Terry Harmon benefit set for Satuday: ‘Nice to know people care about you’

By Mike Brue 

GRAND FORKS — A little more than a year ago, Terry Harmon began a new health journey that turned into a roller coaster ride.

“It’s been a tough haul,” he said this week.

Still, the 51-year-old Grand Forks man is more optimistic than he’s been in months that he’s nearing a positive destination. That optimism gets an added boost from Saturday’s benefit on his behalf at the East Grand Forks, Minn., Eagles Club (see sidebar). It’s been organized by some family and friends, and charitable nonprofit NDAD is a sponsor.

“You know, he’s the last person who’s going to ask anyone for help,” said Larry Laughlin, a longtime friend who also is a co-worker at Rydell Auto Center. Laughlin is one of the benefit organizers.

You’re invited to attend Saturday’s benefit, which includes a silent auction, baked goods sale, baked potato bar and music by SM Productions & Photography. All proceeds will be used to help Terry with medical and general expenses.
Silent auction items includes a signed UND men’s hockey jersey signed by the entire team; various gift baskets; restaurant certificates; a welded stand-up UND Sioux logo head and welded tabletop old car, both by Andrew Straub; full detail kits donated by Terry’s employer Rydell, and much more. Specially decorated lighted table vases will be sold as well, with all proceeds going to help Terry.
A free-will offering is requested for admission.
If you’re unable to attend Saturday’s benefit, you still may help by donating online at NDAD.org, in the Community Fundraisers section, and click the “Give Online” button next to the short article and benefit flier for Terry. You’ll need a credit card or PayPal.
Or, you may mail a check to: NDAD, c/o Terry Harmon Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201. Please make your check payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Terry Harmon” on your check’s memo line.
Charitable nonprofit NDAD is sponsoring the benefit through its free Community Fundraisers Program. You’re invited to learn more about the program and how it may be able to help you assist someone with serious medical or disability challenges by calling (800) 532-NDAD (-6323).
Another way to help: SHARE this item with others who may not know about the benefit and who may wish to attend the benefit or help Terry Harmon. Thank you.

“He’s been amazing. He’s had a few ‘why me?’ patches, but

everybody goes through that,” said Meaghann Harmon, 27, Terry’s daughter and a benefit organizer. “Honestly, his spirits have been great. He has to keep looking ahead. . . He’s been a true inspiration to me, (saying) just keep fighting the fight, and one day it will be better.”

Harmon’s first colonoscopy in late March 2013 – scheduled at the urging of older brother Tom  revealed seven non-cancerous polyps and a lesion that proved cancerous after a biopsy – an “unnerving” discovery, he recalls, after actually seeing the lesion discovered on a monitor during the examination.

But the examination also was proof positive that timely colorectal screenings can catch a potentially fatal cancer before it’s too late to seek effective treatment.

Harmon said test results put the cancer at roughly a Stage 2 or 3 “because it hadn’t gotten out of the colon but made it through the third wall.” Neither surrounding lymph nodes nor vital organs were affected.

Still, daughter Meaghann recalled, “It was like a rug was pulled out from under him.”

“He was pretty unsure. And scared — like any one would be,” she said. “For a while, it was just sitting, waiting and wondering. . . . Once they had a game plan how to fight it, then he was surer and more confident about it.”

Harmon began chemotherapy and radiation a year ago to try killing and shrinking the colon tumor before surgery. The now-smaller, nickel-size lesion was removed, and his colon re-routed, by surgeon Dr. Robin Hape last June 16 at Altru Hospital.

Summer gave Harmon an opportunity to heal, and eventually he returned to his job in wholesale auto parts at Rydell Auto Center in Grand Forks. A round of post-operative chemotherapy followed in October. But new problems developed:  a colon abscess led to formation of a tract, called a fistula, that grew from his colon to his bladder and resulted in a urinary tract infection, Harmon said.

He returned to Altru Hospital in late November, this time for more than a week, to have surgery to again re-route his colon, he said.

 “There was a pocket of bacteria down behind my bladder, too, that with antibiotics they’d hoped and speculated that it would take care of that infection,” Harmon said. He received oral antibiotics, and a post-surgical scan in December indicated that the infection was shrinking, he was told.

Then came the weekend before Christmas.

A difficult Christmas holiday

“Saturday night, I was sitting up and doing Christmas gifts — just the normal stuff, feeling fine,” Harmon said. “When I went to bed, my right leg was throbbing and my toes were just – well, everything was sore on the right side, in my right leg. And my lower back was sore. It felt like a muscle cramp.

“So, I was up late night and early in the morning, trying to stretch my leg out and my back out, and I could not figure out why it was acting this way. . . . Anyway, I slept hardly at all.”

He didn’t recognize that his body temperature was elevated.

When he rose Sunday morning, he was in pain, his leg was throbbing “and then I realized that my toes were numb on my right foot,” he recalled. He made a phone call to Meaghann “and said, ‘I need to go to the ER. There’s something wrong with my leg and my back.’ ”

He phoned Altru’s emergency room and then checked his own temperature, as a nurse had suggested. He had a fever of nearly 103 degrees.

“When I went into the ER, the ER doctor said, ‘We’re going to put you through an MRI to find out what’s going on.’ . . . They did find out that I had a blood infection.” Apparently, the infection behind his bladder made its way into the veins in Harmon’s back and near the base of his spine, he was told.

That was Dec. 22. “I was in the hospital for 11 days because of that, on many different antibiotics, trying to figure out what the infection would react to,” Harmon said.  Altru’s infectious disease specialist, Dr. James Hargreaves, determined a course of treatment. “I ended up on eight weeks of home IV antibiotics before the infection finally went away,” Harmon said.

