that I had gone through finally paid off. I am so proud of myself because I have worked so hard to get where I am now, and I am still working hard to be how I was before the accident.”
Back at practice and supporting the team from the bench, Gabi has helped Seward qualify for the state volleyball tournament. Not only will the entire town of Seward be rooting Gabi and the Jays on, but so will her therapy team at Madonna.
“There had been tears in therapy, and moments of Gabi becoming discouraged in thinking she would never play again,” Gerner said. “So to see her step back on the court and prove that thought wrong was so exhilarating and emotional. I cried tears of joy as did she and her family while the crowd was chanting ‘Gabi, Gabi, Gabi! ‘For someone to go from near death to then returning to a sport at a competitive level was so inspirational. I am just so proud of her!”