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Long road home

Near-fatal accident robs man of vision but not zeal for living
Vince Ulstad uses his computer to communicate
No longer able to see after a near-fatal accident. Vince Ulstad uses his computer to help communicate.
  Vince Ulstad’s life changed permanently in one shattering moment when he crested a rise on Interstate 94 and collided with a pickup whose driver was going the wrong direction.

Ulstad was heading home to Fargo after a long workday in various areas of the state. Responding to the EMS call, Kidder County Ambulance cut apart Ulstad’s three-quarter ton pickup. They extricated him and transported him to Sanford Emergency & Trauma Center. The other driver died at the scene.

Kimber Boyko, MD, Sanford Health’s trauma surgeon on call at the time, worked to keep Ulstad alive.

He had massive internal bleeding and required 55 units of blood. His kidneys shut down, so Dr. Boyko ordered dialysis. Ulstad’s lungs shut down, so Dr. Boyko placed the patient on a respirator. Ulstad
had multiple broken bones, including a pelvis broken in eight places. His face was crushed, and he lost his eyesight permanently. His wife, Jacque, later told him she would never have recognized him.

As Dr. Boyko worked on Ulstad, a nurse asked empathetically, “He’s not going to make it, is he?”

“It’s touch and go,” Dr. Boyko replied, “but I haven’t worked on him for 12 hours to let him die.”

That was June 2009.

In July 2010, Ulstad and Jacque returned to Sanford Health, bringing pizzas as thank yous, and invited the caregivers to share lunch with them.

“One of the desires I had was to get back to as many people as I could who played a critical role in my survival and recovery,” said Ulstad, who doesn’t remember the accident or his stay at Sanford Health. “I really wanted to thank them. They did such a marvelous job. My survival is nothing short of miraculous.”

David Dibbell, MD, Sanford Health's plastic surgeon, first saw Ulstad in the intensive care unit.

“His face was about as bad as you can get, but fortunately, the lower jaw was still intact so we basically used that as the attachment point,” he said.

Dr. Dibbell used a 3-D reconstruction from Ulstad’s CT scan to define the injury.He also used the 3-D reconstruction to explain the surgical procedure to Jacque. Then, he and an oral surgeon spent five hours surgically restoring Ulstad’s face. Although he can’t see himself, Ulstad said everyone keeps telling him he looks the same as he did before the accident. Jacque has told him she can’t see any indications that anything ever happened to his face.

“Even though Vince, unfortunately, is blind, given the magnitude of his injury, the fact that he’s walking and enjoying life with his family again is a real tribute to the care he received here
  Dr. Kimber Boyko
Kimber Boyko, MD

General surgery

Dr. David Dibbell
David Dibbell, MD
Plastic surgery
at Sanford Health,” Dr. Dibbell said. “I think it also shows that we can take care of very complicated, very severe injuries and do it well in our Level Two trauma center.”

The Ulstads received a lot of emotional support from friends and relatives. Jacque recorded nearly 600 visitors during Vince’s hospitalization in Bismarck and then in Fargo, where Ulstad continued rehabilitation. Six months after the accident, Ulstad was discharged to go home.

“I had always been healthy and guess I took good health and caregivers for granted,” Ulstad said. “But there’s not an individual who has cared for me that has been anything less than outstanding. When Jacque and I went back to Sanford Health, I had a whole different attitude of respect and appreciation for those doctors and nurses.”

Faith in God has helped Ulstad cope. He focuses on the positive outcomes. Amazingly, he had no internal organ damage. He has learned to walk again. North Dakota Vision Services and the School for the Blind have helped him learn Braille and how to live productively without sight. Because the accident happened on his way home from work, North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance covered the majority of his medical care and rehabilitation, and he has a good long-term disability policy.

Using a new computer, Ulstad is able to communicate better with the outside world and appreciates the doors it has opened to staying in touch with friends and family. Specialized software reads aloud everything that appears on his monitor. Ulstad continues to work at learning to operate the computer using keystrokes and keyboard commands rather than the traditional point-and-click mouse.

“It’s been quite a year for us and it’s certainly not been without its ups and downs, but I can honestly say I have never wished I had died that night,” Ulstad said. “I am grateful for all the good things that have happened and all the people that helped me, from the doctors and nurses in the hospital to all our friends and family members who helped lift my spirits and encouraged me along the way.”

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