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SF Special: Paralysis Couldn’t Keep This Minnesota Farmer Down
Ten years ago, Ryan Buck and Lauren Carlson had bright plans for their future. Ryan, 26, was a farmer in Goodhue, Minnesota, who sold crop insurance on the side. Lauren, 22, was attending school to become a dental hygienist. Farming was in his soul; she always dreamed of being a farm wife. Young, in love, and engaged to be married, the duo was ready to begin the rest of their lives and start their own farm family.
On Saturday, February 23, 2008, their path changed forever. Ryan left early in the morning to snowmobile with Lauren’s brother, Casey Carlson. They made the hour-long drive to Kellogg, Minnesota, and unloaded their snowmobiles around 8:30 a.m.
The ride started like any other one, as they planned to blaze across the snow-filled landscape of fields, pastures, trees, and creeks that color the southeastern Minnesota landscape.
This day was different, though. Five miles into the trip as they headed out of town on the trail, Ryan’s snowmobile slid on an ice patch as he rounded a curve. When it caught again on the trail he was thrown from the rolling snowmobile. He hit three trees on the edge of the curve. His head struck one, his torso the second, and his leg the third.
Casey was riding ahead of Buck and glanced back to see the snowmobile roll. He quickly circled his machine around and raced to Ryan, who he found alive and alert, miraculously. Worried, Casey had to figure out what to do: The remote area in which they were riding had no cell service. He was forced to leave an injured Ryan to find a nearby house where he could borrow a phone to call 911. It was clear his future brother-in-law was in a dire situation.
Ryan doesn’t remember the accident. His last memory before the crash was a fateful one. “The last thing I remember is stopping on the side of the trail to adjust my helmet,” he says.
His helmet – cracked all the way through – saved his life. “If I hadn’t had my helmet, I would’ve been dead right there,” says Ryan.
He was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “I remember the sound of the helicopter,” says Ryan. “Somebody asked me what my name was and where I was from.”
The rest is a blur for Ryan. Lauren’s memory of that morning and following days are in much sharper focus.
“I’ll never forget that phone call,” she says. “I was at home with my mom when my brother called.”
From the sound of his voice, she knew immediately something was very wrong. All her brother knew for sure was that he had a broken leg. “He just kept saying, ‘It’s really bad, Lauren.’”
At the hospital, her heart sank as doctors asked him to move his legs and wiggle toes. Much to their dismay, there was no response.
Ryan broke his neck at the C2 vertebra, his back at the T5 vertebra, and his left femur. He had a collapsed lung and tore all the ligaments in his neck. Ryan’s spinal cord injury was incomplete. So instead of being completely severed – his spinal cord was pinched. The result was paralysis from the chest down. This did, however, leave him with the use of his arms.
From this moment on, Ryan’s life-fighting battle included surgeries to repair his broken body. The day following the accident, Ryan had surgery to repair his spine. Surgeons placed rods in his back and inserted a chest tube. They fitted him with a halo and turtle shell to allow his neck to heal. There was yet another surgery to repair his femur.
He stayed in the intensive care unit (ICU), heavily sedated, for three weeks. All in all, he was hospitalized from February 23 until the beginning of April. Ryan then stayed with his parents for two months until it was time to remove the halo and turtle shell. Then he spent another month in the hospital for physical therapy.
Then, the hard part started. At 26, he had to learn how to live in a wheelchair without the use of his legs. With his survival taking priority, Ryan and Lauren postponed their wedding.
But surgery and the recovery weren’t the only challenges he would face. Ryan, a 6-foot healthy young man, entered the hospital weighing 200 pounds. When discharged from the hospital in June, he weighed a mere 133 pounds. It took years for him to regain the lost weight.
“I didn’t gain a lot of weight back until 2011 and 2012,” says Ryan.
Plus, his injury is where the body regulates body temperature. It took three to four years for his body to properly regulate his temperature again.
“It’s gotten a lot better than it was early on,” says Ryan. “It could be -20°F. outside and I’d be sweating like it was 110°F. out.”
His body doesn’t sweat much anymore, so it’s difficult for him to cool down once he’s too warm. “I still get really cold,” says Ryan. “But the cold weather is easier to prepare for than when it's hot and humid.”
Determined to farm
When the doctors first explained to Ryan what happened and his prognosis, he was shocked.
“The therapist came in to assess everything, and we talked about what I did for a living,” says Ryan.
That was when the therapist made a suggestion, once he was further along in the healing process, that he should look for a new career.
Though sapped physically, Ryan was still every inch and pound a Minnesota farm boy in spirit. “I told him real quickly that was not an option and to leave the room,” says Ryan. “Maybe in not as nice of language.”
