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Roxane B. Salonen, Published August 30 2013

Crystal clear faith: After his losing sight, Fargo man seeing better than ever

FARGO - Just minutes before the car accident that left him mangled and nearly dead, Vince Ulstad may well have been whispering a prayer of thanksgiving for all his blessings.

He had every reason to believe that evening in June 2009 that life was as about as good as it could be. A husband and father with many friends, he also had a solid job and satisfying faith life.

Little did he know, on the way home from a work trip that had diverted him to Steele, N.D., that just ahead on the interstate, a driver with an alcohol level three times the legal limit was in his lane, about to crash into him full blast.

In one horrifying moment of flying glass shards and metal, Ulstad’s life was changed forever for the worse, but also, as he would come to see, for the better.

THE AWAKENING

Ulstad has no memory of any of it. The first thing he remembers upon emerging from a five-week coma was a barrage of news reports coming from somewhere – a radio or television, he’s still not sure – blasting news of Michael Jackson’s death. The star had been found dead the day before, June 25, 2009.

“I had no idea what was going on,” Ulstad says. “I was groggy, drifting in and out, and everything was pitch-black. And then hearing this report of the death of Michael Jackson – it was very surreal, and really eerie and creepy.”

Though they’d been to see him numerous times, it would be a week more before Ulstad would remember family members talking to him; particularly, his wife, Jackie, explaining what had happened.

“She told me about the head-on collision, and I think one of my first questions was, ‘How’s the other driver?’” he says. He’d soon learn the driver had died at the scene.

Though the crash brought many physical injuries, including a severed artery, fractured skull and broken foot, pelvis and jaw, Ulstad said he struggled most with learning he was blind.

Significant blood loss had meant five days of attempted stabilization before any surgeries could begin, denying oxygen and blood flow to the optic nerve and leading to permanent, irreversible damage.

“I will guarantee you I cried buckets of tears. I did not accept then that I was blind,” he says. “I really believed that one morning I was going to wake up and be able to look out the window and see.”

In fact, one morning during his long hospital stay, he did wake to a magnificently brilliant sunrise. “I remember thinking, ‘Aha, my eyesight has come back!’”

But after drifting off, he woke again to blackness.

WHY ME, GOD?

Though Jackie and the boys were there for him, Ulstad says, they also bore more than a person should and were, in an emotional sense at least, the other victims of the crash.

By the time his wife and youngest son, Kyle, were able to reach the Bismarck hospital where he’d been transported, Ulstad’s lung and kidneys had started shutting down.

“They got there at about 4:30 in the morning, and Jackie said I was totally unrecognizable,” he says.

And yet almost immediately, he adds, God’s grace kicked in through visits from friends.

By the time Ulstad was transported back to Fargo for further recovery and rehabilitation, so many visitors streamed in daily that the receptionist quit looking up as people came by and just rattled off his room number.

“They helped me deal with all the emotions I was experiencing,” he says. “And my wife would come by each day and read the latest posts on the Caringbridge website. They brought tears to my eyes.”

But he also wrestled with God, asking, “Why me?”

“Sometimes, I’d ask that with a clenched, shaking fist out of anger, and other times, with the open palm, inquisitively, as if to say, ‘Why did this happen?’” he says.

Whenever he’d ask, God would “press in and around my mind things that he wanted me to think about,” including whether, in his first 52 years, he’d ever given thanks for his eyesight.

“By facing some of the context and the situation from all angles,” Ulstad says, “it helped me through it emotionally and to realize that I had a lot to be thankful for – and still do.”

WORSE THAN BLINDNESS

Ulstad went through a series of stops and starts, and then, in December 2011, he’d come to a point of stability and began looking forward to life again.

His family decided to celebrate all they’d come through by taking a trip to Hawaii, and returned home New Year’s 2012.

Just five months later, Jackie shared some startling plans. She wanted a divorce. Ulstad was shocked and shattered once more.

Until then, blindness had felt like the worst thing possible, he says. Yet, even while acknowledging the pain of it, he harbors no resentment and prays for her each day.

He attributes his ability to find serenity to God alone.

“Not one week has gone by without something happening that I can only ascribe to him,” he says.

AN UNSHAKEABLE FAITH

Ivar Berge, Fargo, was one of Ulstad’s first visitors the day after the crash.

“He was so swollen and beat up,” Berge says, adding that he eventually began sneaking Dairy Queen Blizzards into Ulstad’s room during routine visits, staying well past visiting hours.

“I thought I was doing it because he needed a friend, but he ministered much more to me than I to him,” Berge says. “It was an incredible testimony to his faith in Jesus; it never wavered. It carried him through and uplifted me, and I’m sure many others around him.”

He continues to learn from Ulstad and gets together with him weekly, often for breakfast.

“In the earlier days, I would walk away from him and just weep, but the more I would talk with him, I realized he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself,” he says. “He just trusted that God would bring him through with whatever plans God has, and that really impacted me.”

Joyce Eisenbraun, marketing director for Elim Care in Fargo, had worked with Ulstad on a capital-campaign project at Elim about a decade before the accident. Ironically, she says, his push for an expanded chapel at the facility ended up bringing him solace during his rehabilitation there following the accident.

“It’s just been sheer guts to persevere through some of the pain and the huge loss he’s experienced,” she says. “I’ve come away from conversations with him thinking, ‘I don’t think I’d have that same reaction, the same appreciation for God choosing this route to be what will have an impact on others.’”

But making him Superman wouldn’t be fair, either, Eisenbraun adds.

“Particularly in those early days, I didn’t see the bone-deep anger,” she says, “but I sensed bewilderment over how the path he thought he was on had so abruptly shifted.”

Rather than dwelling there, however, Ulstad moved onto asking God what he had planned for him next. “He was always open to looking for that next answer,” Eisenbraun says.

BELIEF IN THINGS UNSEEN

Ulstad says he misses being able to open his Bible and read Scripture straight from the pages, along with pheasant hunting in the fall with his oldest son, Brent, 26, and taking in the athletic events of his younger son, Kyle, 22.

And he’s already mourning what he’ll never see – his sons walking down the aisle at their weddings, future grandchildren, and other significant life events. “That hurts deeply,” he says, “but man, it’s got to mean something to them, too, so I hope they’re dealing with it well, processing it the best way possible.”

Despite the tough road, Ulstad says in many ways life has never been better.

“Lately I’ve been walking around and I’ll catch myself with a big grin on my face,” he says. “There’s truly a tremendous sense of peace, serenity and joy that I can only attribute to God’s faithfulness to me, and I do believe he still has some purpose and value for me, for my life.”

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com