Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Backhoe driver makes smooth transition to navigating life in wheelchair

February 10, 2022

From birth, your name becomes part of your identity. For 60-year-old Ladell Kellenberger, a childhood nickname led to a career path.

“Nicknames were huge in my family,” Kellenberger said. “They came up with ‘Gopher’ back when I was a little gopher out digging in the ground and getting dirty. That, and I was the youngest of twelve, so it was also short for ‘go for things,’ fetching stuff for my older brothers.”

The nickname stuck through school and well into adulthood. Kellenberger has spent the last 30 years operating a backhoe and working for a plumbing business in his hometown of Lester, Iowa.

“If dirt can find me, I get dirty,” Kellenberger said. “Some people don’t like to get dirty, but I don’t shy away from it. Gopher definitely fits me, as someone who is always digging and staying dirty.”

On Monday, November 8, 2021, Kellenberger had gone to work at Leuthold’s Plumbing and was taking a work truck to a job site when he was hit by a train. The accident was less than a mile from the job site.

“It was a really sunny day, and for whatever reason, I did not see that train,” Kellenberger said. “I drove directly into it with the big truck. I’m really lucky the Lord saved my life.”

Kellenberger was flown to Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he underwent several surgeries. He was then transferred to Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, where doctors worked diligently to save his right leg. They had to amputate his left leg above the knee.

“After that, they were looking for a place for me to go, and at one point, doctors suggested putting me in a nursing home,” Kellenberger said. “I about fell out of my chair, and I said, ‘No, you are not!’”

He came to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals to learn new ways to do daily activities from his wheelchair and maintain the level of independence he had before his injury.

When he first arrived, Kellenberger stayed in Madonna’s specialty hospital, where the focus was on wound care and strengthening his upper body. He quickly adapted to his power wheelchair because it was steered with a joystick, similar to the one he used in his backhoe. After a few weeks, he progressed through Madonna’s continuum of care to the acute rehabilitation unit where he was able to get comfortable with activities of daily living to prepare for returning home.

Madonna’s Independence Square is a simulated community where patients can engage in real-life skills, such as grocery shopping, cooking a meal, transferring in and out of a vehicle or getting in and out of bed. Simulating real-life activities is not only critical to regaining the maximum level of independence, but it also helps build confidence and regain skills like reaching and grasping, making a list, memory, cognitive skills and communication.

“It’s neat that they do that here so you can know you can actually do stuff like that from your wheelchair,” Kellenberger said. “Even just practicing how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you have to practice which direction you need to be facing and how to use the reacher. Small things.”

Kellenberger said he’s proud that he can now transfer from a bed to his wheelchair using a slide board, use the restroom and shower on his own. He feels prepared to return home.

As a co-owner of a plumbing business, Kellenberger said his company has been great about understanding his recovery will take time. With a few more surgeries still ahead of him, he anticipates plenty more rehabilitation. He hopes to be fitted with a prosthetic leg by this summer and to return to Madonna to relearn how to walk. And, because you can’t keep this Gopher out of the dirt, he hopes to return to work shortly thereafter.  

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