CHESTER -- The race was over. All that was left was to check and make sure everyone had cleared the dirt bike track before heading back to the farm.
That was the last time Justin Minnaert used his legs.
Minnaert was working a Sioux Valley Cycle Club endurance race in Renner alongside his dad, Kevin, when they each went opposite directions around the track to meet in the middle to make sure all was clear.
That’s when Kevin lost sight of Justin.
“I rolled up over the jump. And I had seen him down on the left side and I see the bike forward and I'm thinking, ‘Oh, no, what happened?’” Kevin Minnaert said. “Roll up next to him. I said, ‘Justin, you OK?’ And he looks at me and he goes, ‘I'm sorry, dad. I think I'm paralyzed.’ And at that moment my heart dropped.”
“It was a jump that I've hit 100 times,” said Justin Minnaert, who's owned a dirt bike for nearly 20 years and raced for more than a dozen years. “I mean, we'd been out there . . . at least once or twice a week out there for the previous two months.”
Justin said he caught a rain rut on the downhill slope at the worst possible time. The spill resulted in two broken vertebrae, punctured lungs and a smashed rib cage.
“I've had much worse crashes than that before, but it was just kind of the luck of the draw where it hit me,” he said. "So my paralysis is the bottom of the sternum down. I've got no feeling, no sensation, nothing. It's the highest level of paralysis, I guess you would say.”
Minnaert said he knew immediately that he was paralyzed from the crash, which caused a T7-T8 burst fracture in his vertebrae. But despite the devastation and pain, the Lake County, S.D., 28-year-old used his family's support and his love of farming as motivation to keep moving forward in life.
“I never lost consciousness. So I was with it the entire time,” he said. “There's a lot of raw emotions with it.”
Justin’s wife, Kendra, who works as a registered nurse at Sanford Hospital in Sioux Falls, received a call from Kevin about Justin’s crash while he was being airlifted to Sanford.
“I was working, and I just left work early and went and waited down in the emergency department until they got him settled in,” she said. “Fortunately, I worked on a unit that is a surgical trauma unit. So . . . I knew all the doctors that were working on him and was able to kind of keep in touch with how things were going when he went back in the room.”
The race and crash occurred later in the afternoon on Sunday, July 19, 2020, and on Monday, Justin was in surgery having metal rods and pins placed along his spine.
Even though it was the middle of the summer in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Justin said he was fortunate that the hospital was allowing his family to visit just in a limited capacity.
Too independent to slow down
After two weeks at Sanford, Justin was transported to Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., in the first part of August when he began rehabilitation.
Kendra had no doubt that Justin would be able to adapt to his new circumstances.
“There's always good and bad days,” she said. “He's very self-sufficient. But I think that just having the support of our family and everybody around us has definitely made the transition much easier.”
While the struggles to relearn the simplest tasks, many people take for granted as adults, have been challenging for Minnaert. He excelled enough at Craig Hospital for them to move up his discharge date twice.
“I'm in my paraplegic infancy, you know, it's just, you learn to do everything again, you know, how to get out of bed, how to dress yourself, how to care for yourself. I mean, everything's, you're starting over again,” Minnaert said.
During his time at Craig Hospital, Minnaert not only had Kendra by his side, he also met people in similar situations and became friends with many of them and still stays in contact since leaving the hospital in the first part of October.
In Colorado, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place, Justin was only allowed to have his wife Kendra, who stayed in off-campus housing, and mom Lauri as visitors. Kevin visited when Justin was moved to the off-campus housing toward the end of his rehabilitation.
After coming home, Kendra said being a nurse has made it easier to know to let Justin do a lot of things on his own.
“When we first got home, learning how to do a lot of things was -- you had to repeat them so much,” she said. “He's a perfectionist, so I think it was hard to be perfect with everything on the first track. I have been like, ‘OK, that's enough for today. Let's move on to something else.’”
Always a farmer
“I've always said when people asked me when I started farming, and I said, ’When I was old enough for my feet to hit the pedals,’” Justin Minnaert said. “I've been in a tractor long before I could drive a vehicle.”
The homestead to Minnaert Farms sits roughly six miles west of Chester and is a third-generation farm with Justin working it alongside his dad who worked it with his father, Ron.
Minnaert likes to call himself an old-school farmer, doing more of the mechanical stuff while Kevin refers to his son as the CEO or “Chief Excel Officer” who uses the software program for everything.
That relationship was already established long before the crash, and the duo has worked to teach each other their skillset.
So on Oct. 10, 2020, when Justin was finally cleared to resume normal life activities again, it was an emotional day for the Minneart family as Justin finally got back into a combine again for the first time since his crash.
He was joined in the cabin of the combine with his mom, dad and sister, Alissa Colshan. Kendra had to work that day so she couldn’t be there for that moment.
“When we were in the combine, he's in the combine and I’m in the grain car, that just felt normal and felt right,” Kevin said.
