ROBBINSDALE, Minn. -- On the seventh floor of North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale, Josh Duda sat on his mobility scooter in his hospital room overlooking the helipad in this picturesque city, northeast of Minneapolis in Hennepin County.
Normally, Duda is the one helping others with their injuries. Now, the roles have been reversed.
Duda, a flight paramedic for the hospital’s Brainerd-based Air Care unit for almost 20 years, has been making a slow but steady recovery from severe injuries he suffered after his North Memorial Health Air Care helicopter crashed.
“It was six weeks ago today (Thursday, Aug. 8) when I came on my normal shift at work and unfortunately the shift ended the way you don’t ever want it to end,” Duda told the Brainerd Dispatch during an interview at the Twin Cities hospital after finishing his morning session of physical and occupational therapy.
Duda’s shift that began June 27 ended tragically when the Agusta medical helicopter crashed about 1 a.m. June 28 on its return flight to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport after delivering a patient to North Memorial in Robbinsdale. There were no patients on board at the time of the crash.
Duda’s fellow team members onboard -- pilot Tim McDonald and flight nurse Debra Schott -- died at the scene. Duda, the lone survivor, was transported from the crash site to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, and then to North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale, where he has been every day since recovering from his injuries.
Duda, a 42-year-old Pillager man, remembers when the helicopter was coming in toward the airport.
“Things didn’t go the way they normally would go as planned,” he said. “We ended up on the ground, on a hard-impacting crash, and that is when my world turned upside down.”
Foggy conditions were noted in the National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report as a factor in the crash. Duda, who was sitting in the left forward seat, told investigators he saw the runway surface and lights below a thin layer of fog.
“He noticed a few clouds to the side of the helicopter and recalled the pilot remarking that the weather conditions were foggy, and they would need to go around. He subsequently noticed the helicopter spin to the right and impact the ground,” the report states.
The helicopter landed in a grassy area to the right of the runway.
Duda remembers being transported to the Brainerd hospital, but not being transported to the hospital in Robbinsdale as he was intubated. His memory picked up the next day when he woke up -- on the other side of his world, as a patient and not a paramedic.
“Honestly waking up was a very strange experience,” Duda said. “Not knowing, frankly, if I was in a dream, if I was alive or whether I was dead. Not really knowing is a really eerie feeling to be coming out in that position. Fortunately, we have good medicines to help with that process. I remember a lot of things but they kept me very comfortable.”
Once Duda knew it was not a dream, and he was not dead -- his new reality began to settle in.
“I knew a lot of what had happened, but at the same time you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle,” Duda said, such as how his teammates were doing. “I was trying to confirm what I guessed, I feared. ... It is what I anticipated, but it was still hard news to hear to lose my teammates.”
Duda said McDonald was not a regular pilot at the Brainerd base, but Duda had flown with him a few times previously. Schott, the nurse, was a regular partner for 14 years with Duda.
“She was a very good friend and it’s really tough to lose that relationship,” Duda said.
Duda not only has to deal with the emotional loss of his fellow crew members, he has his own critical injuries to deal with. As a flight paramedic with North Memorial since 2000, Duda has a lot of experience in assessing patients’ injuries and helping them up to the point until they’re dropped off at the hospital. He doesn’t get to see the rest of the patients’ extended care.
For the past six weeks, he has experienced the extended care firsthand.
“It’s been a long road, but so much of it is attitude,” Duda said. “From the beginning, if I came in with a rough attitude, it could have been a rough road. I try to look at the positive side and I’m very thankful to be here and thankful to be where I’m at.
“I have a lot of broken bones, which is expected out of a crash like that. Right now I can’t walk … because of the bone fractures. We are just waiting for the bones to heal. The recovery process is one step at a time while those injuries heal. … The anticipation is a full recovery.”
Duda, a 1995 Brainerd High School graduate and son of Gary and Sue Duda of Brainerd, has stayed positive on his recovery with the goal to make it back home to his wife Amy, their 9-year-old son Kian and two cats -- Cosmo and Zeus.
Duda spends three hours a day in therapy, and is getting stronger every day. People who know him say it’s his “iron determination.” Duda is an Ironman athlete who has competed in four triathlons, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Duda competed in his first Ironman triathlon in 2007. He was training to compete again, but suffered a serious injury in 2009, when he was forced to take a break. On the fifth anniversary of his injury, he competed in another triathlon and has been training and competing ever since -- including this past summer -- gearing up for the next Ironman competition, which now will not happen.
Duda said there are a lot of ups and downs throughout the day when competing in the Ironman triathlon, but when you cross the finish line it is “unbelievable every time.”
Duda compared a triathlon with his recovery: In a triathlon there are three events -- swimming, biking and walking.
“If you have an awful swim and you let it ruin your day your day is done,” he said. “If you look to that next step you can have a successful day and that has really helped a lot in my mentality (in my recovery).
“Everyone has ups and downs and it’s that surrounding support that keeps you moving forward to get you toward that finish line. A lot of that relates exactly to where I am at right now. A lot of that mentality of ‘there is going to be a lot of ups and downs.’ You just keep moving forward and take it one step at a time.”
Duda said he is doing well, but he still has a long road ahead.
Duda is thankful and overwhelmed with all the support he has received not only from his family and friends and the organizations he is a member of including the Ironman triathlon community, Lakes Area Multisport, Crow Wing County Dive Team and the Toward Zero Deaths coalition -- but from the community as a whole.
A benefit to support Duda
A benefit dinner and silent auction is planned 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, at the Northland Arboretum in Baxter to support the family during Duda’s recovery.
Adults are $10 and children age 12 and under are $5. A pulled pork sandwich meal will be prepared. Tickets are available at Cub Foods in Brainerd or Baxter or online at https://tinyurl.com/yxu4yc28. Tickets will be available at the door, but organizers would prefer people buy them ahead of time for planning purposes.
The silent auction is live online at www.32auctions.com/roadtorecovered for people to submit a bid for an item.
Those who cannot attend the benefit may send a donation to: Joshua C. Duda/Road to Recovered Benefit Account, Bremer Bank, 7558 Design Road, Baxter, MN 56425.