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Michael Hart, Grand Forks, lost his left leg when he was struck by a vehicle as he was retrieving an item that had fallen out of the back of his pickup on DeMers Ave. last October. Herald photo by John Stennes.

'Everything has changed': Grand Forks crash victim deals with amputated leg

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These are tough days for Michael Hart.

"What everybody takes for granted: brushing your teeth, going to the bathroom, taking showers, getting dressed, making toast -- everything has changed," he said.

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Hart, 37, is coping with the loss of his left leg, which was amputated just below the knee after he was hit by an alleged drunk driver this fall in Grand Forks.

What's getting him through, he said, is support from relatives, friends and strangers. The generosity shown at a benefit for him earlier this month overwhelmed him, he said.

"I'm not going to sit and wallow, especially after what the community did," he said. "Now I, you know, have to fight."

Hart has already done lots of fighting.

The crash shattered his leg, caused significant blood loss and left him with two collapsed lungs. "Losing pretty much all your blood in your body ... you're pretty close to teetering on the death line," he said.

After the collision, he was flown to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis where doctors amputated his leg. He spent nine days there before he came home to Grand Forks.

Less than a week later, Hart went back to HCMC for a follow-up visit, and doctors detected an infection in his leg. Hart was re-admitted to the hospital and prescribed antibiotics. In time, his body overcame the infection, and he was sent home Nov. 29.

All told, Hart had 15 surgeries on his leg.

"He's amazed me," said his mother, Sheila. "I just can't imagine what it's like wandering around with half your leg. Until you walk in those shoes, you don't experience it."

Hart, who was working various jobs before the crash, has been told to rest. But when he has to, he gets around on crutches he's rigged with snow cleats.

He plans to see a pain-management specialist to help him deal with the new strains on his body. "The end of the day is the worst. It's when I'm tired, my armpits hurt, and all the weight goes on my right leg now," he said.

The phantom pains of a missing limb also nag him. "It keeps you up at night," he said. "I'm having it right now."

A prosthesis is in his future, but he won't be able to wear one until his leg heals and that could take six months, he said.

Meanwhile, he's confronting the aggravations of living with an amputated leg.

"Before I could run, you know, to my phone and get it in two rings. Now it's a missed call every time," he said, laughing. "Those are the things that are getting in my head."

Hart said he's going to meet with psychologists to talk about these problems.

"I'm not depressed," he said. "I'm frustrated."

'Hard to describe'

About 7:40 p.m. Oct. 17, Hart was driving west on DeMers Avenue with his 6-year-old son and 8-month-old stepdaughter.

In the bed of his compact Chevy pickup, Hart had a highchair he'd gotten from his parents' home. Just west of Columbia Road, the chair fell out.

"I wasn't able to lie it down," he said, referring to the chair. "I had to stand it upright. The wind got underneath the tray and lifted it out, and it actually landed on the sidewalk."

Hart stopped in the right lane to retrieve the chair. He said his truck was illuminated by a street lamp. He said he did not have his hazard lights on, but his parking brake was on, which brightened his brake lights.

He grabbed the chair, put it back in the bed, and as he was turning to walk toward his door, he was struck by a car.

"It's so hard to describe how fast it happened and how hard I was hit," he said. "It was like, SMACK! Just an amazing amount of energy."

The car, a Ford Taurus traveling west in the right lane, momentarily pinned Hart against the tailgate of his truck, police reported. Hart said the impact sent the Taurus backward and set off the car's airbags. His kids, who were buckled up inside the truck, were not hurt.

With a boost of adrenalin, Hart held onto his truck and told his son to look out for his little sister. He estimates he kept himself up for about six minutes before falling onto the grass alongside the road.

"That's basically when I looked up to the sky and started, honestly, to make my peace with God. Because to me, I honestly didn't think I was going to make it," he said.

Authorities said the woman driving the Taurus, 52-year-old Karen Vatnsdal, had a blood-alcohol level of .22 percent. The legal limit in North Dakota is .08 percent. Her passenger, Justin Teague, 33, had also been drinking, police said.

Hart said Teague got on top of him and started hitting him after the collision. "His intentions weren't to hurt me but to try to keep me alive," Hart said. "It was good intentions but done poorly."

Another man, an emergency-room nurse who happened to be driving by, stopped to help Hart. The nurse and Teague tussled before the nurse was able to force Teague off Hart and care for him, court documents say.

"He's an angel to me for getting that guy off of me," Hart said. "I don't know how to thank him."

Teague is charged with two counts of assault and two counts of terrorizing for allegedly threatening to kill the nurse as well as police officers. Vatnsdal is charged with drunken driving and aggravated assault. Teague and Vatnsdal, both from Grand Forks, have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys have not returned messages left by the Herald.

'Out of thin air'

Hart said there was little traffic on the road before the crash. He said he had checked for cars and had not seen or heard the Taurus. "It was like they came out of thin air," he said.

The Taurus did not leave skid marks at the scene, Hart said, suggesting the driver did not brake before the collision. "She was going very fast, and it hurt very much," he said.

He said the crash sometimes replays itself over and over in his head; it's an episode that haunts him in his sleep. "That's why I like to lay down during the day," he said. "Nighttime is when it's really bad."

Denise Hart, the mother of Hart's son, used to aide paraplegics and quadriplegics in their daily lives. Those experiences, she said, prepared her for helping Hart with the challenges he now faces.

"It's been difficult adjusting, definitely," she said. "It's a combination of the physical and the mental and the emotional, as well."

Hart said many questions he had about his future have been answered in conversations with other amputees. "Now I know what's coming down the road, it's less scary," he said.

Reach Ingersoll him at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to aingersoll@gfherald.com.

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