A new career wasn’t an option for the corn and soybean grower. Ryan didn’t even see it as a challenge.
“Farming was something I loved before I got hurt and once I got hurt, I knew I wanted to continue no matter what or how hard it would be,” he says. “I used that determination moving forward.”
But his determination couldn’t prevent the challenges from coming.
Both Ryan and Lauren grew up in farm families, but only Lauren’s parents actively farmed. At the time of the accident, Ryan farmed with his uncle and rented ground on his own. One of the hardest blows came to Ryan and Lauren in August of 2008 when the landlord dropped Ryan from his lease because he didn’t believe Ryan was capable of farming.
Instead of giving up, he pulled himself back up. He started farming with Lauren’s parents, Steve and Linnae Carlson. They made adjustments to adapt to Ryan’s needs. One of the most obvious obstacles was how Ryan would be able to get in and out of the tractor. He had to innovate since he couldn’t just climb up to the cab. They decided to use the forklift as a lift.
“We made a chair that mounts on the end of the fork with an extension,” says Ryan. “I hop on that and that fits right in the cab of the tractor.”
That’s how he gets in and out of the tractor cab. While not a time-consuming task, their farm operation is like most – moving 100 mph when it’s go time. Once in the cab, he stays there all day.
“The only bad thing with that is someone has to be around to run the forklift,” says Ryan. “I can’t do it on my own, but it works well around the building site.”
Eventually, they’d like to have a lift so Ryan can get himself in and out of the tractor. That’s not in their immediate future though. The lift would mount on the back of a flatbed pickup and give Ryan more freedom and flexibility – but that investment comes to the tune of $35,000 to $40,000.
They’ve also modified their tractors with hand brakes, and the grain cart is equipped with a camera to allow him to easily see how full it is.
“Other than that, everything else, with the new technology of the powershift – I don’t really need a lot of adaptations to run anything. It was pretty simple,” he says.
Of course farming has changed over the years, too. Ryan is able to complete a lot of work from the office.
It’s not just tractors that needed adjustments made to them. Ryan has a pickup equipped with a lift that allows him to enter and leave the truck without having to pull himself up. “It’s mounted on the outside of the truck, just underneath the seat, and it comes out of a little drawer. It’s a little scissor lift with a platform. I can hop on that and it lifts me in.”
“You learn to adapt really quickly,” says Ryan. “If somebody is with me, I'll throw my wheelchair in the back. Otherwise, I just take it apart and put it in the cab behind the seat.”
He never considered quitting an option. “In the back of my mind, early on, I thought how am I going to do this,” remembers Ryan. “But once you get into it and really study things, it works out.”
It Wasn’t Over
It wasn’t just Ryan who could have died in 2008. Lauren had an accident of her own. While driving Ryan’s adapted truck, Lauren was in a head-on collision.
“Ryan has hand controls,” says Lauren. “A metal piece connects the brake and accelerator to his hand control.”
When she was hit, the dash was shoved into her and her kneecap was torn off. Ryan isn’t the only one who had to persevere. Her recovery included two surgeries and six months of crutches.
“It’s nothing compared with what he went through,” recounts Lauren. “But we both have our battle scars from 2008.”
Family provided them the ultimate support system. “If it wasn't for an understanding family, my in-laws helping us get started, and working with them – if they weren’t willing to take a few extra minutes to get me in and out of a tractor or do the other odd jobs that need to be done throughout the day, it wouldn’t work,” says Ryan. “You have to have your support system to help you every step of the way.”
Ryan still performs the same tasks as other farmers. He just performs them differently.
“As much as I don’t like to admit I need help, I do,” says Ryan. “It has its days where it’s difficult, and it would be nice to just hop out and do something. But then I have to sit there and wait for someone else to come.
“The biggest thing is just the day-to-day stuff,” he adds. “When getting machinery ready, I can’t just quick jump in a tractor and hook something up. Somebody has to be around all the time just to do the little meticulous things. I’m limited on some of the things I do.”
Ryan still maintains his sense of humor. “On the upside, I don’t have to shovel grain bins anymore, which I didn’t really care for before,” he jests.
Ryan helped with Lauren’s parents’ operation from 2008 to 2015. In 2015, the Bucks started to rent ground again themselves. Like any young couple, land wasn’t easy for them to find.
Then, in the summer of 2017, they were able to sign the paperwork to purchase their first piece of ground.
Saying ‘I Do’
It wasn’t a relationship without turmoil. “We had our struggles,” remembers Ryan. He didn’t want to be a burden on Lauren.
