There is a six-month, five-hour gap in Jim Vandenheuvel's memory. It starts five hours before enemy mortar struck Sgt. Vandenheuvel's Humvee, just outside Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and ends six months after he survived with his head cracked open, his left leg shattered and his right leg eviscerated. Vandenheuvel is one among only 1% who survive such injuries.
He is back in his home state, Minnesota, working out, lifting weights, helping his dad plant corn and fishing with friends. Vandenheuvel's positive attitude has carried him a long way since that evening mortar attack on February 12, 2004, and he walks with barely a limp, thanks to the innovative leg-lengthening surgery and treatment provided by Mark Dahl, MD, a surgeon practicing at Woodwinds Health Campus.
Vandenheuvel, a resident of Pierz, Minnesota, was 20 when he joined the Army National Guard in 1999. His unit was activated in the early weeks of the Iraq war: January 25, 2003. Assigned to Abu Ghraib, Vandenheuvel transported prisoners and supplies while defending the prison from attack. On February 12, Vandenheuvel was patrolling the prison's perimeter with teams of three soldiers in Humvees. Suddenly, a mortar struck Vendenheuvel's vehicle, it flew into the air and landed in a ditch. The driver was killed, the second soldier was catapulted out and Vandenheuvel found himself buckled under a 500-pound car door.
"I thought I was going to be bedridden..."
Black Hawk helicopters soon arrived to remove Vandenheuvel, screaming in pain, from the Humvee and spirit him to a Baghdad hospital. He spent one month in a German hospital and four more months in Walter Reed Hospital in the U.S. He arrived at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minnesota on August 11, 2004. "I thought I was going to be bedridden for the rest of my life," Vandenheuvel recalls. Then he met Dr. Mark Dahl.
"Right after the attack, the doctors were more concerned about saving my life, and they focused on the injuries to my head," says Vandenheuvel. "When they put my shattered left leg back together, the lower part was twisted inward and my hip was twisted outward. My leg was four inches shorter." After months of physical therapy and healing, Vandenheuvel walked with great difficulty, wearing a shoe with a four-inch lift.
A surgery, a longer leg
Dr. Dahl offered a solution. After earning his medical degree at Mayo Medical School, Dahl served his residency at the Veteran's Administration and University of Minnesota hospitals. When Vandenheuvel met him, Dr. Dahl had become Woodwinds' expert in the correction of bone and joint deformities, limb lengthening and knee arthritis.
On New Years Eve, December 31, 2004, Dr. Dahl straightened Jim Vandenheuvel's leg by inserting a rod into his thigh bone, adding an inch in length. He used computer mapping to focus his surgery and enable smaller incisions. Next, Dr. Dahl attached a small, battery-driven limb-lengthening device that was designed to slowly stretch Vandenheuvel's leg. In less than three months, his leg was three inches longer, matching his right leg.
Speaking from the heart
Vandenheuvel began walking without a cane in August 2005. He told his story at HealthEast's Report to the Community in December — striding to the podium, ignoring his hand-written notes and speaking from his heart.
"I'm getting my life back," said Vandenheuvel. "I have come so far and I feel great! Sure, sometimes I feel the shrapnel in my hip, but I’m working out and I’ve gained a lot of strength. I’m helping my dad with fieldwork at his farm in Pierz.
"And," he said chuckling, "I plan to ski again. I'll go slow and snowplow. But I will ski again."