Family adjusts to 'new normal' after vehicle accident

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MARTELL, Neb. (AP) — Alex McKiernan walks with his 5-year-old daughter at his side and she asks: "Papa, can I be your cane?"

McKiernan, who uses two canes to steady himself, pauses and shifts one to his left hand.

Then he puts his right palm gently on Nina's brown-haired head — she's about as tall as a cane — and they walk together to the house.

It's a simple, loving gesture, and it epitomizes McKiernan's life since he suffered a spinal cord injury in a traffic accident on Jan 7, 2014. He relies on family, friends and others every day, and he is very grateful for the help.

"The support we had from the community allowed me to focus on therapy," he says, sitting at a picnic table on the 113-acre farm near Martell where the family grows chemical-free vegetables, the Lincoln Journal Star ( ) reported.

After the accident, friends, neighbors, fellow firefighters, area farmers and strangers signed up through a website to help. They cared for livestock, did the chores, delivered meals, watched Nina and her sisters Roisin and Fiona, 2, and raised "tens of thousands of dollars."

"I didn't have to get an office job to cover our expenses," McKiernan says. "I was able to focus on therapy. My job became therapy."

He was stopped for a light at U.S. 77 and Saltillo Road when a van slammed into the rear of his 1999 Subaru Impreza — and his life changed in a tenth of a second.

He doesn't remember the accident, but he does remember the first two weeks at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, where he struggled to feel something in his legs.

Doctors told him he suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury to his T11 vertebra, meaning the damage to his spinal cord was not absolute. People with such injuries can regain some sensory functions. But for two weeks after the accident, McKiernan was paralyzed from the waist down.

And then he wiggled a toe.

It's spring planting time at Robinette Farms and Alex McKiernan's wife, Chloe Diegel, and three hired apprentices are out in the fields and greenhouses.

McKiernan, 35, would like to join them, but his leg muscles are still weak and he falls regularly.

"I love working. I love being physically active. ... I want to work. It's hard to sit and watch," said McKiernan, who uses two tripod canes or a wheelchair. "I can help out on a project but I can't be in the field day-to-day. I don't know if I will be able to do that ever again."

He does office work and plans, spends a lot of time with his girls, and goes to therapy twice a week. He also maintains farm equipment, and when the fields need cultivating, he drives a small 1950s-era Allis-Chalmers Model G that's been converted to run on electricity. For mowing and other jobs, he uses a 2002 John Deere equipped with hand controls.

"It's unlikely I will have a full recovery based on what doctors have told me. That doesn't mean I'm not trying. That doesn't mean I've given up," he said

McKiernan had played soccer in college, climbed trees as an arborist and enjoyed rock climbing.

He can't play soccer or climb trees anymore, but he recently took a shot at rock climbing at Yosemite National Park in California.

With the help of two old climbing buddies, he attempted to climb a 1,200-foot-high face of the Washington Column, a natural rock formation between Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.

He decided to give it a try after reading "Climbing Back: Story of Yosemite's Incredible Paraplegic Ranger Who Climbed El Capitan" by Mark Wellman and John Flinn.

McKiernan urged Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital to bring Wellman to Lincoln, where he gave an inspirational presentation and last summer held an adaptive climbing course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"I picked his brain for five days about climbing," McKiernan said.

Then he spent a couple of months practicing.

Using specialized gear, he and his friends set out for the base of the column on Easter weekend. McKiernan struggled, and a trip through a boulder field that normally would take an hour turned into a 5-hour ordeal. But he made it to the base.

The trio spent three days and two nights on the column, sleeping in hammocks attached to the granite face. They decided to descend after making it three-quarters of the way, and while they were disappointed they learned a lot about climbing systems, including one that allowed McKiernan to lead, and how to work together as a team.

"It was great!" McKiernan said. "The moment I hit the ground, one of my buddies brought me my canes — that was a bummer."

The climbers plan to return to Yosemite in October.

"I don't dwell on my disability, but it's always there," McKiernan said. "But I spend a lot of time trying to improve it. On the wall, I don't think about it. I think about climbing. It's super liberating.

Diegel manhandles a gas-powered tiller in the new greenhouse, getting the soil ready for plants.

"Well, last year was definitely a blur," she said. "It was a lost year.

Sometimes, it just feels like it didn't happen. Obviously, the focus had to be on Alex and his recovery. That's where everybody's energy was."

Her husband spent two months in intensive therapy at Madonna so he wasn't at home except for special visits. The family sent its beloved Belgian draft horses, Duchess and Duke, to a neighbor's place and sold or slaughtered their pigs and lambs. Their enthusiasm for farming waned, and they cut their growing operation by half.

This year it's different.

"Alex and I have energy both for our family and the farm," Diegel said. "I'm excited about this year. The weight of uncertainty of all that trauma has been lifted. Humans quickly adjust to whatever the new normal is — that's what we do."

The mangled Subaru sits under a tree on the farm.

The impact pushed the rear bumper about 18 inches from McKiernan's seat, now twisted like a piece of tin.

The driver's seat acted as a shield and kept the van driven by Bradley Boeckman of Lincoln from hitting his body. In September, a judge fined Boeckman $100 for careless driving.

McKiernan is not angry.

"I don't think he meant to do it. From what I understand, he wasn't under the influence — accidents happen. He just wasn't paying attention."

McKiernan's attorney did not want the car destroyed until they settled the insurance claim, so it sits under the tree.

"It doesn't scare me," McKiernan says, noting that he's seen worse smash-ups as a member of the Southwest Rural Fire Department. "In some ways, it's healthy to not be scared of it. It helps me process things a little bit."

Always goal-oriented and hard-working, he says he's applied those personal traits to recovery.

"My goal is to get rid of the canes and walk independently, but every physical goal I've set so far I've failed," he says matter-of-factly.

"I've always been able to set a physical goal and work toward it and gauge my progress. ... This spinal cord injury, it doesn't work that way."


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Lincoln Journal Star

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