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Beloved Belgian draft horses Duchess and Duke are gone, sent back to their previous owner until they can come home to Robinette Farms near Martell.

Some of the pigs weren't so lucky. Those that weren't slaughtered were moved to nearby farms. The grass-fed lambs shared a similar fate.

"We just had to step back from the business this year," Alex McKiernan said in his room at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln. "I won't be doing any farm work."

Robinette Farms is home to McKiernan and his wife, Chloe Diegel, and their kids, Nina, 3 1/2, and twins Roisin and Fiona, 10 months.

It's also home to the couple's chemical-free vegetable operation, which has dozens of customers in the Lincoln area.

McKiernan has been home just twice since Jan. 7, the day he found himself strapped to a stretcher in a helicopter flying to a Lincoln hospital.

Down below, near the intersection of U.S. 77 and Saltillo Road, his buddies from the Southwest Rural Fire Department had cut him out of his mangled 1999 Subaru Impreza.

It's also where he realized he couldn't move his legs.

* * *

Aaron Pospisil, an EMS supervisor for Lincoln Fire & Rescue, was driving over the hill on Saltillo Road when he saw the wreckage.

"People were running out of their cars and up to the vehicle," said the former Southwest Rural Fire member who jumped out to check on everybody.

He didn't recognize any of the vehicles, but when he looked through the passenger window he recognized McKiernan from their years together on the volunteer department.

"He was awake and talking: 'I need help. Help me out,'" Pospisil recalled.

He couldn't do much for his friend.

"The frustrating thing for me is, I'm a trained rescuer and I had no equipment -- nothing," said Pospisil, who was on his way home to Cortland.

He supported McKiernan's head and made sure he kept his neck straight, and they both listened to the Southwest pager McKiernan was wearing.

"That almost made it tougher," Pospisil said. "We heard when they were getting dispatched and we heard when they were clearing from the station. For me and Alex, it seemed to make it worse. We understood what was going on.

"It seemed like it took forever for everybody to get there."

* * *

McKiernan struggles, the pain and determination clear on his face as he does leg presses on a special machine that allows him to exercise his legs.

Physical therapist Kristi Rocole and student Angela Link support his hips and help move his legs. He can't support his weight with his legs, so he sometimes relies on his arms to help.

"Don't think about your arms," Rocole scolds gently. "Think about your legs."

Progress is painfully slow and he gets light-headed and mentally tired, but the work is paying off. Today, he wiggles his left ankle.

"I would say you learned a new trick today," says Rocole.

A few days earlier, he lifted his legs for the first time and has about 35 percent movement in them, with new muscles "returning" almost every day.

* * *

McKiernan arrived at Madonna on Jan. 10, and he's anxious to go home, but it may take awhile. The accident slightly fractured his T11 vertebra and bruised his spine.

"I'm starting to regain some function," he said. "Initially, I was paralyzed for two weeks."

Authorities said a 2012 Dodge van driven by Bradley Boeckman hit McKiernan's car, which was stopped at a light at the intersection. Both vehicles were headed north on U.S. 77.

McKiernan, who just turned 34, doesn't recall much about the accident. He was on his way to Open Harvest with a delivery.

"My understanding is he (Boeckman) was distracted while driving," he said.

Boeckman, 46, of Lincoln was cited for reckless driving and is set to be in court on Feb. 19.

* * *

McKiernan has no illusions. His doctors say recovery from such spinal trauma could take as long as two years. Some patients regain full or partial use of their legs. Others do not.

"There's no treatment to heal a spinal cord. The treatment is for muscles -- to make them stronger and coordinated," McKiernan says matter-of-factly.

He considers himself lucky: no head trauma and just four stitches on the back of his right heel.

"Every day you see people here with far more challenges than I have," he said, "and they're succeeding, and that's the best motivation in the world."

* * *

McKiernan is also grateful.

To his Southwest brothers, who cut him free, drove his wife and kids to the hospital and have been doing chores at the farm, given money, dropped off food and built a wheelchair ramp and deck onto the house.

"It's amazing," McKiernan said. "They take care of their brothers. That's the deal. I want to get well so I can take care of them."

He's grateful to his neighbors, too.

Kevin Loth, co-owner of ShadowBrook Farms on West Denton Road, helped take the pigs to the butcher and is doing some of the chores -- never mind the fact that his business competes with Robinette Farms.

"I think it's a pretty small community that we live in," Loth said. "Just because we are competitors doesn't mean we can't be friends as well."

And many others have signed up for chores and more through a page created by McKiernan's sister Deirdre on the website Lotsa Helping Hands.

"Chloe hasn't cooked for a month because everybody has brought food for us," McKiernan joked.

Until an insurance claim is settled, he and Diegel won't have much money coming in, and he said he may need to find a summer job.

The farm's vegetable operation will be cut by about 70 percent this year, but his wife, who McKiernan says is the "real farmer," will run the business with the help of hired apprentices.

"The biggest part for me has been the support of Southwest and my farmer friends," he said. "I couldn't do this without them. It's incredible and very humbling. I can't wait 'til we can give back, you know."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or


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