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On the road after recovery

Chuck Ehli can get out on his own again thanks to Sanford Health's  driver rehabilitation program
Chuck Ehli can get out on his own again thanks to Sanford Health's driver rehabilitation program.
  Chuck Ehli was repairing a 1988 Plymouth Voyager van two days after Christmas 1996, and he was hurrying to finish the job so the owners could leave town. Suddenly, the van started unexpectedly and pinned Ehli between the hoist and van.

In an instant, the 44-year old Dickinson mechanic was in a life-or-death situation.

"I had three breaths of air before I passed out," Ehli said. "All I thought about is my four children. I thought for sure I was dead. I don't know how they even got me out of there."

His back and spinal cord were injured, and his left side was rendered nearly useless.

"I'm thankful to be alive," Ehli said, 14 years after the accident.

He was able to walk at first, but his doctor told him he'd probably lose that ability as he got older. The doctor was right: Ehli started using a cane about a year after the accident, then a scooter, then a motorized wheelchair.

"It just slowly got worse," Ehli said. "I fell down a lot. I've gotten a lot of bruises. Floors in the house know me well."

He still drove but had difficulty getting in and out of the mini-van purchased in 2008. Finally, he gave up driving about a year ago.

"I was so bad I couldn't get out of the house or in the vehicle by myself," he said. "I had to have help, and even then, I would fall down."

The once-active man who loved working on vehicles and riding motorcycle found himself trapped at home when his wife was working.

Then, he heard about Sanford Health's driver rehabilitation program, which helps people get back behind the wheel. Sanford Health specialists helped him get an accessible van in Arizona built and designed to meet his needs. They also showed him how to drive the van and prepare for his driving test—which he passed on the first try.

Now, he drives his wheelchair out of his house, onto a ramp, into the van and right into the driver's side.

"They modified it, so I can do everything with my right hand," Ehli said.

A knob on the right side of the steering wheel has toggle switches that operate the windshield wipers, turn signals, horn and lights.
  Kor Erikson, Occupational Therapist
Kori Erikson
Occupational therapist
Rehabilitation Center
"I just push a certain button, and everything works," he said.

He is able to use the accelerator and brake with his right foot, and now he doesn't have to rely on others to get out of the house in Bismarck, where he and his wife have lived since 2004.

"I can actually go somewhere by myself now. For a couple of years, I couldn't go anywhere by myself unless I had help," Ehli said. "It just gives me freedom to come and go as I want. I don't have to worry about falling down and laying there, waiting for someone to pick me up."

Kori Erikson, a certified driver rehabilitation specialist at Sanford Health, said that the driver rehab program helps find funding sources and equipment dealers and trains patients to drive the vehicle. Specialists also evaluate people to make sure they're still safe drivers.

"You can have a lot of adaptive equipment, but if it doesn't fit the patient, it won't do any good," she said. "You can't just slap this stuff on any car and go."

Sanford Health started the program in 1994 when therapists saw the need for it.

"A lot of our patients would ask "when and how can I drive?" she said.

Sanford Health's is the only driver rehab program in central and western North Dakota.

Most of the patients have had brain injuries, arthritis, spinal cord injuries, stroke, amputations, multiple sclerosis and, increasingly, Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

The program is geared toward previously licensed drivers, such as Ehli.

"They did everything," he said, "They got me on the program, trained me to drive. It was a great program, and I'm very thankful they did it."

Click here for more information on Sanford Health’s driver rehabilitation program, or call 701.323.6153.


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