Alex McKiernan is no stranger to hard work, and he likes it that way.
As co-owner of Robinette Farms in Martell with his wife, Chloe Diegel, McKiernan is used to long hours and physical labor. He is also a volunteer firefighter who is trained to act in critical situations. On Jan. 7, 2014, all of McKiernan’s skills were tested when he fractured his T11 vertebra and damaged his spinal cord.
McKiernan was stopped at a red light on a highway near Lincoln when a distracted driver plowed into the back of his car at 60 mph. His fellow volunteers at Southwest Fire and Rescue cut McKiernan out of the wreckage and loaded him into a helicopter that flew him to Bryan Health’s Trauma Center. Three days later, McKiernan arrived at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, where the 34-year-old husband and father of three began his new full-time job: rehabilitation.
“I had very little sensation from the waist down and no motor function in my legs,” said McKiernan, whose goal has always been a complete recovery. The outpouring of support from family, friends and his community allowed McKiernan to focus on his recovery.
Regaining mobility from his incomplete spinal cord injury was frustratingly slow. After two weeks, McKiernan was finally rewarded with a wiggle of his big toe. That small step led to more rigorous therapy.
“It’s really a mental game – accepting the situation; then working on improving it,” McKiernan said.
Therapists introduced McKiernan to specialized technology, like the FES bike, that provided electrical stimulation to his leg muscles. As he got stronger, repetitive sessions on the Lokomat, a robotic walking machine, helped restore his natural gait.
“If you do this over and over, your brain remembers the pattern,” McKiernan said.
Five weeks after his accident, McKiernan’s hands gripped a walker as he pieced together 40 steps. As an outpatient, he used the Ekso GT, a computerized bionic suit, which improved his balance. The mass repetition of steps helped retrain his brain and spinal cord.
“It’s a combination of strengthening and neuroplasticity, getting the nerves and muscles to work in unison,” said Dr. Paul Krabbenhoft, a physiatrist at Madonna. By spring, McKiernan walked using a cane for support.
McKiernan developed powerful bonds with his Madonna team that fueled his progress.
“It takes a lot of trust and support to rehab from an injury like this,” McKiernan said. The relationships he formed with other patients on the spinal cord unit contributed to his healing, too. “It’s a special dynamic, and having that community was really important.”
In Madonna’s outpatient rehabilitation program, McKiernan continues to hone his mobility. He also works out independently three days a week at Madonna Proactive, a medically based health, fitness and wellness facility. Before his accident, McKiernan loved climbing and is revisiting the sport at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Campus Recreation Center. With assistance from the UNL staff, McKiernan finds their climbing wall “challenging, but extremely rewarding.”
McKiernan loves to learn, and although he didn’t ask for this education, the experience has taught him much about life, love and happiness.
“I have so many positive things in my life,” he said.