Discharged on Jan. 1, he felt weary, overwhelmed and sad. “I missed the holidays with my family.  Not the normal regimen that I was used to.” His latest setback had shaken his confidence in his health.

“There’s a while there that he didn’t think he get through it,” Meaghann Harmon recalled. “The infection was scarier than the cancer, because the infection was extremely life-threatening right away.”

As winter continued, so did the achiness and throbbing in Harmon’s right leg, and the numbness in his toes. His lower back began bothering him even more. Something else wasn’t right with his back, he told his neurologist.

Harmon learned “there’s kind of a build-up of this kind of mucous-y pus build-up that’s putting pressure on those nerves, and he said what they would do is go in and make an incision and clean that out and open that up and get pressure off the nerves.” That surgery, though, would have to wait until he healed further. He was given a strong antibiotic intended to tackle and eliminate a possible infection in his back bone, he said.

When his back pain became even more severe, Harmon strongly urged another scan. “Something else was going on,” he said.

A CT scan and x-rays in February revealed that one of Harmon’s vertebrae had fractured and already had started to heal again. “The neurologist asked me right away if I had fallen, and, no, I hadn’t fallen on ice or anything,” Harmon recalled. It was possible, but not certain, that the infection might have contributed to weakening or deteriorating the vertebrae.

Harmon wanted to wear a back brace but could not because, since his late fall surgery, he’s using a temporary ileostomy — an opening that allows intestinal waste to collect into a pouching system that adheres to his skin. He hopes to find out soon from Dr. Hape whether his colon has healed sufficiently to remove the ileostomy.

Encouraging news

Harmon said more recent health reports have been encouraging, he said. A second colonoscopy, performed April 4, showed that his repaired colon – about eight inches have been removed — “looked great,” with no polyps and no sign of cancer. “And the fistula tube had dissipated,” Harmon said. “The hole it created in his colon is covered and healed.

Also, a CT scan showed that his infection “is finally gone.”

“He had been extremely frustrated. Yeah, he was not his happy-go-lucky self for a while. Well, now in the last few months or so, he’s starting to be his old joking self again. . . . He didn’t give up. He did what the doctors told him to do,” said Laughlin, who first worked with Terry Harmon back in ’81 at the old Wilcox and Malm auto dealership, when Harmon moved to Grand Forks.

Harmon is eager for his back woes to end his temporary disability so he may return to his job at Rydell, where he’s been for 21 years. “I love my job,” he said. Rydell management and co-workers “have been very supportive and very upbeat about this thing,” he said. “And they want me back to work. . . .They’re very happy with the fact that I’ve been doing so well.”

Terry is an “outgoing, very energetic guy,” Laughlin said. “A super nice guy, always helpful and a hard worker. He’s always right there working.”

The combination of extended absence from his job and multiple medical trips seriously strain his finances, even with some help from medical and disability insurance.  “Monetarily, I’ve gotten a few gifts from family members to help me with bills,” Harmon said. “Sometimes they’ve given me a bit to spend on something fun. It shows that they care.”

He also credits the support he’s received from friends and family, including his daughter Meaghan and two sons, Haydn, 19, and Liam, who turned 17 on Monday; and Harmon’s parents, Milo and Marie Harmon of East Grand Forks. Milo Harmon is a prostate cancer survivor.

“He’s very optimistic. I love that man,” Meaghan Harmon said. “It’s his daughter that’s the worry wart. I worry. He’s like, ‘Knock it off.’ ”

Terry Harmon says he’s also been encouraged to learn that his own cancer experience has led to others getting colorectal examinations. “It makes me feel like I’ve done a lot of good,” he said.

Twice during March – first in Altru Foundation’s Legacy newsletter, then in some Forum Communications media outlets, starting with the Grand Forks Herald – Harmon’s colorectal cancer exam and resulting treatment for cancer have been the centerpiece of articles about the benefits of colorectal screening. “I actually got a lot of response, a lot of good feedback” from the articles, Harmon said, “and a lot of them had not had colonoscopies before. . . . I wanted to take that stigma out of it. A day out of your life can save your life.”

Now, he’s both excited and anxious about Saturday’s benefit, an event he hopes will “be fun and . . . a blast.” He welcomes an opportunity to reminisce with friends and family about years past. He even expects to get a bit of grief from his co-workers. Harmon also concedes that “this whole thing is going to be very overwhelming for me, all the consideration from people.”

“Like I say, it’s so nice to know that people care about you,” Harmon said. “It’s not going to hit me until 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon.”

Mike Brue is communications director for NDAD.




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NDAD’s busy free assistive equipment loan program re-stocked

February was a busy month for the Grand Forks portion of NDAD’s free short-term equipment loan program.

Even though February is the year’s shortest month, the program provided 95 pieces of assistive equipment out of its Grand Forks office – surpassing the record of 89 pieces in July 2013, according to Jeri Hietala, NDAD’s client services rep in Grand Forks.

NDAD ordered a shipment of new equipment, too, that NDAD’s Terry Olmstead has been busy unboxing and assembling for the charitable nonprofit’s four North Dakota offices.

Some people who have used the program before, or even some who haven’t, generously donate gently used equipment to NDAD for use by others, too.

Adaptive equipment also is on loan from NDAD’s offices in Minot, Fargo and Williston, but the Grand Forks office is the busiest. The program regularly is used by people who have been injured or who are recovering from illnesses, and people with congenital or other long-term health challenges. People may borrow equipment for up to three months before it must be returned to NDAD.

Terry Olmstead of NDAD’s Grand Forks office has been assembling assistive equipment for NDAD’s free short-term equipment loan program. People may loan equipment for up to three months before returning it to NDAD. Equipment is available out of NDAD’s offices in Grand Forks, Minot, Fargo and Williston.

