Published July 12, 2009, 12:00 AM

After nearly dying from illness a Duluth man is back in action

ON SAGANAGA LAKE, NEAR GRAND MARAIS — As they prepare to fish walleyes on this storied lake, Mike Ceminsky tells his dad just how to set up his Lindy rig. Mike would be rigging his own tackle on this early July morning except for a combination of illnesses in 2005 that brought him close to death and left him without the fine motor skills he once possessed.

By: Sam Cook , Duluth News Tribune

ON SAGANAGA LAKE, NEAR GRAND MARAIS — As they prepare to fish walleyes on this storied lake, Mike Ceminsky tells his dad just how to set up his Lindy rig.

“Put on two green beads and a red hook,” Mike says.

His dad, Dave Ceminsky of Duluth, picks through his tackle box to fill Mike’s fishing prescription.

Mike would be rigging his own tackle on this early July morning except for a combination of illnesses in 2005 that brought him close to death and left him without the fine motor skills he once possessed.

He had been a healthy 21-year-old who loved to hunt and fish. Then he suffered a case of bacterial meningitis. He appeared to be on his way to recovery when his immune system malfunctioned. The antibodies attacked his brain, causing encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Mike went into a coma and remained comatose for

3½ weeks. He was transferred from Duluth’s St. Luke’s Hospital to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. When he emerged from his coma, he couldn’t swallow or speak or move.

“We came out of Mayo with a one-word prognosis — poor,” says his mother, Jane Ceminsky of Duluth.

Learning all over

Now 26, Mike has made a courageous comeback. He spends most of his time in a wheelchair. He has regained the ability to speak and to care for himself. He suffers from ataxia, a loss of coordination and balance. He has double vision and occasional seizures.

But he’s living on his own in an assisted living apartment in Duluth, works part-time at the University of Minnesota Duluth and pursues two of his greatest passions — fishing and hunting.

“Just because of my illness I’m not going to stop doing what I love,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

He opens his bail now and lets his night crawler drop to the lake bottom. His brother Mark is at the controls of the boat, and the two begin trolling.

It’s been a long road back. He had to re-learn the alphabet. He had to learn to eat. He had to learn to talk and use his hands again.

“They said I’d have to learn everything over, and I literally had to learn everything,” he says.

When he returned from Mayo to the Chris Jensen Nursing Home in Duluth, a therapist asked his family what might motivate him to relearn fine motor skills. His parents brought in the butt end of a fishing rod mounted with a Zebco fishing reel.

“I began doing therapy with that,” Mike says. “That was a challenge at first.”

The gains came incrementally. From the time of his illness until February 2007, he lived at Chris Jensen, at Miller Dwan Medical Center, at his dad’s home and at the Courage Center in Golden Valley, Minn.

Mike has no memory of his illness. With the help of many therapists, he went about learning to live again.

“Everything he does just blows us away,” Jane Ceminsky says. “Our point of reference is watching him near death.”

Back to the deer woods

In the fall of 2006, Dave took Mike deer hunting again. He hunted from his wheelchair and a table on which he could rest his rifle. His .270-caliber rifle was too heavy to hold, so he used his dad’s old .30-30. He got no shots that year.

But hunting from his wheelchair in the fall of 2007 and 2008, he shot a doe each year. As he had with other setbacks, Mike learned to deal with double vision when he was hunting.

“If I close one eye, I can alleviate the double-vision,” he says.

Dave and Jane were ecstatic when Mike shot his first deer after the illness. Mike didn’t really understand that.

“It was pretty much no big deal to me,” he says, “but these two were jumping out of their skins.”

Dave remembers the moment well.

“Words cannot describe how excited and jubilant I was,” Dave says. “He was like, ‘I told you I was going to shoot a deer, and I did.’”

“It’s been an incredible journey for all of us,” his mother says.

On the job Before his illness, Mike had worked on the buildings and grounds crew at the University of Minnesota Duluth. After his illness and therapy, he got a job in the school’s cafeteria.

“We thought it would speed any recovery he was going to make,” said UMD’s Joe Michela, director of auxiliary services. “He was kind of down in the dumps and didn’t think he had much purpose in life.”

Mike is well-liked by the staff, Michela says.

“We were able to fit him in, and if he recovers further, we’ll fit him in more,” Michela says.

This spring, Mike made the annual walleye fishing trip to Saganaga with his dad, brother and friends. He was fishing with Mark at night, trolling for walleyes, when he felt a good bite.

“I had a big hit,” he says. “I told Mark it was a big fish and to grab the big net.”

He played the fish for several minutes, barely holding onto the rod when the fish made repeated attempts to swim under the boat. Finally, he got it close, and Mark netted it. The fish was 30¼ inches long. Mike’s smile was close to that as he held the fish for a photo, then released it. His dad is having a graphite composite mount made of the trophy.

On this June trip, Mike is the first one to put a walleye in the boat. He handles it perfectly, giving the fish line, taking up slack, setting the hook, reeling the 15-incher in.

Mark is there with the net again to swing the fish on board. Then he pats his brother tenderly on the shoulder.

“Nice job, buddy,” Mark says.

Mike has begun writing a book about his experience coming back from his illness. He can peck steadily at the computer keyboard.

“It’s kind of slow, but I can definitely do it,” he says. “That’s a big part of this — having a positive frame of mind.”

His mom has seen that before. Last summer, she took Mike up to Enger Tower in Duluth, where they had often gone when he was younger.

“He told me he didn’t think he could climb up there anymore,” Jane says. “I asked him if he’d tried and he said, ‘No.’ I asked him how did he know if he hadn’t tried? He did it! The look on his face after walking up the 100 steps and back down again was something I’ll never forget.

“He continues to prove that the human spirit is stronger than anything else we possess in this life.”

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