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Fishing for a New Beginning

Casting a line, hugging his wife, lifting his kids, driving his semi…

For Michael Jirak, that was life a year ago -- and with two arms, it was easy.

Today sweat drips from his face as he completes a set of shoulder-strengthening exercises at outpatient Sanford Rehabilitation. Right arm fully extended, he barely has a stump where the left arm used to be. He grimaces through one more repetition.

“You could say I’m a little bit driven,” he says with a grin.

“A little???” laughs Michele Stroh, Sanford occupational therapist.

She explains: “This guy’s done more in two months than most people do in six or eight. Nothing’s going to stop him.”

Forever changed

The accident happened last fall. Michael, a truck driver from Breckenridge, Minn., was hauling milk near Christine, N.D. The tanker veered to the side and tipped, pulling the semi with it. The truck rolled twice and landed vertically in the ditch.

“I told the paramedics we couldn’t leave without my left arm, then I told them where to look,” he says. “They said that’s how they knew I was a fighter.”

Critically injured, Michael was transported by Sanford LifeFlight to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo. He received the wide-ranging care needed including left-arm amputation surgery, three weeks of hospital care, months of outpatient therapy and close collaboration with Sanford HealthCare Accessories.

“An amputation is pretty tough to deal with, but what are you going to do? It happened and you have to live with it,” he says.

Undaunted, Michael set out not just to live -- but to live fully. The timeline alone proves it: “I had my accident in November and I was ice fishing in December,” he says.

Inventing a new normal

Michael’s life before the amputation was an outdoorsman’s dream. “I was a big hunter and a huge fisherman. I absolutely refused to give those things up,” he says. “At 35, I had a lot more living left to do.”

His determination caught the attention of his brother and friends. Michael and the group spent weeks imagining and inventing various pieces of adaptive equipment to make fishing and hunting more doable for a one-armed sportsman.

“We’re hoping we might be able to help others down the road, too,” Michael says, then shows how a fishing device attaches to his prosthesis. Next he demonstrates how he ties a fisherman’s knot.

“Works like a champ,” he says. “I caught an 8-pound Northern with no problem.”

Michael’s achieved much on his own, but credits Michele and the entire rehab team, including Dr. Paul Lindquist, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, and Amy Bauman, prosthetist, for introducing him to the seemingly impossible: using both “hands.”

“At first I tried to do everything with my right hand, but in therapy I learned to use my left hook, too. Now I can wash my truck windows, do chores around the yard, just regular stuff like that,” he says. “I’m not one to sit around and do nothing.”

A boatload of possibilities

Michael looks forward to returning to his truck-driving job and his next phase of rehab will help pave the way. He’ll soon be fitted with a “myo-electric” arm -- a state-of- the-art prosthetic that will enable quicker movement with less effort. Rather than manually moving his arm, he’ll be able to move it more naturally, with impulses from the remaining muscles.

Rarely at a loss for words, even Michael pauses for a moment when he considers his progress. “I remember those first days and weeks after my accident. There was a lot of concern in the community about what I was left with -- what I’d be able to do and not do,” he says. “Well, let me tell you about all the stuff I can do. You’ll be impressed.”

And that’s no fish story.

Posted Date: August 2011