MSW graduate works to help wounded warriors like her son who lost both legs in Afghanistan

In the last year, social worker Tamra O'Keefe Rigdon learned to appreciate humor wherever she finds it with her son, a wounded warrior from Afghanistan that no one thought would live past the first hours of his devastating injuries from an IED explosion.

Tim Senkowski and his wifeTake her recent experience at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center when she played a card game of Cranium with four wounded soldiers, including her son, Army Spec. Timothy Senkowski. The soldiers played against Rigdon and three other nonmedical attendants as those who help oversee the care of their loved ones are called. The card game requires each team to draw cards and then act out the card’s directions. In this case, the soldiers were to create a puppet and act out a scene. Between the four warriors though, they had two good arms and no legs.  “They had a blast. We were all laughing so hard we had to stop the game,” said Rigdon, who graduated with her MSW degree from the Indiana University School of Social Work in 2009.

That simple fact that her son, Amy Spec. Timothy Senkowski is alive and can still laugh is about as big a miracle as anyone can expect in their life. On Oct. 13, 2011, her son was on a mission in Afghanistan when the IED explosion tore through his legs, lower back and backside. When Army Medic, Sgt. Dustin Wisdom reached Tim, Wisdom thought there was no way Senkowski could still be alive. As Wisdom started to move on to search for other causalities, Tim suddenly spoke to him. “I think I need a Band-Aid.” Wisdom furiously went to work, first thinking he would keep Tim comfortable as possible until he died and then to keep him alive until a medic helicopter reached made the hour flight to their location.

Tim, of course survived, but his body was badly torn apart. Both legs were amputated above the knee, his left backside was blown off and his right arm was mangled and can use it like a hook. He also lost hearing in his left ear.

Rigdon, who lives in Anderson, got her first glimpse of her son that day after he arrived at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland.  “He was in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) and there were tubes everywhere.”  When he saw his mother, Tim grabbed hold of her and said, “Hold me. Hold me.”  He then asked his mother to pull down all his covers and find his black Wounded Warrior blanket. After she spread it over him, he fell asleep.

Nothing prepared had Rigdon for that day, nor the weeks and months since as she remained with her son at Walter Reed. “This is a completely different world of therapy. It is something that can’t even be taught. There is such a disconnect between what is here (Walter Reed Hospital) and what we can give him at home (Anderson).  

While Rigdon is provided a hotel room, she rarely uses it other than to take a shower. For the first three months she slept in a chair in Tim’s room. “I don’t sleep too much,” Rigdon acknowledged. As Tim’s nonmedical attendant, she is the person doctors and nurses come to for information. She keeps track of 30 some medications her son takes, six teams of doctors with each team having eight doctors, nurses as well as four to five different therapists. She signs all the necessary paperwork, tells them where the IV’s go as well as which medicines he has been given work and those that don’t, and accompanies Tim into the pre-operation room where he is readied for surgery and helps there, too.

Surgery has been a huge part of Tim life, undergoing 100 surgeries. Tim was averaging three surgeries a week for the first 2 ½ to three months he was at Walter Reed, then two a week and finally one a week. He has one remaining surgery to repair damage to nerves that occurred to his good left arm when he was not repositioned during one 12-hour procedure.

Now, Tim is focused on completing his rehabilitation in the next few months. Just as he was concerned about his fellow soldiers after he was wounded, he was worried about his wife and children at home in Anderson. His wife, Erica, is his high school sweetheart, but has medical issues of her own. She is disabled at times in a wheelchair and can’t see at times, and one of his children has autism. He also worries about Rigdon, who gave up her job with an agency in New Castle to remain with him rather than living with her husband and family in Anderson.

In the near-future, Tim is so facing what many wounded warriors see as their scariest moment of recovery – leaving Walter Reed. “People here say the biggest fear is going home,” Rigdon said. “Here everything is normal. When they go home and the guys make a joke about their condition, people are mortified,” Rigdon said. “This is their new normal. This is just life,” They simply want people to see they are just normal people who happen to be in a wheelchair, she added.

Perhaps because everything they have already gone through, Rigdon’s family is confident they can bring Tim back to Anderson. Tim and his family moved in with Rigdon more than seven years ago, but living together in Rigdon’s small home will no longer be possible. Instead, they are working with a company that is hoping to find a home they can live in temporarily while the family works on their dream solution.

They hope to raise money to buy a parcel of land that would allow the family to build two homes on it. One would be for Tim and his family and the other, located nearby, would be for Rigdon and her family so they could continue to help Tim when needed. The health of Tim’s wife Erica makes it impossible for her to care for Tim alone. Erica needs help to the bathroom at times. Erica can’t see well enough to drive and her bones are brittle. In a recent fall, Erica broke fell on the floor in the house and broke her knee cap in half.

The family is working with Ball State students to design Rigdon’s home and Ben Horn, an architect, has volunteered his services to design a home to accommodate Tim and his family. The family is trying to raise about $20,000 to purchase the property and estimates the costs of the two homes at roughly $300,000.

Tim is looking to the future as well. He wants to stay in Indiana and hopes to find a school where he can get a degree in cyber security. “He would love to work some place where he is doing something with computers.” He also has a hobby of working with remote control cars. At Walter Reed, Tim became the go-to guy when other wounded warriors needed their cars fixed. He also wants to learn how to scuba dive, he wants to learn how to bike with a hand-cycle, Rigdon noted. “He has a lot of great ideas.”

Rigdon and her family are committed to helping other wounded warriors as well.  The family created a website, woundedwarriorhomefront.org and is an official nonprofit corporation in Indiana. “Wounded Warrior Home-front is dedicated to promoting empowerment, social justice, cultivating leadership and enhancing the health and well-being of our military, their family members and those who serve along with their families that serve in our emergency services agencies,” according to the mission statement on their web page.

Creating Wounded Warrior to help others was simply an extension of what the family was doing even before Tim became injured, Rigdon explained. “We have always tried to give back, pay it forward and be strong.” She described herself as strongly affiliated with the Marines, having been married to a Marine for a number of years and raising four children. After she became a single mom, she returned to high school at age 32 and got her diploma and then obtained two BS degrees at Ball State in psychology and criminal justice, before receiving her MSW degree from the School of Social Work.

Rigdon now plans to return to IUPUI to obtain her law degree so she can assist those in need of assistance with a better understanding of the law, properly represent the under-served and provide equality. She also asks everyone to remember one more thing: “More and more wounded are brought into Walter Reed that will need their prayers and support. “Help us reach out and lend a hand even if it is just in our community when they get home.”

Press Release Contact:
Rob Schneider
IUPUI
robschn@iupui.edu
(317) 278-0303