“I think he thought, initially, I deserved somebody who could walk,” says Lauren.
But they worked through it. Ryan and Lauren were married two years later than planned on July 9, 2010.
Lauren started a blog, adventureswithheelsandwheels.com, as an outlet and opportunity to bring awareness to paralysis and what maneuvering through life in a wheelchair looks like. Her goal was to show people in similar situations that anything was possible. After all, they were still a young couple who enjoyed travel, hunting, and other everyday activities.
Looking back, they agree that struggles they’d already faced made them stronger as a couple. It was strength they needed when they were dealt yet another hurdle.
“We had a long road with infertility,” says Lauren.
But like every other obstacle they faced – his paralysis, her accident, the loss of farm ground – they forged ahead. For years they battled with in vitro fertilization (IVF) – devastated each time the treatment wasn’t successful. It put a strain on their marriage – they were left sad, angry, and disappointed at times.
“We had a year in our marriage when it was really hard,” says Lauren. “We didn’t think we were going to make it. Luckily, we did.”
They credit faith and putting God first in the marriage – along with a lot of trust.
“We had to learn how to let things go,” says Lauren. “We both had a lot of things that we were angry and upset about and thought we had dealt with, but we hadn't.”
“I think if we would have been married in 2008, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” says Ryan. “We were both pretty young and immature. We hadn’t really grown up yet.”
Through those struggles they grew stronger as a couple. “If we hadn’t gone through all those trials, we wouldn’t be the couple we are today,” says Lauren.
“We struggled with IVF for three years and then when we worked through our marriage issues, we understood why,” says Lauren. “We’re thankful that those hard times happened and we were able to work through them because it’s going to make us that much better parents.”
And on Friday, December 29, 2017, they received their miracle. The Bucks’ hopes and prayers to become parents were answered when they welcomed a healthy baby boy, Silas, into their family.
“Growing up on a family farm and seeing my grandparents farm – it’s something that I always desired to have,” says Lauren. “I like the idea of teaching our child about where their food comes from, how to work the land, and to be proud of what your raise. Farming teaches you a lot about life.”
Now they’re able to start the next chapter.
Ryan’s accident has strengthened the following virtues:
Patience. It wasn’t a virtue Ryan cared much for before his accident.
“This has really taught me to be patient and slow down a little bit,” he says. “If you're not patient, you either end up lying on the ground next to the wheelchair because you fell, or it takes you twice as long because something goes awry.”
Humor. “My friends get a kick out of it because I’ll crack jokes at the most opportune times,” says Ryan.
When Ryan and Lauren dance, she sits on his lap. At a wedding, Lauren sat on Ryan’s lap, ready to dance. Ryan didn’t know the people standing nearby so he knew they weren’t aware of his situation. He started yelling, “Hey! Stop it! I can’t feel my legs!"
Without his wheelchair, Ryan looks able-bodied. He’s had people approach him when parking in handicap parking.
“I had one person take the picture of my license plate,” he says. “He told me that he was going to call the cops. So I told him, well, I'd like to be outside when they come. Would you get my wheelchair out of the back?’”
Faith. “We definitely have strong faith,” says Lauren. “That’s the main thing, beside family and friends, that has gotten us through everything.”
Determination. “Farming is what I've always loved to do,” says Ryan. “I knew if I just put my nose to the grindstone and figured out ways to do things differently, anything was possible. I have a friend who farms, and he’s in a wheelchair also. They make it work. I knew it could be done.”
Perseverance. Whatever life throws at you, you can take it head on and succeed, says Ryan. “I look back at that day when I got hurt, and think, what if I didn't go snowmobiling? You always think of the what ifs,” says Ryan. “What if I would've just stayed home that day? Then you think, ‘Well, this was obviously my plan with the Almighty. If it was, whether I got hurt on a snowmobile, or who is to say it wouldn't have been a farm accident that spring, or car accident?’”
The Bucks believe it could always be worse and count their blessings. Not only are they thankful Ryan survived, but they’re also thankful he wasn’t left a quadriplegic from the accident. Ryan believes there’s a plan and purpose for everything.
“You just have to go with it,” he says. “I feel like I've done more in the last 10 years than I did in the first 26.”
The last 10 years have taken a lot of determination and strength for the Bucks. When your life doesn't go as planned and you get knocked down, don’t let it define you or break you, says Ryan.
While it’s not the life Ryan or Lauren had planned when they were first engaged, they’ve made the best of the cards they were dealt – and then some.
“If I had to give up everything I've done from the time I got hurt, to today, just to walk again, I would stay where I’m at,” says Ryan.
That’s a life to strive for.