The fall harvest was always Minnaert's motivation throughout his rehab.
“My whole goal was to get back in time for harvest, and we missed the bean harvest. But we got home and they just started corn the day that we got home, and I had to wait a few days to get the final clearance from my neurosurgeon,” he said.
Not being able to harvest the beans with Justin was a surreal experience for Kevin.
Finally getting to shed his back brace was the return to normal Minnaert had been waiting for.
“I say normal with quotations around it. But you know, when I was in the combine. It did a lot of healing for me because I didn't feel paralyzed in there because everything is run by hand," Justin said. “There's nothing that I couldn't do in there. That did me a lot of good. It did our whole family a lot of good. It was a pretty emotional day.”
Until all of that corn was out of the fields, Minnaert said you couldn’t get him out of the combine.
Over the winter, his family looked for adjustments to accommodate Justin’s new life. That led to selling off the cattle portion of their operation.
Minnaert said the farm had about 120 head of cattle, but now the family rents out the cattle lots at to a cousin.
“I could still look out my kitchen window and see baby calves running around. So that was nice and not to have to go chasing down and giving shots,” he said. “It's kind of weird to me on the other end. I get to make the phone calls, like, ‘Hey, you got calves out and you want to come put them back in’ instead of getting the, ‘Hey your cows are out.’”
Community rallies around
Growing up on a farm just outside the town of Chester, home to just over 350 people, it wasn't a surprise the number of people who reached out following the accident.
“I had probably 500 text messages or calls, you know, within the first week,” Kevin said.
Prior to his accident, Justin served as a volunteer with the Chester Fire Department in which his uncle serves as the fire chief along with cousins who are also volunteers.
Following his return back to the farm, the fire department helped organize a benefit for Justin that included raffle items, a silent auction and a benefit dinner.
On Nov. 14, about 200 people could be found inside the fire hall taking part in the benefit.
Even for those who remained cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 to-go orders were made by people looking to help out the Minnaerts.
“The fire department set out to do the side-by-side raffle. And then all these other businesses started coming forward and just offering things. Even up until the morning of the event, people were just showing up and like, ‘Here, put this on your silent auction,’" Minnaert said. “Our community wrapped their arms around us, and they are so gracious to us.”
Minnaert, who serves on the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council for District 2, was put in touch with another paraplegic farmer, Ryan Buck, of Minnesota.
Buck, who served on the Minnesota Corn Growers Association for several years, was involved in a snowmobile accident that paralyzed him in 2008.
Minnaert said his new friend has been key in helping in his lifestyle and issues to consider that he may never have before, all the while still being able to relate to just being a farmer.
“There's days where all we talk about is farming. And then there's days where all we talk about is what we go through as paraplegics and the different issues that we have,” Minnaert said. “He's been great.”
Getting back into the swing
Since coming home, Justin and Kendra have had to make adjustments.
With plans to eventually build a new house, the set up of their current house has all the bedrooms on the second floor.
“Right now our beds are kind of on the edge of our living room,” Justin said. “So it's not ideal, but it's manageable.”
Kendra spent most of her childhood growing up in Sioux Falls before moving to Chester in eighth grade, where she began dating and marrying her eventual high school sweetheart on July 25, 2015. She is accustomed to adapting.
Possibly having been considered a "city girl" before, Kendra has has taken to farm life like a natural.
Now it’s Kendra who’s pushing Justin out of his comfort zone to find ways to adapt to a new style of farm life.
That has included rearranging shelves and cabinets to be more accessible, a Trackchair and a truck with an automated lift to help lift Justin when he’s by himself.
The truck came at the recommendation of Buck.
Kendra has also been key in helping her husband stay on top of simple tasks of not sitting too long, ensuring he keeps his body moving, and a constant dietary schedule for good health.
Minnaert considers himself fortunate to live at the time that he does, noting that 20 years ago he most likely would have had to give up farming because of a lack of technology to assist him.
Some of the adaptations that have been made to the tractors were done ahead of Justin’s crash simply for the ease that turned out to be almost a sense of foreshadowing.
No matter how tough it gets, being back on the farm has been Minnaert's biggest therapy.
“The worst days that I have are when I'm sitting idle at home and not doing anything. That's when all the negative thoughts creep in your head,” he said. “That's when it's the most mentally tough to deal with the injury.
“But when I'm out, doing things, I mean, don't get me wrong, I'll get so frustrated when even just something in the shop, something that I can't do or find a way to do like, that's frustrating," he said. "But sitting at home, not doing anything is the worst. I'd rather deal with the frustration of not being able to do something in the shop or out in a tractor over just sitting at home and dwelling on it.”
Although he sold his dirt bike this past spring, Justin eventually would like to ride again.
“If he can convince Kendra and his mom, I’ll support it,” Kevin said with a laugh.