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Published May 04 2012

Fargo man blinded in car crash with drunken driver speaks out in PSA

FARGO - Sure, Vince Ulstad could dwell on the what-ifs, and no one could blame him. What if he had stopped working a few minutes earlier or later before heading home to Fargo from Steele County on the night of June 2, 2009?

What if he had tried to squeeze another half-gallon of diesel fuel into his pickup truck, delaying him for a few more seconds?

What if there hadn’t been a semi in front of him on Interstate 94, blocking the headlights of the wrong-way drunken driver coming up the other side of the hill on a curve?

But, as Ulstad said, “You can’t live life based on the what-ifs.” And while the 55-year-old lost his eyesight in the head-on crash that killed the other driver, his voice still works fine.

The newly retired Fargo resident is sharing his story in public service announcements that began airing this week on local radio and TV stations.

“I felt if there was anything that I could do to help people visualize some of the consequences of drinking and driving, either to you personally or to the lives of others around you, that that would be one thing that I could probably spend some of my newly available time doing,” he said in an interview Friday.

Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes, who gladly accepted Ulstad’s offer to contribute to DUI awareness efforts, said Ulstad’s personal story is more powerful and resonant than similar messages from authorities.

Ternes said the heartstring-pulling PSA is “just the tip of the iceberg” in a broader DUI awareness campaign that will eventually transcend into a more emphatic message about the consequences drunken drivers will face in Fargo.

The Fargo Police Department made a record 1,127 DUI arrests last year, a 29 percent increase over 2010. The department is on pace for another record year in 2012, with 295 arrests made through April 30, eight more than during the same period last year.

“We’re not asking you not to do it, we’re telling you, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Ternes said. “In that test of wills, the drunk drivers are going to lose every time.”

Ulstad doesn’t remember the accident. The pickup’s airbag deployed, but he still hit the steering column with such force that the steering wheel bent around his head, he said.

He suffered skull fractures and serious gashes on his left side, and his pelvis was broken in eight places, he said. Doctors initially thought he wouldn’t live through the night, and it took them four to five days to stop the internal bleeding, using 55 units of blood.

The extensive and extended loss of blood to Ulstad’s optic nerve and visual cortex of his brain left him blind, though his eyes still look healthy. He wears dark glasses only so others know he is blind.

He admits he went through periods of depression, sadness, anger and resentment.

“And I can tell you, there’s been probably gallons and gallons of saltwater tears that have fallen through these eyes,” he said.

But a higher power kept him from falling too deeply into despair, he said.

“It was such a bizarre accident, such a weird set of circumstances that had to come together at that point in time for that accident to occur,” he said. “I personally believe that at least the God that I profess to follow is big enough that he could have overridden any one of those little circumstances.

“Because he didn’t, does it mean that he’s not in control? Absolutely not. It’s just that he’s got other plans, other purposes.”

Ulstad sometimes wonders if his blindness has been harder on his wife, Jacque, two grown sons, Brent and Kyle, and others close to him.

He choked up as he talked about a song from his younger years that now holds much more meaning: “The Blind Man in the Bleachers,” country music artist Kenny Starr’s 1975 single about a blind father who sits beneath the speakers in the stands and listens to the play-by-play of his second-stringer son’s football games, waiting for him to get in the game.

On the last game of the season, the blind man isn’t in the stands, but his son runs onto the field and leads the team from behind to a win. After the game, the coach asks the boy why he played so well, and as the lyrics go, he replies, “Well, you knew my dad was blind/Tonight he passed away/It’s the first time that my father’s seen me play.”

“And so little did I realize that when I was a teenager that someday I’d probably be that blind man in the bleachers,” said Ulstad, whose son Kyle plays college football.

“I think if there’s anything I really yearn for, I would just love to be able to have maybe five or 10 minutes each year that I knew that I was going to be able to see my family together,” he said. “So, if there’s anything that I can do to help others have to not go through these kinds of yearnings, it’ll be worth it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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