Some participants are in some type of physical transition and need the equipment for only a short period of time, making a purchase unfeasible.

Others borrow equipment for days, weeks or a few months until they purchase identical or similar equipment themselves —  on their own, through insurance providers, or with help through NDAD’s general assistance services, provided they meet program qualifications.

Another option is NDAD’s flexible, low-interest Financial Loan Program for assistive devices. This program — provided in association with Alerus Financial –provides loans between $500 and $50,000 to qualified people with disabilities and other health challenges.

NDAD’s free equipment-for-loan inventory includes shower chairs, transfer benches, crutches, manual and power wheelchairs and accessories, scooters, bed rails, walkers, knee walkers, transport chairs, walker trays, reachers, portable ramps, canes, bathtub railings, commodes, toilet seat risers, toilet raisers or safety frames, gait belts and IV poles.

Even with a new supply of equipment, some items can be out of stock and unavailable temporarily. It’s a good idea to check first by contacting NDAD at its general toll-free number — (800) 532-NDAD (-6323) – or its individual offices:

* Grand Forks at the general toll-free number or (701) 775-5577;

* Fargo at (701) 281-8215 or (888) 363-NDAD;

* Minot at (701) 838-8414 or (888) 999-NDAD;

* Williston at (701) 774-0741 or (877) 777-NDAD.

Or, visit an NDAD office for more information about the equipment loan program, NDAD’s general assistance and financial loan programs, or any of NDAD’s other non-profit services.


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GRANT CAMPBELL BENEFIT TONIGHT: Grand Forks 18-year-old not letting near-fatal stroke keep him down

By Mike Brue

Grant Campbell wants very much to remember what happened to him at the start of this year.

An 18-year-old from Grand Forks, Grant only knows only what he’s been told, or what he’s read in his family’s CaringBridge web journal about the whole ordeal:

The free-will offering benefit tonight (Feb. 20) features a silent auction and a taco-in-a-bag meal. It will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1001 S. 17th St., in Grand Forks. You also can help Grant by making a monetary donation online, using a credit card or PayPal, at http://www.ndad.org/fundraisers.asp. Click the “Give Online” button near the image of the Grant Campbell benefit flier to get started.
Donations also may be mailed to: NDAD, c/o Grant Campbell Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, N.D. 58201. Please make checks payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Grant Campbell” on the check’s memo line.
All proceeds — 100 percent — will be used to help defray medical and general living expenses for Grant. Charitable nonprofit NDAD, a 501c(3) organization, is sponsoring the benefit. Learn more about NDAD’s free-of-charge Community Fundraisers Program and how it may be able to help you help someone with a serious health challenge or disability by calling (800) 532-NDAD (-6323).

• He was found lying on the snow Jan. 4 at the Mt. LaCrosse ski area in southeast Wisconsin, on a hill where he had been skiing on his own.

• His older sister, Megan, and Grant’s good buddy Shawn Peterson reached him and tried talking to him, Grant opened his right eye but “it wasn’t working properly,” he said they told him.

• Medical tests and observations indicate the bleeding he experienced deep in his brain was caused not by a fall but by a hemorrhagic stroke.

Grant recalls going with Megan, Shawn and Grant’s younger sister, Anna, to Mt. LaCrosse, and he remembers certain events prior to the stroke. “His greatest frustration,” said Grant’s mom, Pat Campbell, “is he doesn’t remember the early weeks and the early days” after the incident. He was admitted to Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse.

“I’m trying to do my best to remember stuff,” Grant said in a phone interview earlier this week, the day before he left with his grandmother, Mary Gerszewski, of Oslo, Minn., for a return trip to Grand Forks and today’s NDAD-sponsored benefit on Grant’s behalf. “I want to know.”

Pat Campbell remembers all too well so many things from Grant’s earliest days in the hospital — Grant’s need for a ventilator, the brace around Grant’s neck and the overall uncertainty over the extent of his head and neck woes, the early seizures and efforts to monitor and stabilize his sometimes-erratic intracranial pressure, the tube feedings, the bout with a gastrointestinal infection.

“His neurosurgeon helped me reframe all of this” last week, Pat said in a phone interview from La Crosse Monday. “What he kept saying to Grant was, ‘You’re one in a million, because you really shouldn’t have even survived.’”

But he has. And with him, his entire family.

Pat Campbell vacillated between her medical knowledge and her own emotions, especially in those early days, she said, “and there were times it just scared the heck out of me.” A clinical coordinator at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse since last September, Pat previously worked at the University of North Dakota Student Health Services as health care analyst and then physician assistant. She’s also been a clinical dietitian and nutrition field coordinator. “I had worked for a number of years at the Rehab in Grand Forks,” she said, “and there I’d seen both good and bad outcomes” from strokes and head injuries.

“A stroke,” said Kate Hoverson, Grand Forks, a Manvel (N.D.) School special education teacher who is Grant’s aunt. “I know it still just sounds so strange when I find myself saying it: ‘Yeah, my 18-year-old nephew had . . . .” She paused just a moment. “You just don’t think someone that young and healthy would be dealing with that.”

Grant, a hockey defenseman and baseball outfielder when he attended Grand Forks Red River High School, experienced various injuries during his youth, including a fractured left hand, several sports concussions, stitches and a golf club hitting his face by his eye, his family said. Still, nothing in his medical history, or his family’s, they say, indicated he might be more susceptible to having a stroke.

Grant Campbell and his parents, Dan and Pat Campbell, in a late January 2014 photo from Grant’s CaringBridge.org site.

“We take great comfort in the fact that he wasn’t behind the wheel of a car or worse yet, alone and asleep” when the stroke occurred, Grant’s mom wrote in a Jan. 14 CaringBridge post.  “The outcome for him, and possibly others, would have been much worse.”

