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By Archie Ingersoll, Forum Communications Co., Published December 28 2010

Grand Forks crash victim deals with amputated leg

GRAND FORKS – These are tough days for Michael Hart.

“What everybody takes for granted – brushing your teeth, going to the bathroom, taking showers, getting dressed, making toast – everything has changed,” he said.

Hart, 37, is coping with the amputation of his left leg just below the knee after he was hit by an alleged drunken driver this fall in Grand Forks.

He said support from relatives, friends and strangers is getting him through the ordeal. The generosity shown at a benefit for him earlier this month was overwhelming, he said.

“I’m not going to sit and wallow, especially after what the community did,” he said. “Now I, you know, have to fight.”

Hart has already done lots of fighting.

The crash shattered his leg, caused significant blood loss and left him with two collapsed lungs. “Losing pretty much all your blood in your body … you’re pretty close to teetering on the death line,” he said.

After the collision, he was flown to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where doctors amputated part of his left leg. He spent nine days there before returning to Grand Forks. Hart has had 15 surgeries on his leg since then.

“He’s amazed me,” said his mother, Sheila. “I just can’t imagine what it’s like wandering around with half your leg. Until you walk in those shoes, you don’t experience it.”

Hart, who was working various jobs before the crash, plans to see a pain-management specialist to help him deal with the new strains on his body, including the phantom pains of a missing limb.

A prosthesis is in his future, but he won’t be able to wear one until his leg heals. That could take six months, he said.

‘Hard to describe’

About 7:40 p.m. on Oct. 17, Hart was driving west on DeMers Avenue with his 6-year-old son and 8-month-old stepdaughter.

Hart had a highchair in the bed of his compact Chevy pickup that he’d gotten from his parents’ home. Just west of Columbia Road, the chair fell out.

Hart stopped in the right lane to retrieve the chair. He grabbed the chair, put it back in the bed, and was struck by a car as he turned to walk toward his door.

The car, a westbound Ford Taurus in the right lane, momentarily pinned Hart against the tailgate of his pickup, police reported. Hart said the impact sent the Taurus backward and set off the car’s airbags. His kids, who were buckled up inside the pickup, were not hurt.

He estimates he kept himself up for about six minutes before falling onto the grass alongside the road.

“That’s basically when I looked up to the sky and started, honestly, to make my peace with God. Because to me, I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.

Authorities said the woman driving the Taurus, 52-year-old Karen Vatnsdal, had a blood alcohol level of 0.22 percent. The legal limit in North Dakota is 0.08 percent. Her passenger, Justin Teague, 33, had also been drinking, police said.

Hart said Teague got on top of him and started hitting him after the collision.

Another man, an emergency-room nurse who was driving by, stopped to help Hart. The nurse and Teague tussled before the nurse forced Teague off Hart, court documents say.

Teague is charged with two counts of assault and two counts of terrorizing for allegedly threatening to kill the nurse as well as police officers. Vatnsdal is charged with drunken driving and aggravated assault. Teague and Vatnsdal, both from Grand Forks, have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys have not returned messages left by the Grand Forks Herald.

Archie Ingersoll writes for the Grand Forks Herald