The tragedy took the lives of Tiffany’s best friend, Savannah Kleinhans, 9, and her father Danial Kleinhans, 44. What initially seemed would be a similar fate for Dombrowski turned into what many observers call a miraculous recovery.
“It’s amazing,” said Rita Steffen, principal at St. Gregory School, where Tiffany just completed second grade. “Without God it could not have happened. From her initial condition to where she is now, there is no way to explain it, short of a miracle.”
Not only did Tiffany survive the ordeal, she returned home on March 23 after spending five weeks at Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee. Today, Tiffany, who undergoes occupational and speech therapy four times a week at Sheboygan Memorial Hospital, shows no physical signs of her trauma. Her parents, Michael and Jennifer, members of St. Gregory Parish in the Green Bay Diocese, give thanks to God for their daughter’s survival and continued recovery, and to the community that reached out to them in their time of need.
Recovery was miracle
“There is no doubt that God answered our prayers and has given Tiffany this second chance at life,” said Michael Dombrowski. “My responsibility as a witness is to make sure that everyone she meets knows about this miracle and that God is always in charge.”
According to Dombrowski, the ordeal has strengthened his family’s faith, helped them to accept the generosity of others and taught them about forgiveness.
The accident happened on Valentine’s Day. Following a Friday night sleepover at the Kleinhans, Tiffany joined Savannah and Danial on a trip to nearby Lake Winnebago. Sometime around noon, Kleinhans’ silver Ford pickup plunged through the ice.
After being rescued, Tiffany was transported to Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah, and later taken by Flight for Life to Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee.
Dombrowski said he worked late the night before and when the accident happened, he was not aware his daughter was at the lake. He admitted he was bitter when he learned she was on the lake in a submerged truck.
However, after flying over Lake Winnebago in the Flight for Life helicopter and seeing all of the cars and fishing shacks on the lake, Dombrowski said he could not blame his good friend and neighbor.
“I said, ‘I have got to forgive this man,’ because anyone who would go out on that lake, you see all of these people and you think it must be safe,” said Dombrowski. “So that was when the forgiveness really set in. I didn’t know any details at that time. So I was giving myself over to forgiveness.”
Dan was ‘welcome wagon’
The Dombrowskis moved to St. Nazianz from Milwaukee in August 2005, seeking a quieter lifestyle for their growing family, which today includes David, 13, Nathaniel, 9, Tiffany, Colin, 6, and Isabel, 16 months. While in Milwaukee, the family belonged to Mary Queen of Heaven Parish, West Allis, where Michael’s mother, Donna, was housekeeper at the church and rectory before her death. Musicians – Michael plays the accordion and Jennifer the drums – the couple often displayed their talents at fish fries and at Polish Fest.
“Dan was the first one to greet us,” said Michael. “He was our welcome wagon.”
Losing Dan and Savannah has been hard, said Michael, but their loss has been softened by the outreach the Kleinhans family has offered to Tiffany.
“Tiffany is a connection that they have (with Savannah), so they would like to somehow be involved in Tiffany’s life as she grows up,” he said. “I think that is really something to be said for that family.”
The Dombrowskis said the fear of losing Tiffany was made more painful because Jennifer had miscarried their fifth child in August 2005. Earlier that year, Michael’s mother, Donna, whom he said passed along to him her strong Catholic faith, died.
It was only after arriving at the Neenah hospital, some two hours after the initial phone call, that they learned Tiffany was still alive. “We expected the worst,” said Jennifer. “We just wanted her alive. We didn’t care what condition she was in.”
“In my mind, I felt she was lost. I felt she was probably floating somewhere under the ice,” said Michael. “I accepted that I might never see her again, but I appealed to God to help them find her body. That was my prayer to God, to get more time with her.”
Journey filled with prayer
When Michael boarded the helicopter with Tiffany for the 40-minute journey to Milwaukee, all he could do was pray, he said.
“My prayer to God in the helicopter was, ‘I turn my entire life over to you, God. There’s nothing I can do to save my daughter and it’s in your power.’”
When she arrived at Children’s Hospital, Tiffany was placed in intensive care, where she remained for nine days. She was in an induced coma for several days and within one month began talking and walking.
