By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS- September 18, 2004. Bret Fitzpatrick was driving to a farm sale when his truck tire blew out on a two-lane bridge. He lost control of his truck, went into the ditch, hit a power pole, rolled three times, and ended up in the water.
When Fitzpatrick came to, he was in the water and could no longer move his legs. That was the beginning of a long, tough journey for this young man who has found ways to adjust to his challenging life in rural Kansas.
Fitzpatrick grew up near Sterling where his family had a diversified crop and livestock operation. He majored in animal sciences and business at K-State. One summer, he got an internship with a meat processing company in Hutchinson and found he enjoyed meat science and food science work.
After graduation, he was hired as a food scientist in the research and development department. That company is now part of Tyson Foods.
Fitzpatrick met and married his wife who is from Buhler. He worked for Tyson and helped his dad on the farm.
Then the accident occurred. The truck cab was crushed directly behind where Fitzpatrick had been sitting and there were power lines down in the ditch. When he regained consciousness, he was outside the truck and spitting out water.
“I could have been crushed, I could have drowned, I could have been electrocuted, but none of that happened,” he said. A transformer had blown so the electric lines were not live.
Fitzpatrick was flown to Wichita for surgery followed by extensive rehab in Nebraska. He is considered a T-11 paraplegic with a pinched spinal cord.
“I’ve tried not to let it limit me more than necessary,” he said. He returned to work and even works on the farm with his wife and daughter.
In 2009, he was transferred to Tyson corporate headquarters in Arkansas. In 2016, he and his family moved back to the family farm in Kansas where his dad lives. Fitzpatrick continues to work remotely for Tyson and takes care of the cattle. The family maintains a Charolais cowherd and sells purebred bulls.
One day Fitzpatrick was reading a farm magazine and he came across an article about the Kansas AgrAbility project at K-State. “Oh man, I need that,” he said. AgrAbility is a program to assist farmers who are injured or disabled but want to continue in production agriculture.
Fitzpatrick contacted the AgrAbility specialists. They got him in touch with various resources such as the Kansas vocational rehabilitation program, Farm Rescue, and Rise Again.
AgrAbility’s motto is ‘Cultivating Accessible Agriculture.’ AgrAbility does not provide direct financial assistance, but can help people find assistive devices to help with farm work, for example.
“I have an electric four-wheel drive wheelchair and a side-by-side and skid steer that I use a lot,” Fitzpatrick said. He has installed remote controlled gates, seat lifts for his trucks, and other assistive technology.
“It’s a whole world of difference,” he said. Remarkably, he continues to travel, hunt and work cattle. “I can run cattle through the chute by myself,” Fitzpatrick said. He actively hunts turkey, pheasant and deer.
There have been plenty of frustrations. Insurance, for example, would only pay for a manual wheelchair, which is impractical on the farm. Out-of-pocket costs for adaptive devices are very expensive.
“I try to find as many ways as I can to do things independently,” Fitzpatrick said. He’s a remarkable person, living near the rural community of Sterling, population 2,248 people. Now, that’s rural. “Working with AgrAbility has been a very, very positive thing,” he said.
“Bret is a great example of how a positive attitude and creativity can make a real difference,” said Tawnie Larson, AgrAbility consultant. “The AgrAbility team that assisted Bret worked hard to find him resources and make sure they worked for him. AgrAbility is here to keep people just like Bret working and enjoying their rural lifestyle through production agriculture.”
For more information, see www.agrability.ksu.edu.
We commend Bret Fitzpatrick for meeting these challenges and for sharing his inspirational story with others. Maybe this story can help someone else along the way.
Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.