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Local man finding a way home from paralysis

Ron James of Straight River Township has been working hard to recover strength lost in a crash that broke his neck two years ago.

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Ron James currently lives in the dining room of his mother's house in Straight River Township, next door to the new house being built to accommodate his wheelchair and strength-building equipment. With him is his daytime personal caregiver, Jesyka Stevens, a progressive care unit nurse with North Star Nursing.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise
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In the two years since he became paralyzed in an accident, Ron James has been working hard to build strength and control in parts of his body that doctors said would never come back.

On March 19, 2020, Ron flipped his pickup on an icy road, breaking the C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck and crushing his spinal cord. At the time, it looked like he would be a quadriplegic for good.

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Ron James, paralyzed by a spinal injury in a March 2000 crash, continues to work hard to regain muscle strength in his arms and upper torso. One of his goals is to be able to move from this mechanized chair to a manual wheelchair.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

“At first I was labeled a C6-7 complete, meaning I wasn’t gonna get anything back,” Ron said this week in an interview. “Some little, tiny things have come back, and I’ve gained muscle in my arms that they said would never come back. So, then, they changed it to an incomplete prognosis.

Since Ron’s accident, the James family sold their home and Ron has been living in his mother, LaMae’s farmhouse in Straight River Township.

His movements are confined to the living room, kitchen and dining room, due to the width of doorways required by his motorized wheelchair.

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His bed takes up most of the dining room. To bathe him, his daytime caregiver – a progressive care unit nurse – has to set up a portable shower in the kitchen. He tries to confine his forays into the living room to a plastic runner protecting the carpet.

His daughter, Nikki, 17, is a senior at Menahga High School and lives with Ron and LaMae, serving as his nighttime caregiver. Meanwhile, his wife, Kory, lives in an apartment in town.

The family looks forward to moving into the new, wheelchair-friendly house being built next door, where they can live together again.

Also, Ron said, he wants LaMae to have her dining room table back. “She loves to entertain people,” he said. “She’s 94 years old, but people used to come and visit quite often.”

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Ron James hopes the family's new house, built on donated land and with donated materials and volunteer labor, will be ready for the family to move in before his daughter Nikki graduates from Menahga High School this spring.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Building something new

Their new house is a bit of a trailblazer. Kory said it’s designed for a level of care not served elsewhere in the community.

Ron said a local contractor has offered to teach him how to do computer design, so he can help other handicapped people build what they need.

The home’s wide doorways and smooth floors will give him access to all the rooms. An open-plan living, dining and kitchen area will include a center island where Ron can roll up and eat with up to eight people, plus his own work space for preparing food.

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“I love to cook,” he said. “I’m gonna push the limits as far as I can. … I’ve got what’s called a quad hand; it attaches on my arm and I operate it with my wrist.” Attachments include tongs, a flipper, a knife and a fork.

Ron also looks forward to having a normal bedroom, access to an outdoor patio and, most importantly, space in the garage for training equipment he received from the Veterans Administration.

This includes a weight machine and a standing frame – “which helps with my circulation,” he said, describing a device where he is strapped in and moved into a standing position. He said it also helps keep his bowels regular. “Sitting in a chair like this, there’s no movement. Just the fact of standing up helps.”

He also has an electronic stimulation bicycle he can pedal with his hands, hoping to strengthen his arms so he can switch from a powered wheelchair to a manual one and transfer himself from bed to a chair using a slide board.

“A whole lot of opportunities open up if I don’t have to be in this chair,” he said. “I will be stronger. I’ll be able to be more mobile. And from there, we’ll see if there’s something I can do on the computer, and maybe even get a job. I still have a few good years of working left in me.”

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Interior finishes still needed on the new James family home include extra-wide doors, vinyl plank flooring and cabinetry.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

What keeps him going

Asked what keeps his spirits up, Ron said, “My faith in God. I have a belief that all things happen for a reason. For whatever reason, this happened to me, and now I’ve just gotta make the best of it and see what God has for me in my capabilities that I have now.”

Ron also acknowledged the support of some earthly angels. A benefit for the James family was held Jan. 21 at the Park Rapids American Legion, raising almost $20,000.

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“It was very humbling for Ron and I,” said Kory. “We both cried. It was just an awesome thing that the community came together for us like that.”

“There’s just too many names to name names,” he said, starting with the cousin who donated the land for the new house, former employers who donated the concrete and labor to install it, and contractors who drilled the well for free, drew the plans, painted the house, brought a crane to roll trusses and sheet the roof, and will soon install a roll-in shower that will accommodate Ron’s wheelchair.

As many as 22 workers donated their time to build the house. “It went up in about four days,” said Ron, noting that ladies from Faithbridge Church brought meals for the volunteers.

Installers are already lined up for the plumbing and electrical fixtures and flooring, he added.

“We’re getting close to move-in,” he said. “I’d say we’re within two months, if we can get the supplies.”

Getting over the hurdles

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Ron James and daughter Nikki, 17 (at left), and wife Kory James look forward to being able to live all together under one roof again.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

He said he and Kory are eager to get into the house, “where we can be back together with our daughter, as a family – something we have not been, or had the ability to do, since my accident. … It’s been very, very hard, and lonely for my wife.”

Kory agreed her husband’s journey during the past two years has been very difficult.

“He has the will to work out,” she said. “But it takes time and it takes room, and we don’t have that room right now. That’s why we’re excited that when the house finishes, he’ll be able to achieve more.”

Ron has learned to use his palms a lot and considers his teeth a second set of fingers. “I feel if I could get anything, I would really like to have my hands back,” he said, acknowledging that reclaiming control of his fingers would likely mean a miracle – or a scientific breakthrough.

He seemed encouraged by the ways hospitals around the world have been helping paralyzed people return to near normal.

“We’re hoping in the future, that maybe I might qualify for some of the experimental programs that are out there,” he said, like “putting chips on my spinal cord below my injury, or they have exoskeleton stuff that they can put on the outside to help me gain movements.”

Short of that, he said, “I just try to keep pushing on with what I’ve got.”

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Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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