A month later, she said “our family has just been incredibly surprised in such a short period of time” how much Grant has recovered.

Grant’s health rehabilitation is not over, even though his progress has been relatively steady, in some areas astoundingly quick, family members say. He has some weakness still on his left side, particularly his left hand, and he lost about 15 pounds on his muscular 6-foot-3 frame during the ordeal, but Grant otherwise has made “incredible gains” physically, Pat Campbell said. Her son’s long-term memory is “flat-out wonderful,” she said, and although his short-term memory at times still needs some prompting and cueing, he continues to make strides.

Grant’s speech has improved so much that he recently was discharged from speech pathology therapy. He’s regularly using Lumosity, a web-based games-and-training app that focuses on cognitive improvement, he said.

Grant also is walking again without pain again after receiving treatment for a recent setback — a pinched nerve in his back.

“I’ve decided it’s no longer called Murphy’s Law. It’s Campbell’s Law,” joked Aunt Katy. “Seriously, we may never know the reason for all of this, but I guess I just chalk it up to this: it’s in God’s hands, and He knows what’s best.”

Each time Grant’s dry sense of humor surfaces is more reassurance to family members that he’s recovering. Kate talked to Grant on the phone Saturday and told him how excited she is he was returning to Grand Forks in time for today’s benefit, set from 5 to 8 p.m. at Holy Family Catholic Church. “He made some kind of comment like, ‘Yeah, I’m kind of getting that from you,’ ” chuckled Kate, whose social media posts have been part of her efforts to spearhead the event.

“It’s just really incredibly uplifting and overwhelming emotionally to know that Grant and our family are supported that much by so many people,” said Pat Campbell, who also plans to return to Grand Forks for tonight’s benefit.

Grant Campbell and his mom, Pat, at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wis., in late January.

In Grand Forks, Grant said, he looks forward to “mainly seeing friends and not being stuck in the house all day.” He can’t drive these days; because of those early January post-stroke seizures, his driver’s license was suspended for six months.

In addition to the benefit, Grant wants to take in a few North Dakota state boys high school hockey tournament games in Grand Forks. Play begins today. Grant last saw a tournament game as a participant; he and his teammates on the Red River Roughriders won the 2013 state championship.

After the Grand Forks visit ends, Grant will return with a family members to La Crosse and stay with his mom at her apartment while continuing rehabilitation therapy there. His dad, Dan, continues his work at Amazon.com in Grand Forks while the Campbell house remains for sale. Eventually, he’ll move to La Crosse to rejoin wife Pat and daughter Anna, 13, who’s in the eighth grade. Daughter Megan Campbell, 22, is a senior at Hamline University in St. Paul.

Grant eventually intends to return to Grand Forks and resume school at the University of North Dakota, where he completed one semester as a freshman before his stroke occurred. He’s leaning toward studying to become a psychiatrist.

But first, Grant’s recovery from stroke is getting his primary focus. And he says it’s helped him to know that he’s not doing it alone.

“I’m just thankful,” Grant said, “I have so many people supporting me.”

Mike Brue is communications director at NDAD.

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Find out about NDAD’s free-of-charge Community Fundraisers Program and how it may be able to help you give an assist to others with a disability or serious health challenge. Call (800) 532-NDAD (-6323) for more information.

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Benefit set for Feb. 20 to aid Grand Forks stroke victim, 18

NDAD is sponsoring a fundraiser set for Thursday, Feb. 20, in Grand Forks to help Grant Campbell, 18, who had a stroke in early January while downhill skiing during a visit with family in LaCrosse, Wis.

Benefit flier for Grant Campbell, 18, of Grand Forks.

Grant, a 2013 Red River High School graduate who attended fall semester at the University of North Dakota, is the son of Patty and Dan Campbell. His grandparents are John and Mary Gerszewski of Oslo, Minn.

The free-will offering benefit features a silent auction and a taco-in-a-bag meal. It will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 20 at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1001 S. 17th St., in Grand Forks.

The early list of silent auction items includes local restaurant gift cards, an AstroStart remote starter, Red River High School clothing and much more.

You also can donate to help Grant online, using a credit card or PayPal, by going to the Community Fundraisers page at NDAD.org. Click the “Give Online” button near the image of the Grant Campbell benefit flier to proceed to a page to make your donation.

Donations also may be mailed to: NDAD, c/o Grant Campbell Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, N.D. 58201. Please make checks payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Grant Campbell” on the check’s memo line.

Learn more about NDAD’s free-of-charge Community Fundraisers Program and how it may be able to help you help someone with a serious health challenge or disability by calling (800) 532-NDAD (-6323).

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Grand Forks Herald, WDAZ-TV pieces focus on life, death of NDAD co-founder Faye Gibbens

News outlets in Grand Forks have produced feature pieces on Faye Gibbens, NDAD’s co-founder who died Saturday at age 70.

WDAZ-TV’s story about Faye, which first appeared Monday online and on TV, is HERE.

The Grand Forks Herald’s feature obituary article about Faye, which debuted Monday and appeared in print today (Tuesday), is HERE.

The obituary for Faye, including information about Friday’s funeral service, is HERE.

You can read NDAD’s own Saturday news release about Faye Gibbens’ life and death HERE.

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Faye Gibbens, NDAD co-founder and longtime officer, dies at 70

NDAD mourns the passing today of Faye Gibbens, 70, its co-founder and longtime director of program services for people with disabilities and health challenges.

Faye Gibbens, shown in the fall of 2012.

Gibbens died this afternoon (Saturday) at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks after a lengthy period of failing health.

