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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 20, 2018

Stockport woman defies odds, rides RAGBRAI year after debilitating accident

By By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Jul 27, 2018

Gretchen McLain never doubted she would be ready for RAGBRAI 2018.

The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is happening this week, when 8,500 riders make the 428-mile journey from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. It’s an arduous task that taxes a cyclist’s stamina.

But McLain had to worry about much more than just getting in shape. One year ago, McLain could not walk under her own power after suffering a horrific accident at her farm where she broke several bones, forcing her to spend months in physical therapy.

Accident

On July 20, 2017, McLain, her husband Darrick and their sons were hauling hay into the barn at their farm near Stockport. McLain unstrapped the hay to transport it. Meanwhile, her husband got in a skid loader to fork the hay off the truck.

While unloading the hay, the truck rocked from side to side, causing two of the 700-pound bales to fall off the bed and onto McLain. The bales were stacked so high that Darrick couldn’t see they had fallen on his wife.

“My 10-year-old son was there, and tried to warn me that the bales were falling, but by the time he did, it was too late,” McLain recalled.

Her son summoned Darrick, who lifted the bales as quickly as he could.

McLain knew she was in bad shape because she heard bones break when the bales fell on her. Even when the bales were off, she couldn’t move her legs or her entire left side.

Luckily, Darrick had some medical training through the U.S. Army Reserves, so he knew not to flip his wife onto her back as she requested.

“He said, ‘No, you can’t move!’” McLain recalled.

Darrick’s father Rick is a former deputy for Van Buren County, and he rushed over to assist before the ambulance arrived. The ambulance took McLain to the Van Buren County Hospital, and within 15 minutes she was taken by AirCare to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

Diagnosis

McLain had broken five vertebrae in her lower back, including a burst fracture in her L5. Her pelvis was broken in three places, and she had broken seven ribs. Needless to say, she was in terrible pain. Some people pass out from such intense pain, but McLain did not.

“I stayed conscious the whole time,” McLain said. “I have a fairly high pain tolerance.”

McLain arrived at the university hospital at about 9:30 p.m., and had to wait until 4 a.m. for her MRI.

“A series of doctors would visit me to check on me and do more X-rays,” she said.

Doctors operated on her spine later that morning where they inserted screws and rods to stabilize her vertebrae. They stood McLain up to see if she could walk, and she couldn’t feel her toes. Her left side was numb.

“With the assistance of nurses and my husband, I walked a few steps,” she said.

Medical staff did not operate on her broken pelvis or ribs, deciding to let those injuries heal on their own.

McLain was transported to St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids for 10 days of physical therapy. She started out in a walker, then graduated to crutches.

“It was probably late October before I could walk on my own without crutches,” she said. “I had to relearn how to put my heel down first and then my toes. My mind wanted to do it, but my body didn’t want to because of nerve damage to my L5.”

Training for RAGBRAI

The accident came at a tough time for McLain because she was preparing for her ninth RAGBRAI in as many years. In fact, just a few days before the accident, she had gone on a 70-mile bike ride.

“It was a bummer that I couldn’t go because of my accident,” she said. “I asked my doctors if I could ride it this year, and they said, ‘That’s a possibility if you work hard.’ There was no other option for me. I had to do it.”

When McLain was asked why she didn’t take it easy the first year, she said, “I’m not a play-it-safe kind of person.”

“I’m alive, and I can do it, so why not do it?” she asked. “That attitude serves me well most of the time.”

Cycling is actually the easiest way for McLain to move from one place to another because it puts the least strain on her spine. Her lower back is tight on the bike, but it’s more comfortable than running.

“It feels like there’s a knife going into my back every time I jog because of those pins,” she said.

McLain began training for this year’s RAGBRAI on a stationary bicycle at St. Luke’s. She continued training over the winter in spin classes, and in her physical therapy sessions in Fairfield that lasted through December. By April, she was strong enough to get on her own bike.

Her three boys (Cameron, 11, Calvin, 10, and Copper, 4) have kept her busy this summer with baseball, but she still makes time to ride twice during the week and a long ride on the weekend. She bikes from her house to Bonaparte and back. Her RAGBRAI team, Team Lizard, goes on long rides once a week. Darrick is on the team, too.

McLain plans to do every leg of RAGBRAI, which started Sunday in Onawa. The route cuts through Ames and then dips south, stopping in Sigourney Thursday night before turning north through Keota, Kalona and Iowa City. The ride ends Saturday in Davenport.

McLain is still a little banged up but is committed to cycling no matter the cost. Feeling is just now returning to her left foot, though it’s not all there. Even today, McLain notices a reduced range of motion, and still suffers pain from the accident.

“I can feel the screws in my lower back from the outside of my skin,” she said. “I’m not as flexible as I was.”

Nevertheless, McLain hasn’t let that get her down. She’s been lifting weights to speed her recovery, which has stunned doctors for being so far ahead of schedule.

“There was never a question that I was going to do RAGBRAI this year,” she said.

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