A medical miracle

ROUND LAKE -- To hear of the injuries Benjamin Cunningham suffered after his truck veered off the road and landed in Lake Ocheda on Aug. 15 -- and to see him now, walking, smiling and talking about returning to school in a matter of weeks -- it's...

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Round Lake's Benjamin Cunningham holds the helmet he was required to wear following injuries sustained in a car crash Aug. 15. It was decorated with a decal sent by supporters in Cuero, Texas.

ROUND LAKE -- To hear of the injuries Benjamin Cunningham suffered after his truck veered off the road and landed in Lake Ocheda on Aug. 15 -- and to see him now, walking, smiling and talking about returning to school in a matter of weeks -- it's easy to understand why doctors are calling him a medical miracle.

He has surprised so many and impressed doctors to the point that one has asked the family's permission to tell Benjamin's story in the medical classroom. Those same doctors had told Paul and Miriam Cunningham back in August their son would likely be hospitalized until Thanksgiving.

Those doctors, however, didn't know the depths of Bucky's determination. The nickname Bucky, short for Buckwheat, was christened upon Benjamin at the age of 3 by an adoring uncle, Bruce "Spanky" Lubben. Nobles County 4-H'ers capitalized on the nickname to create and sell Bucky's Support Team T-shirts prior to the Minnesota State Fair. Benjamin was to exhibit his beef animal there after earning the trip at the Nobles County Fair.

The crash changed all that.

Benjamin had wrapped up a long week of fair preparation and fair events, spending that fateful Sunday preparing for and exhibiting in the fair's Premier Showmanship contest. The event included eight competitors -- the top showmanship winners in beef, dairy, sheep and swine -- with the top two winners earning grand-sized trophies. When it was all over, Benjamin ended up with reserve champion.


Within the hour, 4-H'ers loaded their livestock, show boxes, feed and other essentials into their trucks to return home. Benjamin, his dad and older brother Thomas had piled everything into their three trucks and left for the farm. Benjamin stayed back to say his goodbyes to fellow 4-H'ers.

He remembers leaving the fairgrounds and driving south on Nobles County 5, but he doesn't remember anything about the crash.

"He was so tired," Miriam said. "He had done the Premier Showmanship, and he'd been pushing it all week."

They think he dozed off before his truck crossed the center line, crashed through the north corner of the pedestrian bridge and landed in Lake Ocheda near the embankment just south of the bridge.

Fighting for life

After he was freed from the vehicle, 17-year-old Benjamin was transported to Sanford Medical Center Worthington, where he was stabilized before being airlifted to Sioux Falls, S.D. He was admitted to Sanford Children's Hospital and underwent immediate surgery to remove the pressure on his brain.

"It was just like a dream -- this couldn't really be happening," recalled Miriam.

The family waited through five hours of surgery and recovery, getting frequent updates from a female chaplain who had provided each of them with pebbles engraved with words like faith, hope, peace, love and praise. They were the perfect size to hold in their hands, rubbing over the words with their thumbs and sending quiet prayers for Benjamin, said Miriam.


A portion of Benjamin's skull on his right side was removed during the surgery, and the surgeries that followed were to repair bone fractures in his face. Three titanium plates were put in his right cheek alone.

"Everything from (the chest) down was fine other than cuts from glass," Miriam explained, adding that one vertebra in Benjamin's neck was fractured, and a couple of smaller fractures were also discovered.

Benjamin was kept in a drug-induced coma because of the brain injury, and on Sept. 1 doctors began weaning him off the high-powered medications.

"He was on all kinds of machines," Miriam said.

After Benjamin woke up, each day seemed to get better. They had him out of bed, walking, talking and taking part in both physical and speech therapy. He did everything that was asked of him and more, sometimes telling his nurses, "Let's get going."

He was determined to get better, to get out of the hospital and to return home to Round Lake.

"That's what's got him to where he is now -- determination," said Miriam.

"They said when I left rehab that I was supposed to hold onto the railing when I go up the steps and two days later, I was going up two steps at a time and not using the railing, just like I always used to," Benjamin said with a smile. He wrapped up his physical therapy three weeks ago and speech therapy a week ago.


Grateful for friends

Since he's returned home, Benjamin has visited the wellness center at the high school a few days a week. The high school senior seemingly disrupted the entire student body on his first appearance in the halls of Round Lake-Brewster High -- teachers and students were eager to see him and welcome him home.

"The kids were saying my name and smiling," Benjamin said. "They filled my locker with balloons and put wallpaper on (the outside) that said 'Welcome Back.'"

He hopes to return to school part-time in early December and return as a full-time student in January. Fortunately, he only needed five more credits his senior year to meet the graduation requirements.

Benjamin and his family are grateful for everyone who has stepped up to help them these last couple of months, whether they offered hugs and prayers, donated money or offered assistance in other ways. They witnessed incredible generosity from their 4-H family, Benjamin's classmates and family friends.

"We've had so much support," Miriam said, "Where do we start to thank them for what they've done?"

Benjamin has written some words to express his appreciation for everyone and he often uses them as a guideline when sending notes to his supporters.

"Live your life from your heart, share from your heart and your story will touch and heal people's souls," he said. "Thanks for being my friend, thanks for thinking of me, thanks for caring for me, thanks for praying for me and, most of all, thanks for supporting me."


Surgery and benefit

On Friday, Benjamin returned to the hospital for his sixth, and hopefully, last surgery for a little while. The procedure included installing a titanium plate in place of the missing portion of his skull, removing his tracheotomy, feeding tube, stomach tube and the wires that were put in his jaw and mouth. Benjamin will get rid of the helmet and neck collar after the work is done.

If everything goes as it should, Benjamin should be released from the hospital Sunday morning, and return to Round Lake in time for the benefit. He will eventually need to have surgery again, when doctors will reconstruct the area around his right eye. Benjamin lost sight in that eye, but has 20/20 vision in his left eye.

A benefit for the Cunningham family will be from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Round Lake-Brewster High School in Round Lake, serving pork loin sandwiches, baked beans, chips, bars and beverages. The event is sponsored by Bethel Lutheran and Grace Lutheran churches, Nobles County 4-H youth leaders and ambassadors, and the Round-Lake Brewster School District. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans will provide supplemental funding.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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