Faye Gibbens and her husband of nearly 50 years, Ron, began the North Dakota Association for the Disabled as a family support group in the mid-1970s and built it into a statewide charitable nonprofit with client services offices in Grand Forks, Fargo, Minot and Williston and charitable gaming operations currently in Minot, Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck. She also helped create and operate another nonprofit for individuals in need, the Citizens Assistance Program.

Faye Gibbens’ survivors include her husband, NDAD’s president and chief executive officer; and their son, Mike, NDAD’s official ambassador and the inspiration for the organization’s creation. Mike Gibbens was born with cerebral palsy.

Funeral services for Faye Gibbens are pending.

Read NDAD’s news release about Faye Gibbens’ death at http://ndad.org/news.asp?newsid=109.

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‘Stronger every day’: Benefit 11am-2pm Saturday for Forks man hurt in train-vehicle collision

By Mike Brue

Home is where Kyle Johnson’s heart is.

He’d like to be there, too.

The 28-year-old hasn’t seen his Grand Forks residence, which he shares with his parents, since leaving for his job with the Grand Forks Public Health department’s Mosquito Control team the morning of Aug. 21, 2013.

The public is invited to attend Saturday’s (Jan. 25) Kourage for Kyle Johnson Benefit, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the sixth floor of the Grand Forks County Office Building. All proceeds from the event will be used to assist with medical and related expenses for Kyle Johnson, 28, a Grand Forks man injured in a train collision with a work vehicle Aug. 21, 2013. The benefit includes a silent auction with more than 70 baskets and other items; a bake sale of homemade treats; a baked potato, chili and toppings bar feed; and a Shooting Star Casino package raffle. A free-will offering is suggested for admission. The benefit is sponsored by NDAD through its free-of-charge Community Fundraisers Program. If you’re unable to attend the benefit, you can help by donating online, using your credit card or PayPal account, at http://www.ndad.org/fundraisers.asp. Once on that page, click the “Give Online” button that accompanies the short story and benefit flier for Kyle Johnson. Or, mail a donation to: NDAD, c/o Kyle Johnson Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201. Please make checks payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Kyle Johnson” on the check’s memo line.

Around 8:30 a.m. that morning, an accident involving a train derailed Kyle’s life — and nearly ended it.

Kyle Johnson had other ideas. Still does.

“I’m getting stronger every day,” he said Wednesday from a Twin Cities rehabilitation facility. He’s working hard to get home by mid-February, perhaps Valentine’s Day.

His parents, Les and Deb Johnson, call their son the most courageous person they know.

A benefit Saturday in Grand Forks, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the sixth floor of the Grand Forks County Office Building, (see sidebar for details) intends to raise some money to help Kyle and his family offset some of the daunting medical and related expenses that have resulted during Kyle’s recovery journey.

Kyle and a Mosquito Control team co-worker, Jonathan Bartel, were hit by a train while riding a work vehicle, a Kubota rough terrain vehicle, when crossing railroad tracks west of the city’s Industrial Park. Neither knew a train was on the tracks; although train whistles were blown, the young men – wearing head gear to protect their hearing — did not hear the whistles.

Both Kyle and Jonathan still were strapped in the RTV when emergency responders arrived.

Both young men were rushed to Altru Hospital, where life-saving triage began immediately. Jonathan suffered multiple injuries, including a broken pelvis. Kyle experienced the worst injuries and was in critical condition. He needed emergency surgery for internal bleeding and a traumatic head injury; he also had a collapsed lung, bruised vertebrae and ribs, and the ocular socket of his right eye was broken.

These days, Kyle is working daily, and diligently, in therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (a merger of Courage Center and the Sister Kenny rehab operations) in Golden Valley, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, in an effort to recover from trauma to his brain and brain stem.

Kyle’s speech is impaired, as is his ability to walk. He tends to speak more slowly than he once did. Particularly when fatigued, he struggles to retrieve the words he wants to use, with the intonation in which he hopes to speak. His memory is tested if it involves events beyond a “floating window” of several weeks, said his dad, Les Johnson. Kyle’s left side is stronger than his right, and he’s needed a wheelchair much of the time to get around.

Yet, the progress he’s already made since the accident is substantial. Increasingly, Kyle walks with supports such as a walker; for the first time last weekend, he used a cane.

“It’s a little weird to walk with a cane – but terrific,” he said in a phone interview this week.

And these days, conversation — occasional quips included — emerges with steadily increasing clarity from Kyle Johnson. So do smiles and self-confidence, more so than during any time since the accident.

“The therapy here is good, but (effort) has to come from both sides,” said Cindy Leach, a Courage Kenny social worker who has worked with Kyle since he arrived in mid-November. “He’s a hard-working young man.”

“Although stubborn,” Kyle interjected.

“Although stubborn,” she echoed.

Deb Johnson, Kyle’s mom, said her son “has not lost his ability to be motivated. He always says, ‘Mom, I’m working 110 percent.’

Kyle Johnson poses with a poster he received with signatures from well-wishers.

“His motivation,” she adds, “is to get home.”

Les said he’s proud of Kyle and his persistence, and he admires the goals Kyle’s set: to speak and walk “normally,” and to work a full-time job. Les calls them reasonable, yet very challenging goals.

“I don’t think any of those three things are going to be really easy,” Les said. “I think he’s had a very realistic view of where he is today, but he’s not satisfied with that. He wants to move forward. It would be very easy to just give up and say, ‘This really is a bad thing that happened to me and my life is over and it’s not worth it anymore.’ ”

Once he arrived at Courage Kenny, Kyle met others with brain injuries “and he realized he was not the only person who had something bad happen to him . . . that these types of things happen in life and many times they’re absolutely random.”

