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Recovery continues 20 years after accident

 

Courtesy Photo

SAY CHEESE – Justin Knutson smiles big, cuddling niece, Brooke Flemmer, age 9. Knutson and Flemmer are both active competitors in the Special Olympics.

July 3 marked 20 years since Justin Knutson fell about 150 feet while climbing near Noxon. Knutson was climbing with friends, Rob Buchan and Matthew Larkin, who went to get help after the fall. Matthew's father, Colin Larkin, scaled up the shale cliffside to get to Knutson where he laid, unresponsive.

Larkin scooped Knutson up in his arms and began to pray. The first sign of life came when Knutson leaned over and threw up while in Larkin's arms. By this time, around 20 people had gathered at the site and formed a human chain to help carry Knutson off the mountain to a waiting ambulance. 

Knutson's injuries included two collapsed lungs, a bruised kidney, slices in his liver, broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a dislocated hip and multiple contusions. After the fall, the injuries to Knutson's face made him unrecognizable. During the trip to the hospital, those injuries had receded to minor scrapes and cuts. 

Knutson was rushed to Sacred Heart in Spokane and spent two days in neuro-ICU and around 18 days on the eighth floor of Sacred Heart. Knutson was then transferred to Village Health Care in Missoula for more focused care.

Knutson remained in a coma since the accident and continued to drop weight, losing a total of 34 pounds. Knutson's brain was still trying to figure out what was happening and trying to reroute, causing his temperature to rise and go through a seizure-like "storm" where he would burn around 3,000 calories in one episode.

About three years after the accident, a surgery was performed to insert a baclofen pump into Knutson's stomach for the purpose of administering medications. Just a year after the pump went in, Knutson went through an overdose situation when his medications were accidentally administered three times the appropriate amount. Knutson was switched to manually taking medications under close monitorization. 

In August of 2000, Knutson was finally able to stand up and begin more extensive physical therapy. In 2003, Knutson walked with his walker across the stage to receive his diploma at his high school graduation. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place," Karen Knutson said of her son's tremendous recovery and continuous accomplishments.

In 2008, Knutson got involved with the Special Olympics, competing in throwing and walking events, and decorating his room with all his medals and ribbons. He also enjoys playing his Wii and collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia and older model ford trucks that decorate his man cave. He is also very organized, frequently vacuuming, and making his bed every morning.

Knutson hears and understands everything that goes on around him and loves to write in his notebook. His vocal skills are still fine tuning themselves due to damage to his pallet. When we talk, there is a flap at the back of our pallet that cuts off air flow to our nose, so the sound is focused and clear. Knutson's pallet doesn't automatically close, so he has to work a little harder to communicate and make sure he is heard. He had a temporary mouthpiece that he wore to help his pallet close. There is also a surgery to permanently fix the problem, but it is not covered by insurance and is estimated to cost $25,000.

One thing that motivates Knutson the most is making a difference in the world anyway he can. He is always positive and willing to give out hugs. He also has an infectious smile that can brighten anyone's day. He hopes to one day get involved with the police department or help out in the mayor's office and have an impact on many people's lives. The support and prayers from the community has been very encouraging and Knutson continues to make great progress every day. When asked what he would like to share with people, he replied, "Rock on, dude!"

 

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