By DAVE PAXTON
Editor and Publisher
Paul Peterson has a summer home in Wallingsford, Iowa. Well, it’s actually the farm he grew up on as a kid, that he has operated with his 100-year-old father, Nordein since he graduated from college and moved to Albia to forge a three-decade career as a vocal music teacher.
You could say he has one of the longest commutes to work of anyone in Monroe County, short of Larry Pillard, whose job took him to Europe every month.
The farm is a Century Farm, and the 1873 farmhouse still contains the original log cabin that Peterson’s Norwegian great-grandfather built out of native lumber cut along the Des Moines River, which divides the farm in half.
Which is where this story begins. Walking past the back of the two-story farm house on May 23, Peterson noticed glass broken out of a second-story window that protects that original log structure (long encased by additions to the home). So he fetched one-half of an extension ladder, about 16-feet in length, got some clear plastic and his staple gun and at 8 p.m. climbed the ladder to make the simple temporary repair.
His father was already in bed and his wife, Joan, was in Des Moines visiting the couple’s son, Olaf and his family.
“I put the ladder at a nice angle away from the house,” he said remembering clearly that part of the evening. From that point on, Peterson would probably not receive the Cargill employee safety award. The top of the ladder was sitting on the aluminum eaves trough as he reached the top and the first three staples went in easily. As he reached to staple the final side of the plastic, with one foot on the roof and the other on the ladder, life went quickly south. “I didn’t think how much pressure I needed to apply to the staple gun reaching as far as I was reaching and as I did, I felt the ladder starting to slide along the eaves trough.
He doesn’t remember the free flight to the ground, but he believes he wasn’t immediately knocked unconscious. “I don’t remember how I landed but I landed hard on my right side,” he said.
This is where emergency physicians and surgeons at the Emmetsburg and Sioux Falls hospitals where Peterson ended up, were shaking their heads and suggesting he cheated death at least four times.
As the right side of his body crashed into the ground, the whiplash caused his head to slam into the grass, causing a concussion and brain bleed. He suffered six cracked and broken ribs, four compression fractures of vertebrae in his neck, two more compression fractures in his lower back, a cracked scapula (shoulder blade) and bruises from his right butt to the side of his head.
“At some point I passed out and when I came to my striped cap was laying off to the side and my cell phone was out of my pocket but still in reach,” he said That’s likely the first miracle of the night. He managed to get the phone and use his voice activated calling app to call his 50-year-old neighbor, Terry Lundgren. The farm neighbor living a mile away answered. “Terry, I’ve hurt myself bad,” Peterson remembers saying. “I need you to take me to the emergency room.”
Lundgren got to the farm within minutes, but couldn’t find Peterson, because he was out of sight behind the house. Lundgren called back to his wife, who called Peterson back and helped locate him. “I was on my knees when Terry got there,” said Peterson.
Here is where Peterson cheated death the second time and is a cautionary tale for people badly injured. “I told Terry to help me up but not touch my right shoulder because it really hurt,” said Peterson. In the fog of the emergency, Lundgren helped Peterson into his pick-up, buckled him in and raced off to the Estherville hospital, not knowing the extent of his neck, head and lower back injuries.
When the neurosurgeon in Sioux Falls looked at the x-rays, he asked for six random numbers from Peterson. “He said he was going to use them to buy a lottery ticket,” said Peterson. “My ribs are healed enough now that I can laugh without it hurting.”
Any wrong movement could have killed Peterson, or left him paralyzed.
The ER physicians in Estherville immediately knew the severity of his injuries, stabilized him and called for an airplane to take him on a 22-minute flight to Sioux Falls. They chose not to use the helicopter, fearing he wouldn’t last the hour flight.
By the time he reached Sioux Falls, another complication arose from a collapsed lung. “None of the ribs, or the scapula were compound fractures,” he said. “But my lung collapsed and I’ll never forget the sound of the drill they used to create the hole to get the tube in to reinflate it. I felt my whole body vibrating.”
The stay in the ICU is kind of a blur to Peterson. “I sort of remember Joan arriving the next day,” he said. “I remember trying to sleep and being awakened every two hours for them to take vitals and ask me questions (concussion protocol). The food was miserable. I remember that.”
The farming community of Wallingsford, along with his sisters sprang into action. Peterson’s 100-year-old father had slept through the night and sister, Marsha Klingbeil, made sure he was okay. Farmer Lundgren, who got Peterson to the hospital, organized farm neighbors to plant Peterson’s soybeans and the local coop made sure his fields were sprayed. “I had my corn in and after they found where I had stacked my soybean seed got it planted before any of them planted their’s,” he said.
Joan remained with him through his two-week hospital stay in Sioux Falls and brought him back to the farm in Wallingsford on June 7 where he faces two to three months of rehab. “I’d like to say there’s a special place in hell for physical therapists, but it’s amazing how quickly they got me up and around,” he joked. His wife, his daughter Sarah (who he stayed with a week in St. Paul), sisters and farm neighbors who stop in regularly, are making sure the orders from his physical therapists are followed exactly.
“I can walk around fine,” he said. “I didn’t need a halo, so I’m in a neck brace and back brace. Can’t lift anything over 10 pounds.”
There are simple gifts of recovery Peterson has enjoyed. Doing occupational therapy, he spotted a grand piano in a doctor’s lounge and stopped to play Beethoven on it, which was as much mental and emotional therapy as anything else. “I had to lift my hand to get to the keys but it was good to play,” he said.
An injury he hadn’t immediately noted was a gash on his ear. “A nurse with a doctorate in nursing stitched it up and did a wonderful job,” he said. His wife knows Peterson all too well, which is why she made him spend a week in St. Paul with his daughter and two granddaughters, away from the farm. “I got home, went to church to prove I was alive, took care of business and then enjoyed the week with my grandkids,” he said.
Joan had a long-planned Alaskan cruise with son Olaf and his family and was planning to cancel it until Peterson put the kibosh on that. “I’ve had great support from family and friend, and lined up some home health care for both myself and my dad,” he said. “She’s enjoying the whales right now.” He also released his sister, Marsha to travel to the west coast with a friend who competes nationally in table tennis.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by kindness from my farm neighbors and friends in Wallingsford,” he said. “My friends in Albia, Centerville and Knoxville (where he directs winter community choirs) also blew me away. My dad had his 100th a couple of months ago and I told him I think I received more cards than he did.”
His 100-year-old father, who is legally blind from macular degeneration, was ready to help. “ What can I do to help?” he asked. “Can I do chores?”
“We don’t have chores, Dad,” Peterson answered.
“How about the chickens? I can take care of the chickens,” he offered
“The barn fell down and wrecked the chicken coop,” Peterson told his dad. Later the pair hopped a ride to church because Paul is still unable to drive. Paul took a look at the elevator installed at the church, but walked up the steps because Nordein reminded him that the elevator was for old people.
He is taking physical therapy every other day and occupational therapy as well. He visited recently with ACHS vocal music teacher Alex Steines about doing some music arranging to pass the time. A couple of farm friends arrived to put up some electric fence taken down by Des Moines River flooding and needed a cordless drill. He went into his shed to get the tool, couldn’t find it and discovered all of his other power tools were missing. His kids know him well too.
“My wife and kids really wanted me to spend time recuperating in a nursing home so I had to make promises,” he said. He also made a trip into town to apologize to the ambulance crew for not calling them directly. “I really thought I had a broken arm,” he said.
The 70 + one month year old farmer/retired school teacher has had some time to reflect on what happened. “When you’re near death and come back you really appreciate friends, family and associates in a whole new way,” he said. “I’ve had to restack priorities. It’s placed a new order in my life.”