Chester farmer refuses to be defined by dirt bike accident

ADAPTIVE EQUIPMENT enables Justin Minnaert (left) of Chester to continue farming with his dad. His wife Kendra is a nurse at Sanford Health, but also helps out on the farm.

The phrase "caught in a rut" has a unique meaning for a Chester farmer whose life was radically changed last July. Normally, it means someone is stuck in a boring lifestyle.

Justin Minnaert, a champion in dirt bike racing, was always a bit of a daredevil. The rut that caught him and slammed him to the ground was a rain rut at a local track.

He and his dad were checking the track following a race at a local club. He took a jump he'd made 100 times before, but that time, he hit the rut, went down and the bike hit his back.

"I've crashed much harder. It's just where the bike hit," Minnaert said.

He knew immediately he was seriously injured because his lower body was completely numb. When his dad arrived, he didn't mince words. He said, "Go get help, I'm paralyzed."

Minnaert was airlifted to Sanford Health where his wife Kendra, a nurse who was on duty that day, met him in the emergency room. Testing over the next couple of days indicated the bike had not only injured his spine in the area of the T7 and T8 vertebrae, but had also broken ribs which punctured both lungs.

From the beginning, they realized Justin would be a paraplegic, and they were faced with a choice.

"You have two choices," Minnaert said. "You let the accident define you or you move on."

They chose to move on. After two weeks at Sanford, Minnaert was transferred to the Craig Hospital in Denver, a neurorehabilitation hospital specializing in spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. He and Kendra were there for 10 weeks.

"I think I got through rehab quicker because she knew what was going on," Minnaert said. "I had my wife with me, but I also had a nurse with me."

Kendra said that wasn't a new role for her, that even before the accident she was both a wife and a nurse. The role which has expanded since Justin's accident is her role on the farm.

Even before they were married, Justin's dad Kevin had drawn Kendra into the operation. He called on her for assistance when she didn't even know how to drive the equipment and gave her a quick tutorial. Prior to the accident, she was helping with harvests.

Now, she's one of the people Justin calls when he needs help in the field.

"I can run the equipment, but if something happens, I have to wait for Kendra or my mother to come and fix it," Minnaert said.

Often it's something he could have taken care of in just a few minutes if he had the mobility he previously enjoyed. That can be frustrating.

Minnaert doesn't glamorize or gloss over the challenges of farming as a paraplegic. He admits he has good days and bad days, days when it's hard to get out of bed.

"We all have those days," he said. He and Kendra know what helps him get through those days.

"We have the support we need and we have each other," Kendra said.

Farming helps, too. When Justin was at Craig, a single goal motivated him.

"My goal was to make it home in time for harvest," Minnaert said. While he missed the bean harvest, he was in a combine for half of the corn harvest.

"The first day I was back in the combine was the first day I felt normal," he indicated. "A lot of healing started happening that day."

A second healing experience was the fund-raiser hosted by the Chester Volunteer Fire Department. Funds raised at that event and a second one later have helped the Minnaerts to purchase adaptive equipment and to make modifications to their house.

However, the gathering is what he remembers months later.

"When we had that event and everyone was there, it was like our wedding all over again," Minnaert said, recalling how he smiled and laughed until he was shot.