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Rutland, N.D. on road to recovery

Hal Nelson1 / 2
Rutland, N.D.2 / 2

Hal Nelson's family rushed to the Hennepin Burn Center in Minneapolis, hoping doctors were wrong when they warned that he might not make it through the night.

Four times it happened.

Once, doctors talked to the family about unplugging life support and letting Nelson die peacefully, but the family wouldn't for religious reasons.

"And because Hal's strong," said his sister, Tami Tipton.

Indeed, the 53-year-old Nelson of Rutland, N.D., pulled through every time, prompting medical staff to nickname him "The Rock."

Now, four months after an Oct. 18 propane gas explosion burned more than 60 percent of Nelson's body and destroyed his home, the state Department of Transportation worker says he never believed his life was over.

"I was so bad, I didn't know what was going on," he said by phone Thursday from his Minneapolis hospital bed. "And when I got better, everybody was telling me how much better I was, so I figured I'm going to will myself to get better and better."

Family and friends credit medical staff and Nelson's toughness for his recovery.

"You hate to see it happen to anybody," said Bruce Nord, maintenance supervisor for the DOT's Fargo district. "But, boy, he's a fighter.

He doesn't know when to say quit."

'Like a fireball'

It was about 2 p.m. on a Saturday when Nelson heard a hissing sound in his basement. He went downstairs and moved toward the noise.

"And I said, 'Oh, I better get out of here,' and that's when it happened. I knew it was something probably bad that was leaking," he said.

As he darted upstairs, the wooden steps broke beneath his feet, and he couldn't pull himself up before the home exploded.

"It was like a fireball as I was trying to get out," he said.

A neighbor heard the blast and ran inside to help Nelson escape. Nelson said the next thing he remembers is being surrounded by first responders.

His parents, Richard and Ella Lou Nelson, arrived to find their son in an ambulance. His mother said she knew from the look in his eyes that he recognized her, but he was in shock.

"They said when they took him out of the house, he walked around and he talked to people, and finally they told him he had better lay down," she said.

State Fire Marshal Ray Lambert said investigators believe a buildup of propane gas was probably sparked by the furnace, causing the blast. Because of the extensive damage, they couldn't determine how or where the gas leak occurred, he said.

Hal Nelson was airlifted to a Fargo hospital, where doctors stabilized him before putting him on an airplane to Minneapolis.

Dr. George Peltier, the burn center's director, said Nelson suffered second- and third-degree burns to 60 to 70 percent of his body.

"It was very, very bad," Peltier said. "I'm very surprised that he survived this injury."

In addition to his burns, Nelson suffered organ failure in his lungs, liver and kidneys, and his cardiovascular system was collapsing, Peltier said.

HCMC doctors struggled to support Nelson's failing organs. They supplied him with fluids, but his blood pressure kept dropping during initial surgeries to remove his burned skin, Peltier said.

"We didn't know if we'd have him or not," Nelson's mother said.

Skin grafts proved difficult as doctors took skin from donor sites on his body, allowed them to heal and re-harvested skin from the sites, he said.

About a month ago doctors became confident he would live, Peltier said.

"A lot of prayers were said - a lot of prayers," Nelson's mother said.

Strong support

Nelson's Department of Transportation co-workers look forward to the day he can return, Nord said.

They check his progress on a CaringBridge Web site each morning, and were pleased to read Nelson fed himself Wednesday for the first time since the blast.

Nelson ate Jell-O with the help of a device attached to his arm, which he can't yet hold up on his own.

Nord said Nelson is a down-to-earth, "really nice guy" who likes to play pool, cheer on the Twins and Vikings and watch high school basketball.

Nelson, who is single, rarely missed a day of work, Nord said.

"If Hal called in sick, he was sick," he said.

In fact, Nelson built up so many hours of sick leave that his co-workers haven't donated sick leave to him yet, Nord said.

In the meantime, they've held fundraisers to defray medical expenses as well as travel and lodging expenses for family members. Nelson's parents rented an apartment next to the hospital, and his three younger sisters also are frequent visitors.

Tipton, the youngest of the three, said Nelson served on the fire and ambulance crews and the park board, was secretary of his Lutheran church for 15-plus years and fixed bikes for children in town.

Nelson was able to stand with assistance on Feb. 16 for the first time since the accident.

He will probably move from the burn center to a rehab unit within the next two weeks, Peltier said. He didn't have an estimate of when Nelson will get out of the hospital. Doctors are concentrating on strengthening and improving range of motion in his limbs - which also will stretch out his tightened skin - and additional skin grafts are possible, Peltier said.

Tipton said her brother isn't expected to have any permanent organ damage, and that through physical therapy, he will be able to walk "and do everything he did before.

"It's going to be a long road, though - months and months," she said.

Nelson, whose CaringBridge site had more than 42,000 visits by Thursday, said he's still in pain.

"It's made me more aware of every little thing," he said. "I think it gave me greater appreciation for my faith and for my family. I didn't realize how much I rely on them."