Journey of hope: Brookings-area man seeks to regain independence after tree-cutting incident

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Editor's note: This story was corrected at 2:39 p.m. Monday (12-04-23) to reflect an accurate fundraising goal and how much has been raised so far.

BROOKINGS — July 1, 2022. Jerry Runge was cutting down a “ kind of stubborn tree” in the front yard of his acreage about 6 miles north of Brookings. He was walking away from the tree and, wearing hearing protection, he couldn’t hear what happened when the tree came down.

“It hit me in the back and knocked me down. It knocked me out for a few seconds and when I came too, I just yelled, ’Call 911.’” His wife Rachel had already done that.

Local first responders arrived and Runge was taken to the emergency room of the Brookings Health System. It was not staffed or equipped to treat such a severe injury, which led to losing the use of his legs. He was stabilized and airlifted to Avera in Sioux Falls and underwent surgery on July 2.

He was hospitalized for almost two weeks, after which he did about two months of  rehabilitation therapy at Avera. But he wanted to do more.

He went to the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Associates clinic in Golden Valley, Minnesota, for about a month. He left there and returned home on Oct. 15.

“I started to do little things around the house: cleaning, vacuuming, emptying the dishwasher, just simple things,” Runge said. He also did some outpatient rehab at Sanford here and his therapist got him passes to the South Dakota State University Wellness Center.

“I was going there about twice a week to work on building my strength up and trying to get some confidence back,” he explained. “My confidence level was really low at the time, because I was very new to a wheelchair. I was also new in public. That helped me, being around people again.”

One thought that occupied his mind over the winter was how to get back to motorcycle riding, which he had enjoyed over the years. His solution: The purchase of a Harley Davidson trike (motorcycle) from a man who had a disability.

“I bought that in May, so I’ve been riding trike all summer,” Runge explained. He added, “Just to get some of my legs back; and I really enjoyed that.” Meanwhile, Rachel had been investigating the availability of clinical trials for injuries such as Jerry’s.

No, no, no, too fresh

“I went on to clinicaltrials.gov, really right after he got hurt,” she explained. “Starting to see if there was something other than just being OK — not that we’re not OK with this but there had to be more.

“Of course all the clinical trials that were happening at that time, your injury had to be older: greater than six months, greater than a year. But I kept applying, just in case.

“Everybody was like, ‘We’ll put you on our list.’ So I kept applying, probably applied to 60 to 70 different studies. Half to maybe a quarter of them (said) ‘No, no, no,’ and all that.

“Until I had sent one to Duke (University School of Medicine, in Durham, North Carolina) and they said, ‘No, he’s too fresh.’ — That sounds like a terrible thing, but. — ‘He’s too new; reach back out to us in a year.’ I kind of forgot about it, because I had applied for so many more.” However, “shortly thereafter,” Rachel reached out again and things started happening.

In October 2023, Rachel sent Duke an email that led to submission of documents addressing Jerry’s injury and all that had transpired in its aftermath. That led to a phone call and an in-person visit to Duke by Jerry and Rachel in November.

Come January 2024, they will return to Duke and following surgical implantation of electrodes, the clinical trial will begin. A major hope is that one outcome of whatever procedures are done is relief of the pain Jerry has lived with since the injury.

’15 to 20 seconds of pure agony’

“Just getting rid of the nerve pain, that’s what’s really high in our wishes,” Rachel said.

“It would be a blessing,” Jerry added. “I take medication and it helps,” he explained, of his unrelenting battle with pain. “It doesn’t take it away, but it helps. Some days it’s not so bad, but other days I just scream because it’s about 15 to 20 seconds of just pure agony, pain.” It’s in his hips, “where the start of feeling goes away.”

The Runges leave Brookings and will arrive at Duke on Jan. 21. Jerry’s surgery to install two electrodes will be done on Jan. 23.

“They will do a test run in hopes to see if that first electrode helps to alleviate the pain,” Rachel explained. “If it does alleviates the pain, then he continues on in the trial.” That would mean Jerry’s return to Duke five more times: at one, three, six, nine and 12-month intervals.

“The longest somebody has been in this trial is nine months,” Rachel explained. “So far everyone who has been in it has seen some sort of positive results. What we think is positive may be mediocre to somebody else.”

She added that in about 96 percent of the people who had the electrodes put in “the nerve pain went away.”

Looking at what could be an ultimate best-case scenario, Rachel said: “The big end goal would be for paraplegics to be able to walk. … They are so close to being able to figure this out.”

Of course, end results such as that above would be worth the cost. While the actual costs of such clinical trials are borne by agencies in both the public and private sectors — such as the federal government, insurance, and medical equipment manufacturers — some sizeable incidental expenses are borne by the participants themselves.

Incidental expenses: Transportation, lodging, food

The first visit to Duke in November demanded a four-day stay in the Durham area by the Runges. For the surgery in January, they will remain in the area for about three weeks. “They said they want me close just in case I have any problems,” Jerry explained. “I could just shoot on over there.”

Prior to his accident, Jerry had done highway maintenance for about two years for the South Dakota Department of Transportation. He presently has no job income.

Rachel is a clinical pathologist microbiologist in the Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory at SDSU.

A Go Fund Me page has been established to help cover the “incidental expenses” tied to Jerry’s clinical trial. Initially set for $15,000, it has to date raised $7,290. However, additional clinical trial visits to Duke would mean additional incidental expenses.

Meanwhile, Jerry and Rachel continue to do all they can to improve his quality of life. That is a big hope for their trial at Duke.

His philosophical approach remains simple: “Get strong. The stronger you are, the easier it is to move: transferring over to different seats in cars. That was probably my biggest issue, the first four to six months. Just getting stronger, then everything else is easy.”

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.