Family, Catholic Charities offer support to Lena farmer

Following farming injury, Graef attempts suicide, then finds will to live thanks to others

OCONTO FALLS — Gary Graef rises each morning to face what he describes as a “new day and new challenges.” Life remains difficult physically for the former dairy farmer from Lena, but unlike two years ago, he has hope, thanks in part to counseling services provided by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay

On Nov. 1, 2012, Graef, now 62, suffered serious injuries when he was gored by a bull while working at a livestock sale barn.

Catholic Charities mental health counselor Elaine Conway visits with Gary Graef at her office in Bona Hall on the diocesan campus in Allouez. Graef, who survived a 2015 suicide attempt, began counseling services with Conway that year. (Sam Lucero | The Compass )

“I had so many fractures all over and arthritis had set in,” he said. “I was in pain all the time. It was just terrible. There was nothing I could do to make it go away.”

Graef’s insurance provider cut off funds for pain medication and he couldn’t afford the prescriptions. The physical pain, along with the emotional struggle of going through a divorce at the time, led to depression, he said.

“There was too much stuff at one time. I just got so tired of the pain all the time that one day I just loaded a gun and shot myself,” he said, fighting back tears. “Everybody said, ‘Why didn’t you call, why didn’t you call us?’ When you get to that point all you want to do is die. You don’t want to talk to anybody. The last day, I couldn’t even drive my truck. I was so out of it. I just wanted to die.”

On Aug. 9, 2015, Graef survived that attempted suicide. He later woke up from a coma at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee.

“I really don’t know how long I was in a coma, two weeks or something like that,” he said. “I stayed there until I was stabilized. They knew that I needed help, so they took me to the UW-Madison (University of Wisconsin Hospital) psychiatric ward. What the heck was I going to do with my life? I can’t work. I only have one eye. They put me on suicide watch.”

Graef participated in daily group therapy at UW Hospital, which he said was helpful. He realized that he wasn’t alone in his pain.

“There was another guy who went through kind of the same thing I did,” he said. “You find out that there are other people with the same problems or worse.”

A move to Maple Ridge Rehabilitation and Care Center in Green Bay eventually led Graef to Catholic Charities. He began meeting each week with Elaine Conway, a mental health counselor for Counseling and Treatment Services.

“Elaine was good. She taught me different things to take my mind off the pain,” said Graef. “She taught me breathing exercises. I got lucky. The first one I tried worked for me and I still use it. I take deep breaths and pick out something to look at like the field outside or a picture on the wall. She gave me other (breathing exercises), but I never got that far because the first one worked. It kind of relaxes you and takes your mind off things.”

The exercise involves exhaling completely followed by closing your mouth and inhaling through your nose for a mental four count. Holding your breath for a seven count follows. The next step is to exhale completely through your mouth for an eight count.

“When (Graef) got all the breath out, he said it was magical for him,” said Conway. “It allows us to put our mind into our body, to make that mind-body connection.

“He was still suicidal when he came here,” she added. “I think the breathing gave him the space to change his thoughts. He kept using it more and more and he had fewer suicidal or very depressing days.”

Graef, who now meets with Conway every six weeks, reached the point where he no longer had suicidal thoughts. He said that he has learned to appreciate what he has in his life, especially his family. Graef is the father of four and a grandfather.

“I have four grandsons,” he said with tears. “The oldest is 13 and the youngest is 7.”

Graef also looked forward to moving from Atrium Health in Oconto Falls to an apartment.

Conway has witnessed his continued progress.

“When I first saw him, he had to write everything down,” she said. “His speech has come a long way. He has come a long way. He even cuts his sister’s grass a couple times a week.”

The physical pain from arthritis will continue for Graef. He will also undergo more surgeries, including work on the bridge of his nose and procedures to level his eyes and create a ball and socket for a glass eye.

Looking back on the past three years, Graef is thankful for the many cards and letters, including some from people he didn’t even know.

“A lot of them sent me their phone numbers and said, ‘If you want to talk or feel like you need help, call,’” he explained. “One woman from Marathon who worked with my sister used to send me a letter every week and some lottery scratch off tickets. I never knew her before and still haven’t met her. There are a lot of good people out there.”

Graef was selected, as a representative of services offered by Catholic Charities, to participate in the pregame festivities at the Bishop’s Charities Game Aug. 9 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. He hopes that sharing his story helps other people who are suffering physically, mentally or emotionally.

“I lucked out twice. The bull didn’t kill me. The bullet didn’t kill me. I’m here. I should have been dead twice, but I survived them both,” he said. “(God) has something he wants me to do yet.”