PALMER -- A year ago this month, Joel Stefanski, professional pole climber and state fair volunteer, tore up his body and nearly died when the 50-foot pole he was helping move at the Lumberjack Show broke and sent him flying.
He remembers only three things from that day: seeing the top of the pole break; trying to rise after the fall and thinking he couldn't get up because he had a charley horse; and asking someone to call his wife.
That day a year ago, Stefanski fell 21 feet. The fall crushed the left side of his pelvis, tearing his iliac vein and damaging his left kidney. The damaged vein and the danger it posed of him bleeding to death interfered with efforts to completely repair his hip.
"He broke his hip socket and all the pelvis around it," said Dr. Gary Benedetti, a orthopedic trauma surgeon at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center who was first to treat Stefanski. "I fix a handful of those a year but they're usually not that catastrophic an event."
"I was told people with this bad of an injury usually didn't make it," his wife, Mindy, said.
Benedetti recommended Stefanski be sent to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Mindy Stefanski says no one knew if her husband -- a pole climber for Matanuska Electric Association, owner of Valley Tree Services and a contender at lumberjack competitions -- would ever walk again. Doctors said they'd rarely seen a patient with Stefanski's kind of injury before.
Through six weeks in Seattle and then months of physical therapy at home, Mindy Stefanski told herself that Joel, whom she called Superman for his strength and tenacity, would make it through.
Both can't say enough about what the support of their community meant to them. The Alaska State Fair donated a portion of single-day ticket sales to the Stefanskis. Family and friends responded with meals and lengthy home visits. Six hundred people attended a fundraiser on the fairgrounds last fall; phone calls, e-mails and cards poured in from all over the country. The biggest -- two large, painted plywood panels decorated with cut-outs of evergreen trees -- stands in their front room, adorned with hundreds of signatures and messages in black marker.
"Whenever I need a pick-me-up, I just stop here and read them," Stefanski says. Several surgeries, 12 months and a marathon of pain later, Joel has stopped using his cane and returned to work for MEA.
Only someone looking for it would notice the slight hitch in his gait, the tender transfer of weight to a hip that, instead of being a smooth, concave cupping of bone, is now a collection of fused, calcified shards.
Benedetti says the fact that Joel walks as well as he does "is pretty amazing. It's a tribute to how good a shape he was in before he was hurt ... The X-rays definitely don't match his walking."
Even so, a hip replacement is in Stefanski's future, as well as a surgery to more permanently repair the connection between his left kidney and his bladder.
For now, Mindy says they're easing into normality. They took their son to college last week. Their daughter started her sophomore year in high school. Joel is adjusting to life as a supervisor and a daily routine of exercises to keep his hip mobile.
For a person who, from the age of 6, was more comfortable in trees than on land, living in a broken body has been like "going from living life at 100 mph to 45," Joel said.
From his chair in the family living room, through a picture window sporting small black, stick-on letters that read "believe," Joel can see his lift trucks and other equipment used for Valley Tree Services. The business is shut down now but he has hope that he'll be able to resurrect parts of it in the future.
"I might never climb again but I might be able to run the saw mill or the excavator. I just gotta focus on the dreams," he said, and quotes his friend, the late Alaska legend, Col. Norman Vaughn, "'Never give up. You must dream big and dare to fail.'"