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Dacula couple looks to convert medical crisis into nonprofit

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Karen Thieken poses for a photograph with her husband Paul and children Colleen, 4, and Katie, 7, outside their Dacula home on Wednesday. Back in April Karen contracted a rare bacterial infection called Group A Infection.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Karen Thieken poses for a photograph with her husband Paul and children Colleen, 4, and Katie, 7, outside their Dacula home on Wednesday. Back in April Karen contracted a rare bacterial infection called Group A Infection.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan The Thieken family Karen, Paul and children Colleen, 4, and Katie, 7, chat after finishing their lunch at their Dacula home on Wednesday. Back in April Karen contracted a rare bacterial infection called Group A Infection.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Karen Thieken chats with her daughter Katie, 7, during lunch at their Dacula home on Wednesday. Back in April Karen contracted a rare bacterial infection called Group A Infection.

DACULA -- Those who have followed Gwinnett County news over the last six months or so know as well as anybody -- life can change in a second.

Snellville native Aimee Copeland and her family learned it when she contracted a rare flesh-eating bacteria in May. Hannah Rinehart -- the wife of a South Gwinnett High School teacher -- passed away in September after battling her own bacterial infection for nearly three months.

Piled on to their own trials, it's those stories that are driving Paul and Karen Thieken to try and help.

The Dacula couple's world was rocked in April, when Karen, 38, was diagnosed with a Group-A strep infection doctors believe she contracted by scratching a patch of eczema with somehow-infected fingernails. She developed pneumonia, cellulitis, went into septic shock. Her kidneys and lungs shut down.

"Every medical professional I talked to," Paul Thieken said, "said it's a miracle of God that she's still here."

After 11 days in the ICU and 10 more in the hospital, Karen somehow pulled through.

Now, the parents to two young daughters -- Paul a piano teacher, Karen an account executive, both volunteers at places like battered women's shelters and daycares -- are working on a way to help others do the same. The Thiekens are in the beginning stages of developing a nonprofit organization.

"My 7-year-old daughter scored her first goal in a soccer game the other day, and I just started bawling," Karen Thieken said. "I realized how close I was to missing everything that was coming up in their lives. That's why we want to definitely put this experience to good use."

The exact focus of the nonprofit is still being developed, but two goals are clear: The Thiekens want to help people who are suddenly facing a medical crisis, and they want to help people be more prepared for the possibility.

Doctors told the couple that Paul's cool head and detailed knowledge of Karen's medical history and medications helped save her life. They had previously performed the unpleasant task of completing living and general wills.

"(Paul) was very even-keeled, which to me is just amazing," said Rob Bruce, pastor at Oakwood's McEver United Methodist Church, where the Thiekens are active members. "He had this light around him that he knew that she was going to come out of this."

"Nobody ever expects something like an insane medical crisis to hit them. But looking back, it made us feel pretty well-prepared," Karen Thieken said. "Other people our age have to have that difficult talk that nobody wants to have, and we want to just give support to other families who might have a medical crisis with no close family nearby."

That support would likely come through counseling and, hopefully, financially, Paul Thieken added. The goal is to have some type of nonprofit up and running within six months to a year.

"I think we have a lot to offer people," he said.

In the meantime, Karen Thieken edges closer to being "back to normal," but has lost her hearing on her right side and has been exhibiting some post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms. She's afraid to drive because of a constant sense that something bad will happen to her, she said.

A fundraiser will be held for the Thiekens on Oct. 23. From 5 to 8 p.m. at the Pollo Tropical restaurant at 820 Ga. Highway 120 in Lawrenceville, 20 percent of dinner totals will be donated if diners turn in fliers that will be distributed in the near future.

It will be a little bit more help for the Thiekens before they begin assisting others.

"To be able to help people is what we're after," Paul Thieken said. "We can sit there and get all this sympathy, but we don't want that. We want to help people."