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My Life, My Story by Todd

My Life, My Story graphic with Army seal and Minneapolis VA logo over a tan background

"My first step was one inch. It was one step to one more step."

When Veterans share their stories through the My Life, My Story project we build stronger connections between Veterans and their health care teams. We'd like to thank all the Veterans who have shared their stories so far and for sharing their stories with you.

My Life, My Story believes that stories heal, teach and are powerful. You have a story that we want to hear, contact Casey Gunderson at 612-629-7618.

Todd's My Life, My Story

When I was asked what I would want my medical team to know, I said, “One word. Listen.” Sometimes they are not “hearing” what you are telling them. “Listen” and “hear” what the patient is saying. I have always been a self-advocate. Whenever they say what is going on - or a medical word, I have them write it down. I research it. I research every day about spinal cord and new developments. I speak frankly. I call bullshit to the doctors right to their face. I speak to them in their terms medically as a research guy - not by “I feel this.” The research helps me in the long run.

My childhood in rural Wisconsin was great. My dad taught me it is very important to do the best you can in whatever you choose to do. I thought serving my country would be an awesome experience, and I get to travel.

I wanted something adventurous, unique, and challenging. The military had 19 Delta which was a Cavalry Scout. It is their job is to go behind enemy lines and be the eyes and the ears of the Army so they can make their battle plans. I saw it as an adventure. I exceled in basic training and was chosen for the Excellence of Armor program. My first tour was in Germany as a Scout. I got Airborne after that assignment. At Fort Bragg I went to jump school and became a paratrooper. I spent 12 years at Fort Bragg and participated in a lot of elite training. I was the Senior Scout and Troop Navigator in Desert Storm. There’s a bond in combat that you will never have with someone else. In combat you depend on those other people as much as they do you.

I served 22 years until my injuries forced me to leave. I had 373 jumps. Every jump could be an injury. I loved it. I am an adrenaline junkie. The more leaps you do, the more combined they are technically, intelligently, and physically. Even through everything that I thought were the hardest things I went through they were nothing compared to my recovery from my injuries.

I got assigned Recruiting Duty in Wisconsin 30 miles from my mom. She had breast cancer. As a re-enlistment incentive at 19 years, I got to go to college full time for a year. I had been going to college part time working toward a nursing degree. I wanted to give back to saving or helping people. My girlfriend was in nursing school, too.

I was stopped at the stop sign to the freeway. There was a big explosion. My car spun into the middle of the freeway. A full-size, Dodge pickup truck hit me at over 100 miles an hour. No one was seriously injured. I moved my passengers into the ditch.  When I got out of the car after moving it, the guy who hit me was fleeing the scene. He hit me at an estimated 45 miles an hour. My head and upper body got stuck in the passenger wheel well with the tire. He dragged me for 80 feet. When he swerved, I came out of the wheel well. Then the back tire ran over me. My injuries were too serious to go to the closest hospital. They couldn't wait for Life Flight that was 45 miles away. They went to the hospital 30 miles away. My skull was fractured in four places. I was a bloody mess. I coded for 2 minutes in the ambulance. Life Flight picked me up and took me to St. Mary’s in Duluth. I coded again on Life Flight. In the first 2 weeks, I coded five more times. My level of injury was at C1. Six months prior I had been training for my first bodybuilding competition. I was 215 pounds and 8 percent body fat. I was muscular. The doctors explained that is what kept my head on. Medically I was internally decapitated. I broke my collarbone and ribs, lacerated my spleen, broke my face on the right side, cut my ear off, tore almost everything in my knee, and broke numerous bones in my ankle. They didn't expect me to make it 3 months. That was 14 1/2 years ago - April 1, 2005. I was 100% paralyzed. The trauma caused a stroke. When I was finally able to blink, I communicated by using a board with the alphabet and numbers. They would point until I got to a letter I wanted, and I would blink twice. I went from being a physical specimen doing bodybuilding competition, about to graduate from nursing school, and then waking up almost two months later. The hardest part was when they first showed me myself in the mirror. I didn't recognize myself. I was down to 137 pounds, and my eyes looked like I was a prisoner of war.

They said, “You might get some usable function back, but you will never walk again.” Because my spinal cord wasn’t severed, I’m an incomplete quad. It was stretched 1 ½ inches. I am a quad because of the damage from the stretching, and the fractured bone in my spine caused more damage. 

When I was in the coma, I had a vision. It was told to me by my family, the doctors, and the therapists. I'm giving a third person account of what happened during that time. The only thing that I remember during that whole time until I regained consciousness was just being warm and of comfort. In my vision was I was in a totally lighted area that was bright but not blinding. I couldn't see any definition of anything. It felt like I was in a cloud like when I used to jump. I was looking down at myself at the body I had before the accident. There was a lone, totally white figure. I could see a high bonnet but no face. She was telling me she was there. It was comforting. I remember a woman taking care of me. I could hear her talking, but I couldn't say anything back. She would leave, and I would feel like I was alone but not afraid. I was just waiting – and waiting. Three visions consumed my brain the whole time until I heard my mom's voice. When they told me I would never walk, quite frankly, that pissed me off. In my vision the voice told me, “You will be alright. You will walk again if you believe that you can. You have to put the work into it.”  

My girlfriend became my wife. She was in the car behind me and saw the accident. After I recovered, I volunteered at the NSICU unit that I was at initially. I volunteered in the waiting room with the family. It was like I was giving back because I had been where their son was. That was very gratifying. Not to brag, but I ended up getting the Presidential Volunteer Award. 

My first step was 1 inch. It was one step to one more step. It was very painful the whole time. I kept walking and walking. I never doubted it. I went from walking almost 1400 feet to total fatigue, barely being able to stand, and not being able to transfer from my bed to my chair. They told me, “You need to get to the VA in Minneapolis for therapy and recovery.” The first time I was here I was the first patient in the Spinal Cord Unit here because my health had declined. That's why I returned and I'm here now. This is by far the best SCI I've been to. 

One year to the date of my accident, I was in Snowmass, Colorado participating in a PVO winter sports clinic. I went downhill skiing on a mono ski, went scuba diving in the pool, and climbed a 40-foot rock wall with one hand using a pulley system.

You can’t do hard work for just awhile. You have to do it every day.

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