Her dramatic recovery even had doctors astonished, said Dombrowski. “Based on specific blood tests that were taken initially it seemed impossible that she would ever have had the chances she has now,” he wrote March 6 in Tiffany’s CaringBridge Web site <www.caringbridge.org> and type in princesstiffany), which kept relatives and friends updated daily on her status. “(Doctors) expected severe brain damage and very limited function based on the amount of time she was under water and without oxygen.”
Classmates begin prayer campaign
From the time of the accident to the day she was released from Children’s Hospital, Tiffany had a legion of followers praying for her recovery. Leading the prayer campaign were Tiffany’s classmates at St. Gregory, as well as the school and parish community.
According to school principal Steffen, her staff called each school family the weekend of the accident. Parents were asked to speak with their children about the incident and counselors from Catholic Charities were on hand the Monday after the accident.
Students, staff and parents created a prayer chain, which first hung in Tiffany’s hospital room and is now on display in her bedroom. A poster in the school cafeteria allowed students to add prayers for Tiffany while she was in the hospital.
A special prayer for Tiffany’s recovery was added to a display in the school gym and recited every day by the students.
Prayers for Savannah, a former St. Gregory student who was in fourth grade at Cambria Fiesland School, were also on display and recited by St. Gregory students.
Michael said the school is still reciting the prayer for his daughter’s recovery “because they know Tiffany’s not back 100 percent. They’re not going to stop until God has finished the miracle.”
Assistance was godsend to family
The parish community also offered their prayerful support. Prayer cards made by students and staff were placed in the church for parishioners to take home. The community’s spiritual support was matched by their material assistance.
Dombrowski, who operates a video production business, MJD Productions, with his wife from home, noted that they had been struggling financially since moving to St. Nazianz. Many of his videotaping projects involve church celebrations such as priestly ordinations for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In a depressed economy, the community’s assistance was a godsend.
“One morning (after the accident) I woke up and said, ‘God I can’t handle this,” said Dombrowski. “I’m too scared to talk to anybody because they don’t know me.’ I said, ‘I know I ask a lot but can you help me out.’ In less than an hour I got a call from the art teacher, Kathleen Gruby. She said, ‘Mike, I heard you need some help.’“
The help continued until Tiffany arrived home.
St. Gregory families cooked meals for Michael and his sons while Jennifer and Isabel stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Wauwatosa. Well-wishers sent gasoline gift cards to help the family pay for trips to and from Milwaukee.
Volunteers donated time and money to help the family complete remodeling projects in their century-old home in anticipation of Tiffany’s return. The main project was a new bedroom for Tiffany.
Early on, the family believed Tiffany would be confined to a wheelchair, so they moved her upstairs bedroom to the main floor. A bathroom was also remodeled for the family. Days before Tiffany came home, a crew of parish women spent hours cleaning the house.
“What was amazing to me, was this community coming together for a common cause,” said Dombrowski. “They recognized a need, saw we had been struggling up here a couple years and took charge.”
Tiffany receives surprise welcome home
On the day Tiffany returned home, she got a surprise welcome from St. Gregory School. Steffan arranged an all-school field trip to the Dombrowski home on March 23. Seventy-five children, each clutching a helium balloon, cheered as their schoolmate arrived. They released the balloons, listened to Tiffany’s classmates recite a prayer, then all joined in praying the Hail Mary.
While continuing her therapy, Tiffany was home schooled. Her parents hope she can rejoin her classmates at St. Gregory next year.
Tiffany attended a prayer service May 6 and according to her father, the congregation was silent when Tiffany read a prayer they helped her write: The prayer of thanksgiving was addressed to God.
“Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for the people who helped me get well. Thank you for everyone who sent me get-well cards. Thank you for all the people who helped fix and clean our house and my wonderful bedroom. Please bless all those who have been praying for me and my family. Amen”
“People were extremely touched by her being there,” said Dombrowski, including one of the first responders who pulled Tiffany out of the water.
As Tiffany continues to regain her physical health, Dombrowski said no one knows how her cognitive development will progress. “If anything we noticed it’s probably related to short-term memory,” he said. “God’s brought her this far. She’s going to have to work a little harder to learn new things. Jennifer and I are going to have to work harder with her than any of the other kids. We’ve got to be patient.
“The great miracle is that our daughter is back,” said Dombrowski. “Our thankfulness first goes to the one who started her heart, which is God. But then the people that were part of saving Tiffany’s life, they all deserve a little bit of recognition.”