After motorcycle crash, Air Force man happy to be alive
The Free Press
Mankato, Minn. — A medical crew hovered over Luke Helleksen like hazy angels ready to escort him to the beyond as he bounced in a gurney, gasping for breath and feeling like a chunk of his Harley Davidson had been loaded into the ambulance and dropped on his chest.
They weren't angels and there was nothing on top of Helleksen. His crumpled custom cycle had been left just outside of North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base. That's where Helleksen, a 28-year-old Lake Crystal native serving at the base, had been hit by an elderly one-eyed man in a pickup July 24. The 70-year-old retired Air Force veteran had run a yield sign before plowing into Helleksen at full speed.
Helleksen's chest was heavy and his breath was short because his aorta was torn. Blood was filling his chest cavity. Any breath could have been his last.
"I knew I was bleeding internally," he said. "I didn't think I was ever going to see my family again, which is pretty stressful as you can imagine.
"I pretty much thought it was over and I was going to die on my way to Minot. Realistically I should have died several times, but I pulled through it."
At the top of his list for reasons he survived without major, life-changing injuries: the full-face helmet, steel-toed boots and other safety gear the Air Force required him to wear while riding. The helmet kept his brain from being turned to mush and the boots provided enough protection so his crushed foot could be rebuilt.
Next on the list are the two mental health specialists and experienced Air Force firefighter who had followed him off the base and were right behind him when the crash occurred. They kept him calm and made him stay down on the ground after he regained consciousness about two minutes after the crash.
In addition to the crushed foot, Helleksen had several broken bones and fractures spanning from his shoulders to his toes. His worst injury, the torn aorta, could have easily burst and ended his life within seconds. That would have been more likely if he had been allowed to stand up and start walking around. Doctors later told him most people with a torn aorta never make it to the hospital; they usually die at the scene of the crash.
"I was awake for all of this," he said. "I was full of a bunch of morphine, but I was awake. They pretty much told me I was lucky to make it there."
Not long after arriving at the hospital, Helleksen was put into a drug-induced coma. He wouldn't be fully awake again for five days, except for a few minutes after each of the eight surgeries he endured. The longest surgery lasted 14 hours.
His wife, Ashney (Prom) Helleksen, was at his side as much as she could be. It wasn't the first challenge the woman from Good Thunder had endured since she left to join her husband as he traveled with the Air Force.
The couple had been in Japan last year when the earthquake and tsunami hit, killing and injuring thousands of people. The ground shook below their feet. Ashney, 24, stood in line for rationed fuel. Luke provided food and other relief to displaced families. Not long after they were sent to Minot later that year, their house there was flooded when the Souris River broke its banks.
All that time in the hospital was worse, Ashney said.
"I basically lived at the hospital for three weeks," she said. "It was pretty horrible. The first five days you're just sitting next to his bed, but he wouldn't do anything. It was probably the worst five days of my life."
Ashney and their 3-year-old daughter, Lydia, weren't far behind Luke when he was hit in July. The trio was on its way to Family Day at the North Dakota State Fair. It wasn't uncommon for Luke to ride his motorcycle while his wife and daughter followed behind in their car. She said she was about six vehicles behind Luke as they left the base.
As soon as Ashney pulled through the security gate and saw the smashed black bike and the injured man in a bright orange shirt, she knew Luke had been hit. She gave Lydia her cellphone and told her to stay in the car and watch cartoons.
As the ambulance was speeding away toward the hospital, Ashney called a friend and asked her to drive the car. She was too shaken to get behind the wheel. She called Luke's parents, Pike and Marcia, on the way to the hospital.
"Waiting for the ambulance probably only took a couple minutes, but it seemed like forever," Ashney said. "Waiting for the doctor after we got to the hospital was the same thing.
"He told me Luke had a tear in his aorta, but I didn't know what that meant. Then, as he was explaining, it was just as scary as the accident. He told me Luke could die or be paralyzed for life."
Everything changed quickly for the young family when Luke came to after the five days of surgeries. He had the same sense of humor and love for life that he had before the crash, Ashney said.
There has been some good news lately, too. The Air Force is covering all of Luke's medical expenses. And he was still in the hospital when he learned he had passed his military advancement test and was about to be promoted to Staff Sgt. Helleksen. He had been working as a chef, serving meals to the people manning missile silos. Now he's on office duty while he continues to recover.
"I haven't spent a dime out of my pocket," he said. "They have taken care of me completely. With all of my injuries, they never once said anything about giving me the boot."
The couple also learned recently Lydia will become a sister in April.
"Lydia is happy as can be that Luke's home now," Ashney said. "She doesn't leave him alone. She tells him his "vroom vroom" hit a truck and it's broken."
The driver of the pickup received a citation for failing to yield. Luke and Ashney both wish they would have heard from him after the crash. There has been no get well or apology card and, as far as Ashney knows, he never stopped by the hospital to make sure Luke was still alive.