Kyle Johnson says he can see the benefits of rehabilitation therapy, and he acknowledged all of the encouragement, kindness and support he’s received to date from fellow Courage Kenny temporary residents and staff. In fact, he said, it is those people – along with family members, friends and other people rooting for his recovery – who convinced him that he should not be overly eager to return home to Grand Forks, before he’s ready to do so.

“To go home early or to stay here,” he said, “I would choose to stay here. . . . I feel like I have to improve myself for them. . . . I felt honored that so many people care and want to see me get better. It’s amazing.”

Kyle’s parents say their son’s attitude is another indication of how far he’s come in just several months. In fact, the entire Johnson family – including a sister, Shaun; and a brother, Scott, and sister-in-law, Amy, who live in the Twin Cities metro area– are continuing to adjust to Kyle’s ever-evolving status.

“When you live with a member of the family who has gone through a tragedy, and it’s a young person, I think everybody in the family starts to think about returning back to normal, and that things will return back to exactly how he was before,” said Les Johnson, human resources director and a business management instructor at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. “I think that was true with our family. Now that we’ve been given time to be more realistic . . . we don’t know what the outcome will be.”

Kyle Johnson during a recent Twin Cities outing with family members — a break from therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.

For Les and Deb, it’s been part of their conversations during week after week of road trips to and from the Twin Cities.

“We were talking about how far we have come and how we can’t lose perspective on how close we were to really losing him,” recalled Deb, a speech language pathologist and 38-year-Grand Forks School District employee who returned to work in November after Kyle’s transfer to Courage Kenny. “You tend to look forward and hope for more, but yet you have to really appreciate and celebrate how far we’ve come.”

Les added, “If two weeks after the accident, a doctor or somebody else would have come and said, ‘Don’t worry, here’s where you’re going to be in January of 2014,’ we would have been ecstatic. We would have celebrated.”

Kyle understands his progress brings him that much closer to returning home, but he acknowledged that his homecoming won’t mark the conclusion of the challenges he still faces. Deb and Les Johnson suspect the challenges may weigh more on their own minds than on their son’s right now.

“Sometimes I think he still feels he’s going to return to life exactly the way it was prior to the accident very soon,” Les said.

Deb Johnson said she’s exhilarated about the growing prospect of Kyle returning home and being able to complete his therapies at Altru. “And yet,” she added, “how do we manage it?”

Initially, Kyle will need 24/7 care, Les said.

Some of the more daunting challenges ahead for Kyle are right inside the house he’s called home for most of his young life. The Johnson house wasn’t built with accessibility in mind. He knows he’ll need to be able to maneuver the series of steps that divide the Johnson home’s split-foyer entrance. Kyle has lived downstairs.

“Six steps down. Seven steps up. He has to find a way to get upstairs and downstairs,” Deb Johnson said. “It’s a challenge.”

“It’s a big challenge,” Kyle conceded, when asked about the stairs. “But I think I can do it.”

But the Johnsons can’t help but have some optimism.

“He has really climbed a lot of mountains already,” Les said.

For Les Johnson, the challenges Kyle faces have heightened his awareness of the environmental obstacles for people with accessibility limitations. “It had really increased my empathy for what that experience might feel like,” he said. “I never had to think about whether our house is handicapped accessible. I never had to think about how wide the doorways were. I never had to think about handicapped bathrooms in public places or aisles that weren’t wide enough for people to go through.”

The Johnsons know they somehow managed to deal with Aug. 21, 2013, “a day of incredible, incredible stress, shock and disbelief,” Les Johnson said.

Kyle Johnson at work as part of Grand Forks Public Health department’s Mosquito Control team.

“About a year earlier, my father passed away,“ Les recalled. “When you have a parent who is struggling for a time, you can kind of see it coming, and you have time to prepare about what probably is going to happen.  “But when you have a child in their most vital part of their life, and you go to work totally not expecting that anything unusual is going to happen that day, and then you find that your child is on the verge of dying – that is not something I think anybody prepares for.“

Kyle’s parents were anything but prepared when they reached Altru Hospital the morning of Aug. 21 – Les driving in from Crookston, Deb receiving a ride from a Phoenix Elementary colleague.

Les recounted the nightmarish scene in the emergency room, roughly 90 minutes after the accident but prior to an emergency operation, as Kyle was lying on a table, “totally white and unconscious. . . . looking like he was lying on a slab.

“We walked out of the room, and my wife collapsed right there.”

Just three days later, with Kyle still in a sedation coma, his parents learned that their son’s brain stem showed bruising that suggested significant long-term damage. The revelation shocked them.

After that, for about the first month following Kyle’s accident, Les recalled, it seemed that all the signs about Kyle’s progress were “double-edged swords.” Each new sign of his recovery was accompanied by a sharpened awareness “that there was a lot of damage, that there was a lot of uncertainty still.”

On Aug. 29, with Kyle’s sedation lightened slightly, Kyle moved his left thumb upward slightly and was able to slightly move the little finger on his left hand upon command.

Deb leaned over one of her son’s ears: “Kyle, can you hear me? Tap my hand.”

“And he squeezed my hand,” she recalled.

“That was one of the best days we had,” she said. “We knew that somewhere, Kyle was there and was able to respond. . . . It was phenomenal. It really was. That was where we started having hope that he was going to have a life after that, that we’re going to do OK.”

Deb Johnson also recalls the day at Altru when Kyle, who has asthma, first showed he could breathe on his own. He had to battle pneumonia in those first few weeks, too. “That day,” she recalled, “we were realizing how lucky we really were.”

That night, driving from Altru to their south Grand Forks home, the Johnsons saw luminarie bags glowing on both sides of the street, at each driveway entrance on the residential block where they lived. Two luminaria, resting on a white car, had the letters “K” and “J” cut into one side.

