EAST LANSING – Elisabeth Ostendorf came to Michigan State University from Germany in 2012 to research methods of boosting the growth of plants that can be used for biofuels.
Her now-husband, Sebastian Kuhlgert followed Ostendorf to MSU. They began dating as biology undergraduates at Westphalian Wilhelm University in Münster several years prior. They were avid travelers during their time at MSU and spent 10 days touring the east coast of the United States in the fall of 2014.
Two weeks after returning to East Lansing, their lives were upended.
On Oct. 10, 2014, Ostendorf was walking by the Food Safety and Toxicology Building to run an errand when she was struck by a university-owned truck in the building’s driveway. Her condition upon arriving at Sparrow Hospital was dire, according to court records. She suffered severe head, face, skull and brain injuries, and was unresponsive when Kuhlgert first saw her in the intensive care unit.
Kuhlgert sued the university. Despite a ruling in her favor, Ostendorf has yet to see any of the $7.5 million judgment awarded by Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens a year ago. And due to ongoing appeals by MSU, its insurance company and Ostendorf’s attorneys, it’s unclear when, or if, she will receive that money.
It’s left Kuhlgert feeling stuck, unable to prepare for the couple’s future. They are also seeking to change Ostendorf’s visa status, as it expired at the end of July.
“There’s no way for me to really plan anything out,” he said. ‘It’s just living from day to day, and it’s frustrating because you have a verdict and still nothing happens.”
Several weeks after the incident, Ostendorf was transferred to the Origami Brain Injury Research Center, where she continues to live today. She’s received therapy to help regain basic motor functions, like the ability to feed herself. While she is able to walk short distances with assistance, Ostendorf mostly gets around with a wheelchair. Her voice has also come back little by little, Kuhlgert said. Ostendorf previously communicated by blinking in response to questions, or using a board with letters of the alphabet to spell out words. Court records indicate she will need lifelong medical assistance.