PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- After an accident in 2020 that changed his life forever, Ron James is starting a new chapter with help from family and friends.
James served in the United States Air Force from 1984 through 1989. After his accident left him a quadraplegic, he is hoping to rebuild his life with a handicapped accessible home. James and his wife Kory have three adult children and a 16-year old daughter Nikki.
While insurance paid for some of the bills, the accident left him unable to work. “I’m just living off disability and it’s tough,” he said. “We’ve learned to live a completely different lifestyle because we have to. In order to get this house so we can all be together, we are going to need some help.”
James said they put 10% down on the materials for the project before prices went up. “Bruce’s Contracting donated the slab and Kelly Elsner Well Drilling is donating the well, and Executive Interiors is donating my handicapped shower,” he said. “These are all friends I know from FaithBridge Church.”
He said other community members have helped, too. “At the right time we’ll get donations,” he said. “Someone will send us a letter saying they’re praying for us and would like to help us out and send a check.”
After his military service, James worked in construction.
The accident happened when he was driving to work the morning of March 19, 2020.
“I was only going about 20 miles an hour because it was drizzly and sleety,” he said. “I was coming up a hill and could see there was a little bit of slush built up on the road. I let my foot off the gas and as soon as I did, the back end of my truck let loose. It happened so quickly. I didn’t have time to do anything. I went into the ditch and flipped.”
James said he remained conscious and felt the truck crushing him.
“I thought I’d shattered my shoulder because it was so painful,” he said. “I didn’t realize at first that I was paralyzed. I was upside down and thought I would choke to death on my seatbelt because it was cinched up so tight against my throat. I heard a man’s voice asking if there was anything he could do for me. I asked him if he had a knife to cut the shoulder harness loose. He said ‘As a matter of fact I do. I just sharpened it last night.’ Then he cut it loose.
“Not long after, a woman who was an emergency room nurse on her way to St. Joseph’s Hospital stopped. She asked me if I could help her get me out of the vehicle. That’s when I first realized I couldn’t feel my body. The man who came pulled me out while she held my head in place. About that time a sheriff’s deputy showed up and took over.
“The miraculous thing is that we cannot find anybody who knows who the man on the scene was. We put thank-yous in the Park Rapids paper and the Detroit Lakes paper, but no one ever came forward. If he wouldn’t have been there, I probably would have choked to death.”
Life in a new body
Once he arrived at CHI St. Joseph’s Health James was transferred to Fargo Sanford for surgery to repair his vertebrae and crushed spinal cord.
“I am fused together now and have some rods in my back and a plate on the front,” he said.
He went to Craig Hospital in Colorado, one of the most renowned places in the country for helping people with spine and brain injuries, in April.
“I have control of my triceps and biceps and some of my forearms,” he said.
While at Craig Hospital, he learned techniques to do as much he could for himself in what he calls “my new body.”
“They showed me how to get from my wheelchair to a slide board, roll over and get up on my elbows so I could be a little more independent,” he said. “They taught me how to brush my teeth, and I was using a voice activated computer and a stylus that I can attach to my hand.”
Kory and Nikki were able to join him in a 2-bedroom apartment in Colorado to learn how they could assist him. James returned to Minnesota in July 2020.
“It was a whole different ball game,” he said. “Before the accident, I was helping my wife, who has an immune system disorder and has been very ill since contracting Lyme disease. I was doing the cooking, cleaning and taking care of our daughter when Kory was bed-ridden. And because Kory is so much smaller than me, it was impossible for her to be my caregiver. Because I’m her husband, in her heart she wanted to take care of me, but physically she just couldn’t do it.”
The VA authorized home health care, 24-hours a day. While he has found some care, he is still searching for someone to fill a part-time nursing position.
Dreaming of a new home
Due to her health issues, Kory is living in an apartment in Park Rapids, while Nikki is able to stay with him at his mother’s. His hope is they will all be able to be together as a family in a new home.
“I’m in my mother LaMae’s 11- by 12-foot dining room, which we have converted to a hospital room-like setting,” he said. “There is a ramp outside that my cousin put in after the accident, with a big exterior door so I can get in and out with my power chair, but except when I go outside I’m just able to be in that one room with my bed and a little space to turn around."
Todd and Renée Becker donated the lot adjacent to his mother’s property, where plans have been set into motion to build a handicap accessible house where the family can live together.
There were many medical bills and other expenses following the accident, and James said he is hoping people in the community can help him.
“We are seeking any form of help to get this project completed so we can be together again as a family,” he said. “I have been in construction most of my adult life and it’s different being on the outside looking in and not being able to do the work.”
They are planning to build a SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) house that is 36 feet by 74 feet with a garage.
“Bruce and Robin Kriens of Backus donated a concrete slab to help us get started,” he said. “Bruce was my boss at the time of the accident.”
The Veterans Administration provided hand controls that made it possible for James to drive a van. Donations from his Caring Bridge website and other people in the community paid for part of the cost of the van, but the family had to take out a loan to pay for the rest.
James uses the van to drive to medical and physical therapy appointments in Bemidji.
“It is a blessing to have that van, because it gives me a sense of independence,” he said.
Moving forward in faith
In spite of everything he has been through, James has kept focused on God and a future full of hope and purpose.
“Throughout this new journey God has been performing many miracles,” he said. “My family and I have received hundreds of cards and letters and prayers of encouragement and healing, and many cash donations to help with bills and living expenses, for which I am eternally grateful. I’ve also been helped by countless people who donated their time and energy helping my wife and daughter during my hospital stay and recovery so far. ”
One of the goals James has for the future is to help give other people with disabilities the opportunity to do things outdoors.
“I am a member of the Minnesota chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and will be getting involved with their outdoor recreation program to set up hunting, fishing and hiking excursions for people with disabilities,” he said.
How to help
An account for donations to help the family has been set up at Citizens National Bank in Park Rapids. Put “Ron James accident fund” on the check.
Volunteers to help with various phases of the project are also needed. “Drywall, cabinet installers, help putting up the structure, wainscoting, hanging doors, things like that,” he said. “The roofing and siding could be done with experienced volunteers too. Building materials are expected to arrive mid to late June.”
Anyone who would like to help can call James at 218-252-8035 and he will contact them. “I’m going to try and run the show,” he said. “I had my general contractor’s license when we lived in California and had a remodeling business out there, so I plan to be out there helping with the volunteers and lining them up.”