On the road to recovery
OCHEYEDAN, Iowa -- Seven months after a motor vehicle accident left Melvin Loeschen paralyzed from the waist down, the Ocheyedan man is intent on getting back a part of the lifestyle he lost.
On Aug. 23, 2005, Loeschen was on his way home when he drifted off to sleep and his pickup truck veered off a blacktop county road east of Bigelow.
"I woke up and was heading for the ditch," recalled Loeschen earlier this week, sitting in a hospital bed that fills a portion of his living room. The truck landed on its wheels in the ditch -- it didn't roll, it didn't hit anything. In fact, the pickup survived without a scratch.
Loeschen, on the other hand, wasn't as lucky.
The sheer impact of the pickup landing in the ditch crushed one of the vertebrae in his back.
"My whole body went down," said Loeschen. "I suppose that's how I broke my back."
He was found, he estimated, within 10 minutes of the crash -- although what happened after that is a bit fuzzy.
Loeschen was taken via ambulance to Worthington Regional Hospital, and then on to Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he remained for nearly two months. The day after the crash, doctors at Sioux Valley performed surgery on Loeschen to remove bone fragments from the crushed L-1 vertebrae, and also to insert two steel rods along Loeschen's spine, according to his son, Steve Loeschen.
"The L-1 vertebrae, that's what broke the liquid sack around his spinal cord," Steve said. "It bruised the spinal cord, (which) gave the paralyzation. Nothing was severed."
Doctors weren't optimistic about Loeschen's recovery, said his wife, Helen, who kept a journal throughout his hospital stay.
"The doc didn't know if he'd walk again -- he gave us a very bleak story," she read from a journal entry dated Aug. 24.
For Loeschen, the idea of never walking again was overwhelming.
"I didn't feel very good about it," he said, adding that he still has hopes of walking someday.
That positive attitude is what Steve and his brother, Rick Loeschen, hope to build on. The men visit their dad every day to perform physical therapy on his legs.
"A lot has to do with willpower," Steve said. "That was the hope we built on. I don't know about walking normal, but at least if we can get him to stand, to walk along the counter or in a sideways motion (that will help)."
Getting their dad to stand, however, was going to take more than simply doing exercises with his legs. They needed something that would allow him to stand up, so he could build up the leg muscles that had deteriorated during his hospital stay.
During those long days by his father's side in the hospital, Steve, a full-time farmer, wasn't just making small talk to cheer up his dad. He was studying -- studying the way physical therapists worked with his dad, and studying the equipment they used to aid in his therapy.
Loeschen was released from Worthington Regional Hospital on Christmas Day, and a week later, Steve went to work on building a stand for his father.
"I came up with the idea at the hospital," Steve said. "I figured that was something pretty critical to assist dad when we got him home."
It took Steve about a month to make the stand, using trial and error and some of the ideas he garnered from the stands used in the hospital. His prior experience building equipment from scratch for the local elevator also came in handy.
When the stand was complete, Steve had his dad's physical therapist, Todd Helmers, inspect it for safety and design.
Today, Loeschen can stand for about half an hour at a time -- double the 10 to 15 minutes that he started at, Steve said.
"We've been trying to increase a few more minutes or do it more than once a day," Steve said. "He can stand there pretty good for about a half hour. He can go longer, but he does feel a little more fatigue if he stands for too long."
As the weeks go by, Steve said they continue to see a little improvement.
"Everything is progress," he added.
Challenge to adapt
Loeschen celebrated his 78th birthday on the second floor of Worthington Regional Hospital on Dec. 7. Once a spry man who enjoyed part-time road work, a hobby of building scale-model Caterpillar equipment out of wood, and traveling with his wife, Loeschen gets out of the house these days only for doctor appointments. His wood shop is eerily quiet.
Working with the wood, Helen said, is the thing her husband misses the most -- that, and being able to get up and go somewhere whenever they want.
"The nurses told him he could wash dishes, wash clothes and fold clothes, but I haven't seen him do any of that yet," Helen said with a laugh.
Before the family could bring Loeschen home, several changes needed to be made inside their house. Helen's sons, Rod and David Noble, along with her son-in-law, Gary Pickering, and grandson, Rick Pickering, helped convert the bathroom in their attached, heated garage into a handicap-accessible shower and built a wheelchair ramp leading from the house through the entryway and into the garage.
The garage is where Loeschen does most of his daily exercises, having the space to move around with ease on the cement floor.
Nurses from Osceola County Home Health visit the home three times per week, checking on the progress of Loeschen's skin ulcer, changing his catheter and monitoring his overall health. They also assist Helen, who had quadruple bypass surgery last April, with some of the light housework.
"They do a great job of assisting people in need for cleaning and everything," Steve said.
Steve also credited the family's pastors, family and friends for all they have done since his dad's accident.
"The faith was really great and the support from the pastors and the people -- that was great," he said.