Jonathan Steele suffered life-threatening injuries in a construction accident while helping to rebuild KY 38 in the Black Joe area a little over 10 years ago. A step broke on a grader, he fell and a 16-ton grader rolled on top of him.
He suffered massive abdominal injuries and was later told his legs looked “like spaghetti.”
“I stayed awake the whole time,” he recalls, noting the accident happened just as the workers were preparing to break for lunch.
Following hospital stays in Holston Valley Medical Center, in Kingsport, Tenn., and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., he saw a remarkable recovery after undergoing more than 20 surgeries and procedures. He lost his right leg to amputation.
During his treatment, he almost died from an allergic reaction to a medication that was first thought to have been a blood clot. He recalls a nurse practitioner/physician assistant who “refused to give up on me” at Vanderbilt. CPR was performed on him for 18 minutes that day. Also, a cardio specialist just happened to be nearby and “heard the commotion, came in and cracked me open.”
With massive amounts of physical therapy and rehabilitation, Steele has become a motivation and resource to many as a result of his injury, providing encouragement to others who feel the challenge of recovery to be too great from such a horrific accident.
He actually is called upon to visit Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington to offer encouragement to patients who have suffered similar accidents that seem nearly impossible to overcome.
Steele said the accident, the recovery and returning to life in a new normal “has made me a better person I believe… If someone tells me I can’t do something, then I love to prove to them I can.”
The injuries forced him to adapt to “do things different, but I still do the things I want to do… The biggest obstacle really and truly is yourself. You have to overcome the fear of how others are going to react, and stare and think and then overcome the depression… Even though it has been 10 years, I still have my own ups and downs.”
He credits a medical student who was about his age with helping him get through the difficult times at Vanderbilt, saying he was able to talk with her and she kept “my spirits lifted.” He said she actually managed to persuade him to go outside for the first time during his recovery.
Steele said his local physical therapist, Heather Depew McKnight, was the “biggest help. She pushed me to levels I didn’t think I would reach. We would set goals each week to meet. We would reach those goals and then do more… I will never be able to thank her for what she did for me.”
He has been married for seven years now. He and his wife, Becca, have a daughter, Chloe who just turned one. He met his wife playing checkers on the Internet — he was in Harlan living with his uncle after his accident and she was in California visiting her aunt.
“With the help of my wife, I still get out and hunt and fish and do the things I like to do,” he said. “Her and Chloe are the biggest treasures I have. They are the greatest. I never thought I would have a family after I got hurt.”
His wife notes that “He does anything and everything he can to be there for Chloe and me. He has become more confident in what he can do…. He is a really good daddy.”
Steele continues to work with cattle as he did before the accident. They patented a breed of beef cattle known as Black Gold Simmental. He has been raising them since the late 80s with his uncle, Bill Clem.
He said he was fortunate to be involved with a bloodline “that hit. That bloodline got hot. It put us on the map, so to speak.”
Steele helps coach the Harlan County High School Black Bears Baseball Team and maintains the book for the games. He first came involved with the program in 2008.
“It started out as more of a hobby, but over the years it has developed into a passion,” recalls Steele. “They asked me initially to get me out of the house and keep me busy. Now, it is a passion, a love. I look forward to every spring. It kills me in the summer when the season is over. I am blessed every spring to have 20 to 25 boys… I call them boys, but they are more like my sons.”
He said getting attached to the players and then losing them to graduation affects him more than he thought possible.
“It is emotional,” he said. “It is hard to see the seniors leave, but you have to let them go. You’ve watched them grow from the eighth grade or freshmen into young men. You hope to have done something that will impact their life, something good…”
This summer while on vacation, his family suffered another tragedy. They were awakened in the early morning hours at the beach to learn that their home had been destroyed by fire. The house he had lived in was his late grandparents’ home, where he “grew up in as a kid. I started my family in it.”
The biggest loss was sentimental items, he said, adding others items “are material and can be replaced but those can’t.” The home was a total loss.
“I felt worse for my aunts and uncles than I did for myself,” he said.
Steele said he would like to see more handicapped accessible facilities in the area. He noted it is important for people to respect the reserved parking spots for those who need them.
Reach Jeff Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org