Les and Deb responded with tears. “It was so unexpected,” Les said. “And it went on for days,” ending by the time Kyle was transferred to St. Paul Bethesda Hospital, an acute rehabilitation facility.

At Bethesda, when Kyle finally started eating and was able to swallow on his own, “that meant he wasn’t going to be stuck on feeding tubes for the rest of his life,” Deb recalled.

Several months ago, Kyle’s family wondered whether his next stop would be a group home or some other transitional facility.  Now, they know he’s been given a rather fitting tentative date — Feb. 14 — for his long-desired trip home.

It’s not the first time Kyle has exceeded expectations.

A Grand Forks Red River High School graduate, Kyle Johnson attended the University of Minnesota at Crookston and surprised his parents by earning not one, but two degrees in 2009 — in Information Technology Management and Business Management.

Since then, he’s juggled multiple seasonal jobs – with Grand Forks Mosquito Control, American Crystal Sugar during the sugar beet harvest campaign, with Dietrich Bus Service, serving as a substitute school bus driver who also drives buses for parties and University of North Dakota hockey games. Always, according to those who know him and work with him, he has a solid, admirable work ethic. A guy who learned his job and, once he did, you didn’t have to worry about him doing it.

“A good worker. Thorough. He really pays attention to detail,” said Todd Hanson, who manages the city’s Mosquito Control program.

“I work and I play pretty hard,” Kyle said.

Kyle was in his seventh summer of work at Mosquito Control in 2013. His parents say he enjoyed the outdoor work and the physical activity, but especially his co-workers. “It was one of his favorite jobs,” Les said.

On a Sunday morning last fall, five of Kyle’s Mosquito Control co-workers got into a vehicle in Grand Forks and traveled to see their injured colleague at Bethesda Hospital. The co-workers spent a few hours with Kyle before driving back to Grand Forks that same day. One of the co-workers had a big school exam the following day and studied for it during the trip. One of the others was Jonathan Bartel, the co-worker injured along with Kyle in the August train collision.

“Up to that point, he was pretty negative,” Les Johnson said about his son’s outlook on his circumstance. “He would say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ He didn’t have much of a vision how he was going to recover.

“I think he was just so stunned that these people he had worked with would commit so much time just to drive that distance, just to say, ‘Kyle, we’re here. We’re still rooting for you.’ I think what he told me after they left is, ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe they came all that way.’ ”

The visit, Kyle recalled, “was a turning point for me. I want to work with them again.” Mosquito Control’s Hanson, who visited Kyle at Bethesda earlier, is glad his young employee feels that way.

“You know, really, I think what we all hope and pray for is that Kyle has an independent life — where his recovery is such that he will be able to live independently,” Hanson said. “We certainly would love to get him back into the program. . . . I think that would just really help his recovery also. If he knows he can continue to be an asset to this program, that’s going to help him and us both.”

But first things first. Kyle Johnson needs to get home to Grand Forks. And he will, Kyle says. He’s working on it.

Mike Brue is communications director for NDAD.

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Learn more about Saturday’s Kourage for Kyle Johnson Benefit at http://www.ndad.org/fundraisers.asp. On that page, you also can make an online donation to help Kyle and his family, using a credit card or PayPal account.

Donations to help the Johnsons also may be mailed to: NDAD, c/o. Kyle Johnson Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201. Please make checks payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Kyle Johnson” on the check’s memo line.

All proceeds from this fundraiser — 100 percent — will be used to help defray medical and related expenses for Kyle and his family.

NDAD is a sponsor of the Kyle Johnson fundraiser and benefit through our charitable nonprofit’s Community Fundraisers Program, a free service that has helped individuals and families with serious health challenges or disabilities for many years. Learn more about the program by calling (800) 532-NDAD.

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Benefit for man, 28, injured in Grand Forks train accident just days away

ONLY DAYS AWAY NOW: The Kourage for Kyle Johnson Benefit on the sixth floor of the Grand Forks County Office Building is Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Hope you’re going to be there to show your support.The benefit for Kyle, an employee of the Grand Forks Health Department’s Mosquito Control division who was seriously hurt in an Aug. 21 train accident, includes a silent auction, raffle, a bake sale and a baked potato, chili and toppings bar. A free-will donation is requested.

The Grand Forks County Office Building is in downtown Grand Forks at 151 S. Fourth St., with parking on South Fourth Street, nearby Bruce Avenue and South Third Street and in the county parking ramp (enter ramp from South Third Street or from Bruce Avenue).

Silent auction items are still welcome. Please call Debbie Hanson-Misialek or Aly Barclay at (701) 787-8100 if you have items that need to be picked up. Please leave a message with your name and the best phone number(s) where you can be reached.

Flier for Saturday’s Kourage for Kyle Johnson Benefit in Grand Forks.

Another way you can help inform the public about this worthy benefit: Please SHARE this item with friends and others who may wish to help. If you wish to share our Facebook post, please go to NDAD’s Facebook page, show your support for NDAD’s work by liking NDAD’s Facebook page, and share the latest Kyle Johnson fundraising post from there. Your help is greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Kyle continues to work on his rehabilitation from brain and brain stem injuries at Courage Kenney Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley, Minn. With continued progression, Kyle, 28, and his family — including parents Les and Deb Johnson of Grand Forks — are hoping to return to the Johnson home in mid-February for the first time since the accident.

Kyle made more progress in the past few days, including extensive, more balanced use of a walker on Sunday and his first use of a cane on Monday, according to his mom’s post on Kyle’s CaringBridge.org site. “Up until this point Kyle has been mobile primarily with the use of a wheel chair, walker or two poles,” she wrote. “To him the fact that the cane is a smaller aide than any of the ones he’s been using previously is step in the right direction. Canes are more portable than walkers and wheelchairs, and that’s more ‘normal.’ ”

Learn more about Kyle and how you can participate in this fundraising effort at NDAD’s Community Fundraisers page elsewhere on this NDAD.org website. All of the proceeds — 100 percent — will be used to help Kyle with medical and related expenses.

