UWEC Student Shares Story of Endurance After Injury

experience in recovery after spinal cord injury inspires Zach Caterer to consider healthcare career

Thomas DeLapp |

Zach Caterer and his dog Koda (pictured) try to give back as much as possibel
BEST FRIENDS. Zach Caterer and his dog Koda (pictured) try to make a positive impact on others as healthcare professionals did for him. (Submitted photo)

When Zach Caterer was volunteering at a summer camp in high school, he had a swimming accident that left him with a spinal cord injury. 

He was airlifted to Regions Hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, where he received the first of two major surgeries, before transferring to the ICU in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“I was flown to Gillette Children's Hospital in the (Twin) Cities where I was there for about three months, undergoing rehab, and trying to figure out some sort of semblance of normality,” Caterer said.

Caterer was trying to find that normality with his injury before most of the rest of the world faced a similar challenge because of the pandemic.  

“I ended up getting hurt going into my junior year, so I wasn’t able to go to my junior prom, but I wasn’t able to go to my senior prom either because of COVID,” he said. “It’s funny, I was basically quarantining before quarantining happened.”

While initially in the hospital he could feel everything, but couldn’t move anything except for his arms and shoulders a small amount. Eventually, he began regaining motor control and movement. Through physical therapy and recovery, he learned to walk assisted by braces.

Caterer said he doesn’t expect to make further natural recovery. 

What he’s done so far, he said, was more than doctors expected, but he hopes for biomedical advancements in areas such as stem cell research that might allow further recovery.  

“I'm very pleased and I’m content with where I am,” he said. “I’m remaining hopeful that at some point that they will have a breakthrough, but I'm living the best life I can and not really waiting for that day.”​

As a biochemistry/molecular biology and mathematics student at UW-Eau Claire, Caterer is extensively involved in undergraduate research, currently working with Dr. Michael Walsh on end-stage renal disease. They will present their work at the upcoming Research in the Rotunda event in Madison. 

 When he isn’t in class or doing research, Caterer enjoys going to the gym, being with friends, and is picking up skiing again. Perhaps most importantly, he hangs out with Koda, his golden retriever who he’s trained to be a therapy dog.  

Caterer and Koda regularly visit local nursing homes to support the residents. The two of them frequently enjoy Eau Claire’s many biking and hiking routes and have a particular love for the quiet forest paths where Koda can be off-leash to romp after squirrels.  

Koda just turned two (“a big boy now”), and loves balls, Frisbees, ducks, dogs, and birds. “If I were to choose his major,” Caterer said, “it would be in habitat management or habitat conservation, focusing on squirrel habitats.”

Caterer is still working out what he wants to do after graduation, either pursuing graduate school or medical school. His time in the hospital informed those interests, he said: Being surrounded by doctors and other healthcare workers made a positive impact.

“They’re doing something greater than themselves for other people and they absolutely love it, and they love it every single day,” Caterer said.

He and Koda already work to bring joy and health to others’ lives, something Caterer will continue doing regardless of a degree.  Only a second-year student, he said he’s relieved that he still has time to think, plan, and be a regular college student in the meantime. “I think a lot of it’s going to come down to if I want to take the MCAT right away,” Caterer said, laughing. “That’s a tomorrow problem.”