Moving Mountains: Vern Ward’s Recovery
Winter on the ranch seems to just blend one day into another. The same chores and routine every day, with little to break up the rhythm. For one family, though, that rhythm galloped out of control in a few moments. On February 12, 2017, Vern and Laurie Ward and their daughters were going to take some horses to a nearby barn to ride and do some roping. Vern and youngest daughter Mataya, 11, were ready before everyone else and decided to go finish up some chores before leaving.
No one knows what happened, but Mataya found her dad on the barn floor. He had a halter in his hand and the stall door nearby was open and a horse was still in the stall. Nearby, the skidloader was idling. Mataya ran to the house and told her mom, Laurie, that her dad wasn’t moving. Laurie found Vern unconscious, with a one inch hole in his temple.
An ambulance rushed him to the nearest hospital and he seized on the way. He was stabilized and quickly sent on to Rapid City Regional Hospital. He underwent a four to five hour surgery that night and 25 pieces of bone and some brain fragments were removed. Doctors were concerned about infection because the injury occurred in the dirty environment of a livestock barn.
However, the hole in Vern’s skull probably saved his life because it allowed room for his brain to swell. He remained in ICU for 10 days. His family and many friends stayed by his bedside, but it was a difficult time for all. “I didn’t take any pictures the first few days because we just didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Laurie.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Ward girls were holding down the fort with the help of family and friends. Neighbors helped with chores, fed cows, took care of the day to day work, and did whatever was needed at the moment. The older girls, Fehrin, 21 and KeAnna 20, are in college, and Sierra, 17, and Mataya 11, go to school in Belle Fourche. They kept their dad company when they could and Laurie stayed at his side.
At the end of his ICU stay in Rapid City, Laurie was told that there was an opening at Craig Institute in Colorado and that Vern needed to go immediately. She was told to prepare for a three to four month stay.
“He was like a toddler at first. He couldn’t comprehend instructions. The part of his brain that was injured usually controls the personality, but, Vern’s brain is backwards from that and it affected his comprehension instead. I had been warned that his personality might be different, but that didn’t happen,” says Laurie.
Craig Institute was no place for leisurely convalescing as Vern’s “job” was to work five days a week, eight hours a day, on regaining his memory and comprehension. Vern says, “Every appointment I had, every doctor I met with, knew exactly where I was in my therapy. They worked me, but they only pushed me as hard as they knew I could take it. You just have to trust them to do their job. They know their business. It’s an amazing place there. There are over 900 people working just in the brain injury part of it alone.”
Laurie had prepared for three to four months, as instructed, but in only 23 days, on March 16, Vern returned home, having “fast tracked” his rehabilitation process. Laurie says, “The doctors credited his quick recovery to his physical condition. He was in excellent health, doesn’t drink, and is fit. He’s a walking miracle, and one of his neuropsychologists said that he thought it was divine intervention.”
The second part of Vern’s miracle was that the damaged optic nerve in his eye recovered and he has full vision. According to doctors, they didn’t hold out much hope for that.
Upon his return home, Vern overdid it, which didn’t surprise Laurie. “He was missing his comprehension and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go back to doing what he usually did. He had to learn his new normal. He did therapy twice a week for another three weeks and then was sent home to heal.”
The Wards’ faith is a big part of their lives and the prayers and support of thousands of people have not been taken lightly by the family. Vern says, “The word that comes to mind is HUMBLING. I received over 300 cards and it made me think about what I had done in my life to deserve that. It makes me want to make a difference every day and to do for others even more. When someone is in need, I want to pay it forward.”
The two older girls came home for the summer and between them, their sisters and Laurie, they managed to get the hay put up, cows out to pasture, and horses tended to. Laurie says, “It’s been fun watching the girls step up and take over so much of the work around here. We’d be gone and they’d just do what needed to be done.”
“Vern is about 90 percent back to normal. He tires a little easier, but he remembers things well with only the occasional mixing up of names or something,” says Laurie. “He does his brain games every day on the computer to help his memory. He hasn’t been released yet to drive or work part time and it may be spring before he can ride, but that will all be determined with testing. It will happen, we just don’t know when.”
“This experience has taught us that there’s so much more to life than just work. It’s been a growing experience for all of us,” says Laurie.
Vern’s advice for anyone else going through what he’s experienced is to keep the faith. “Trust in God and trust in the people who are trying to help you.”
“The foundation of your faith and your community is everything. The way this community banded together to help us and to help others is the hands of God at work. The community is bigger than just where we live too,” states Vern, adding “What this community did to help us, both with work and fundraisers and stuff, it just is overwhelming. We are so grateful to everyone.”
Laurie says “When we were still in the hospital with so much unknown, someone gave me the quote: You have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved. It’s been a crazy summer, but now, looking back, I wouldn’t trade it. It strengthened our faith, our family, and made us appreciate life and all the little things more.”
Update, Sept. 15
In September, Vern had his driving test, which was a three hour test of his reaction time, knowledge and driving abilities and he passed with flying colors. He also had a doctor appointment and he has been released to return to normal activities slowly, which for Vern, probably won’t be too slow. He was also cleared to return to work part time and to ride broke and gentle horses. He began breakaway roping some slow calves on a very well broke horse, so he didn’t break any rules. Laurie said, “Life as we knew it is returning and it’s better than ever!”