Nebraska first responder injured in fire-related crash regains independence
As the Phelps County Emergency Manager, Justin Norris always thinks about others first. For over 10 years in his position, he’s helped his community navigate dozens of high-impact weather events. On April 7, 2022, he responded to the Road 739 fire eight miles north of Arapahoe, Nebraska. The call proved to be incredibly dangerous. High winds, fire and smoke had created zero-visibility conditions, and Justin was severely hurt when his truck collided with a semi-truck.
“Having a sheriff pull up to your house, obviously that’s not something you ever want to see,” Justin’s wife, Annie, said.
Justin was taken to Tri-Valley Health System in Cambridge with life-threatening injuries. Later, he was taken to CHI Health Good Samaritan in Kearney and then to Bergan Mercy in Omaha, where he underwent several surgeries for the numerous fractures he sustained.
“I have a cervical fracture, skull fracture, two femurs that separated, both hips fractured, and a broken patella in my knee,” Justin said.
After two weeks in the hospital, Justin came to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals to begin his rehabilitation journey. He says his employer has been wonderful, working with him to ensure he receives the best care possible and meeting his family’s needs while he recovers.
Madonna’s specialists met Justin where he was on the road to recovery, starting slow and ramping up intensity as his tolerance increased. From the beginning, he demonstrated his grit and determination to return home as soon as possible.
“He is always up to the challenge of trying new things and doing them until he gets it right,” Morgan Shobe, a certified occupational therapy assistant at Madonna, said. “He knew working hard now would help him get home quicker.”
Pushing himself in therapy and staying busy helped keep Justin’s spirits up. A promising prognosis and support from staff also helped him stay focused.
“Most of the damage is cosmetic, and they told us they expect he’ll make a full recovery eventually,” Annie said. “It’s still a long process, but everything was brighter and more encouraging than we had originally expected.”
Justin’s care team credits his positive attitude as part of the reason he made quick progress in his physical and occupational therapy sessions. He said his goal in therapy was to “make it easier on everyone who has to help,” especially his wife.
As Justin’s body heals and he regains his strength, he’s becoming more independent. He’s utilizing a power wheelchair for now. However, he sometimes still needs an extra person on standby for support. During his time at Madonna, many therapists, nurses and doctors provided Annie with extensive, hands-on caregiver training, making sure both she and Justin felt comfortable returning home and navigating transfers to and from the wheelchair, bed and car.
“Getting these transfers down to a one-person assist was key because with small kids at home, it wasn’t realistic for them to use a lift or need multiple people to complete the transfers,” Kara Tischer, a physical therapist said.
Justin and Annie agree they feel confident they can return home and navigate transfers and care on their own thanks to the training they received at Madonna.
“Justin’s secret weapon is his wife,” Shobe said. “She has been by Justin's side during every available therapy session learning our tips and tricks on how to help him in all areas. Annie was a quick learner, as we would show her something one time and she had it down!”
The pair’s commitment to maximizing Justin’s independence earned them a Madonna Spirit Award.
Returning to their home in Holdrege, Nebraska, Justin is looking forward to the next phase in his recovery. He plans to return to work, possibly as soon as later this summer in a part-time role to ease himself back into the routine.
“Madonna got me where I am today, which has been far past what we were expecting, and now it becomes a waiting game,” Justin said. “Later this month, I find out what remaining surgeries I’ll have and when I can start to put weight on my legs again. I wouldn’t be surprised if at the eight-week mark after my accident, I’ll be starting to either use a walker or crutches.”
Justin said he’s most excited to return to his life role as a father of five, something Madonna has helped make possible.
“Sports are starting, and I don’t like missing my kids’ stuff,” Justin said. “I’ve missed enough already.”