Kyle Johnson on Sat., Jan. 18, in the Twin Cities. He currently is partaking in rehabiltation for brain and brain stem injuries at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Golden Valley, Minn. (Submitted photo)

Can’t attend the benefit? Donate online at the aforementioned NDAD fundraisers page, using the “Give Online” button next to the story and benefit flier for Kyle Johnson.

Or, please mail your donation to: NDAD, c/o Kyle Johnson Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201. Please make your check payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Kyle Johnson” on the check’s memo line.

Learn more about NDAD’s free-of-charge Community Fundraisers Program, which is sponsoring the Kourage for Kyle Benefit, and how the program may be able to help you help a needy individual or family with serious health concerns. Call (800) 532-NDAD for information.

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Help ensure your winter weather safety if you have disability, health challenge

Some people in North Dakota and surrounding states with physical, medical, cognitive and  sensory disabilities may not have completed their winter weather preparations, even though winter has the region firmly in its grasp.

It’s not too late to take immediate precautions, do what planning you can as soon as you’re able, and be especially vigilant about staying warm when braving cold outside temperatures.

Preparation checklist

NDAD offers this preparation checklist, culled from several federal and state government sources, that provides some of the best ways to keep yourself safe and secure every winter season — particularly if you having a disability or other health challenge:

  • Have an emergency supply kit that includes:

A battery-powered or hand crank-powered radio, extra flashlights and batteries, and at minimum a week’s supply of food and water. If you rely on home-delivered meals, be certain to stock nonperishable food at home in case meal deliveries are suspended during an emergency.

Adequate cold-weather clothing and blankets.

First aid supplies.

  • Check with your physician or oxygen supplier about emergency plans for respirators or electrical-powered medical equipment. You should plan to have backup for electrical-powered equipment, including for dialysis.
  • If you use a portable generator for emergency power, follow the manufacturer’s directions for safe operation, and check with local fire and building officials for regulations governing generator and fuel use. Ask your utility company if the medical equipment qualifies you to be listed as a life-sustaining equipment customer.
  • If you are blind or have a visual disability, consider storing a talking or Braille clock or large-print timepiece with extra batteries.
  • If you depend on land lines, develop a back-up communications plan in case service is disrupted. A charged cellular phone might be your best option, or possibly a pager.
  • If you’re able to do so, maintain a two-week supply of medications, both prescription and non-prescription. Have a plan with your doctor that provides emergency prescription refills, if possible.
  • Make certain your copies of medical records, prescriptions and other medical needs are readily available.
  • Plan now to have accessible transportation in case you have to evacuate your premises.
  • Have contact lenses, extra eyeglasses and batteries for hearing aids ready to go.
  • If you receive home-based care, be certain to include caregivers when you develop your plan. Familiarize yourself with your homecare agency’s emergency plan.
  • Plan now about how you’re going to deal with pets and service animals in a situation that requires transportation or temporary relocation.
  • Think about shelters in your neighborhood or nearby town and whether they can accommodate your special needs.
  • Develop and stay in touch with a nearby network of assistance – neighbors, relatives, care attendances, friends, and co-workers — preferably before winter storms or record cold moves in. Never depend on one person alone.

Venturing outdoors

  • Wear multiple layers of clothing, including a scarf around your neck, a winter hat, lined boots and two pairs of socks.
  • Wear warm gloves. Consider thermal gloves worn underneath mittens, if possible. Gripper driving gloves can also help keep your hands warm and help prevent slipping, especially if you encounter freezing rain, which can stick to canes, walkers, forearm cuffs, wheelchairs and other surfaces.
  • If you’re able to carry a cell phone, do so.
  • If you travel in a wheelchair, wrap a small blanket around your legs, tucking it underneath yourself or around your sides. This will help to maintain body heat. Wheelchair users may consider purchasing pneumatic tires for better traction. Another alternative for some circumstances is to use standard dirt bicycle tires.
  • Use table salt or clay cat litter to clear ramps – rock salt can poison working assistance animals and also may be slippery.
  • Remove the tires from your wheelchair and shake debris and ice off them before placing them in your vehicle. Wipe down any metal surfaces (wheelchair tire rims, walkers, etc.) as soon as possible after returning home. This will prevent rusting.
  • Using a wheelchair in snow can be strenuous, heavy wheeling – the added exertion could lead to a stroke or heart attack, particularly if you’re unaccustomed to it. Be extra careful.
  • Dogs can suffer from hypothermia and frostbite, too. Whether you use a working assistance dog or are taking a pet outdoors, consider a dog coat and boots for your dog’s paws. Also, keep a blanket in your vehicle for your dog.


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A chance to try your hand at wheelchair basketball

Wallbangers basketball flier

Teens and adults with physical disabilities living in the Grand Forks region, and those without disabilities, too, are invited to spend a few hours on Sunday afternoons playing wheelchair basketball.

The Wallbangers, a recreational group sponsored by charitable nonprofit NDAD (North Dakota Association for the Disabled), meet year-round on most Sundays at 4 p.m. in the St. Mary’s School gymnasium on the south edge of downtown Grand Forks.

Wheelchairs are provided for a few hours of fun, full-court scrimmages.

Learn more about this wheelchair basketball endeavor and how you can participate by calling NDAD at (701) 775-5577 or (800) 532-NDAD (-6323). Or, email tolmstead@ndad.org.

A scene from a Wallbangers wheelchair basketball get-together in early 2013.

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