Jeff Kloster has been taking to the skies for nearly 40 years. The Air National Guard veteran says he feels at home thousands of feet above the ground. But, in August 2021, Jeff was on his way to visit clients in North Dakota when his Cessna 210D single-engine aircraft crashed into a soybean field and hit a tree in West Fargo.
“I have amnesia from before the crash to a week later,” Jeff said. “They tell me I came in, tried to do the approach, went to go around, killed the engine, and came over. I lined up on a road and then went over and tried to get to the field and hit a tree trying to get to the field. I don’t know if that’s true. It’s a great story, but I don’t know if it’s real or not.”
He sustained several broken bones, including fractures in his spine. Passersby who witnessed the crash thought he was dead. Doctors were unsure he would ever walk again, but Jeff was determined. After spending two weeks in the hospital in Fargo, Jeff came to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals’ spinal cord injury program for intense physical and occupational therapy.
“My son-in-law said it best the other day when he said, ‘You know, you’re very stubborn,’” Jeff said. “Yeah, stubborn and ornery make for a really good PT patient.”
With the help of a physician-led care team, Jeff moved quickly through Madonna’s complete continuum of care, from long-term acute care to acute rehabilitation to the Rehabilitation Day program. After another round of surgeries, Jeff then came to Madonna’s Omaha Campus to continue his recovery. A self-described busy body, every moment of his day was spent working.
“He pushed himself every single day,” Tyler Pribnow, an occupational therapist, said. “The guy would go to therapy, but then he would come back and run his business from his room, so he was constantly doing something.
Jeff made no secret of his ultimate dream. His goals throughout his rehabilitation journey have remained consistent. He wants to walk, he wants to run and he wants to fly.
Pribnow worked with Jeff and came up with a solution that would allow him to get back into the cockpit. Pribnow downloaded a flight simulator on Madonna’s Oculus virtual reality headset, letting Jeff once again soar above the clouds.
“It’s been exciting for both me and Jeff to get to use virtual reality and incorporate it into therapy,” Pribnow said. “It adds a new tool in our toolkit, motivates patients and keeps us on the leading-edge of rehabilitation technology.”
The virtual reality headset creates a 3D mapping of an environment and users can navigate through the simulation using a set of joysticks. Due to the fully immersive nature, Pribnow was cautious about letting Jeff use the Occulus.
“When he first told me that he’s interested in getting back to flying and getting in a plane, I was a little nervous about using a VR system, just because I know if I was in an accident, I don’t know if I would want to return to it so quickly, but I found one, and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Pribnow said.
With the headset on, Jeff can get into an imaginary cockpit and touch all the controls with his hands. He can look to his left, to his right, up and down, to see what would realistically be surrounding him while flying. He prepped for takeoff and navigated a runway landing.
“It’s funny watching the simulation on my phone and him in front of me because when he’s in there, he’s turning and he’s moving his body just like the plane would be up in the air,” Pribnow said.
For Jeff, the virtual reality session can be summed up in one word: emotional.
“It was really cool that he took the time to find this simulator for me, and it was such a neat experience flying again,” Jeff said.
Jeff isn’t stopping at virtual reality. He has plans to be seated at the controls of a real plane within the next year.
“Absolutely; just don’t tell my wife,” He joked.
While he works toward his desire to get back in the cockpit, he’s also working toward a goal a little closer to the ground. Using Madonna’s specialized technology like the ICARE by SportsArt motorized elliptical, he feels unstoppable.
“’Can’t’ is a dangerous word, so my goal is to complete a 10k in 2024,” Jeff said.
To read more coverage of Jeff’s recovery, click on the links below.