Brad Larson knows first-hand the importance of small town emergency responder teams (EMTs) and paramedics. If it were not for them, he wouldn’t be alive today.
On May 9, 2007, the 2006 Freightliner semi tractor he was driving hit a moving Union Pacific train nose-to-nose on a track northwest of Bricelyn on Faribault County Road 21.
The cab caught on fire shortly after the impact. This made it very difficult for his rescuers, since they first had to extinguish the fire before they could get to him. It was at this time they discovered the only partially intact piece remaining of the cab was where Larson remained sitting, his body mangled almost as much as the semi.
The severity of the accident left him with head trauma, a fractured pelvis, a laid-open stomach resulting in intestinal loss and shattered pelvic bone fragments which literally tore him up internally.
He is lucky to be alive today considering the insurmountable injuries he sustained at the accident scene. From the accounts of others, he is able to piece together most of the elements of the horrible accident and the weeks immediately following.
“In the first hour, I lost 28 pints of blood,” says Larson. “It’s amazing to think how hard the paramedics must have worked on me in order to keep me alive while I was being airlifted to St. Mary’s.”
Without the quick response by the Bricelyn and Frost EMTs and the paramedics aboard the Mayo One helicopter, Larson would have bled to death at the scene. Losing 28 pints of blood is almost unbelievable, since men average about 10-12 pints of blood in their body and women have between eight to 10 pints.
He literally defied death while enroute to Rochester and would continue to do so the next two months while he was in a coma.
For weeks, Larson lay in a vegetative state. During these weeks, Rochester doctors advised his family to “pull the plug” on the support system which was keeping him alive.
“The doctors could see no positive outlook for my survival,” says Larson, “because they could detect no brain activity from me.”
If he were to survive, the doctors said he would be brain dead and they were certain he would never regain any motor activity whatsoever. The 29-year old would basically remain in a vegetative state the rest of his life.
Would this be the quality of life the young man would desire if he were able to speak for himself? Never again would he be able to drive a semi for the Farmer’s Coop Elevator; never would he again be able to ride his much-loved Harley Davidson or spend time laughing and talking with his family and friends.
The family was faced with this awful dilemma. Fortunately, they chose to keep Brad on life support.
Two months after being hospitalized at St. Mary’s, Larson awoke from his coma.
“The nurses must have been changing the dressing on my back,” recalls Larson. “As they turned me I said, ‘Damn! That hurts!'”
The slow uphill climb to recovery had begun for Larson.
He says the toughest thing he had to overcome was simply to function.
“Everything in my middle was damaged,” says Larson. “Chunks of my back muscles are gone, my guts were mangled and cut off and I had mesh in my abdomen holding it in place. But my right side was damaged the most.”
His first surgery lasted between eight to 10 hours. He also had to undergo debreeding of his wounds four to five times daily. These cleanings were to prevent infection and rotting, he says. He since has had skin grafts taken from his leg and put on his back to piece it together. And, he likens his pelvis to Swiss cheese, since it is very holey due to the bone fragments it lost upon impact with the train.
Larson also has one large rod which spans his pelvis from hip to hip acting as a stabilizer.
“If this rod were removed, I couldn’t support my weight. I don’t think my legs would hold, so I’m just going to let it rust in there,” he adds with a grin.
His sense of humor has been a key part of what has kept him going throughout this ordeal. Even the chaplain at St. Mary’s was impressed at his positive attitude and sense of humor.
As soon as possible after he regained consciousness, St. Mary’s staff began physical and occupational therapy.
“I would spend from six to eight hours daily with the therapists,” he says. This included speech, physical and occupational therapy.
After 11 months recuperating in Rochester, Larson returned to Blue Earth to continue his recovery, first with Home Healthcare nursing who came in daily to change his dressings, then with the therapy department at the United Hospital District.
He has spent countless hours working with Andrea Miller, physical therapist and Sue Larson, a physical therapy assistant at UHD the last two years.
According to Miller, Larson began hourly therapy sessions with them five days a week. He has graduated from total reliance on a wheelchair to being able to walk independently under their guidance and by his determination and hard work.
“We started Brad with a full walker,” says Miller. “This had platforms on it to support his trunk. He could only walk about 10 feet with this when he started.”
The biggest challenge for Larson and his local therapists has been to overcome the ‘fear factor.’ Naturally, some of his fears have dealt with falling.
And fallen he has, but he says they have been only minor, leaving him with no sprains or breaks.
“Drink milk. It does a body good,” he adds. Drinking milk and his positive, upbeat attitude apparently have helped him continue his uphill climb to independence.
“We try to challenge him to do things he was unsure of, but we do them in a safe, supervised environment,” explains Miller.
She says the therapists at UHD try to develop unique exercises for Larson to do at his home site. These have included his working with theraballs, Wii games, therabands and even incorporating the use of the screwdriver for therapeutic purposes.
“Balance has been a big issue for Brad,” says Miller. “We work with the half ball to help with this.”
The half ball is also something Larson eyes with dread. It requires him to overcome the ‘fear factor’ each time he tries to step on and get off it. The ship ladder stairs in his home were also intimidating to him at first, but through therapy he has mastered them.
Larson says balance still instills the most fear in him as does falling, especially if it should happen in an area where there is nothing for him to hang on to so he can pull himself up.
Other obstacles Larson has encountered include steep ramps, wet grass, sliding furniture and opening heavy doors. But Larson says,“where there’s a will there’s a way.”
He also maintains the old adage of never giving up. Keep at it he advises. Therapy is hard, but you have to keep working at it if you want to get better. Having had head trauma he knows first-hand how difficult it has been for him to relearn skills most people take for granted, such as sitting up, walking and even getting dressed.
Larson has learned through therapy he must multitask with every step he takes. He jokingly likens the struggle to being able to chew gum and to walk at the same time. He thinks before each movement and has to be totally aware of the obstacles that could trip him up in his surroundings.
Although he accomplished dressing and grooming skills while at St. Mary’s, therapists have since focused on exercising and strengthening and currently are concentrating on functional skills.
Larson has had to relearn how to sit-up, get out of bed, stand, lift then carry objects and to walk. During these stages he graduated from the wheelchair, platform walker, walker, walking sticks, AFOs (braces on his legs) to walking independently.
Miller says she used to hover, afraid Larson would fall during these various stages, but now the therapists have confidence in Larson and simply keep trying new exercises for core strengthening and to improve his balance.
“My whole focus has been to get back on my motorcycle again,” says Larson. Helping him to achieve this goal, the UHD therapists have a simulated motorcycle he must approach, maintain his balance, then swing his leg astride. Perspiration is evident on his brow after doing this, but there is also a smile on his lips.
Miller says Larson is UHD’s star patient. He showcases everything that PT and OT can do.
“We didn’t do it though,” says Miller. “Brad did it. We just showed him the way to do it safely.”
Rochester physicians and therapists are stunned with the improvements each time they see him.
“I’m starting to think about what I will be doing in the future,” says Larson who recently retested and passed his drivers license test. He is now getting his vehicle modified and outfitted with hand controls.
“Believe in the Lord and everything will turn out fine,” says Larson as he bids Miller goodbye and walks with his crab-like gait to the door.
He has made an amazing recovery.