Nels Hadden is home at last

Nels Hadden, hit by a car on Interstate 84 in January 2009, returned at long last Thursday to the Walla Walla Valley.

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One of the many people helping the family Thursday helps wheel Nels out into the living room to meet with reporters.

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Betsy Hadden smiles as she walks from the jet ambulance which has just brought her husband, Nels Hadden, home to Walla Walla Thursday.

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Medical workers prepare to shift Hadden off the gurney and onto a bed in the family's new home in Walla Walla.

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Nels Hadden talks with reporters about his recovery up to this point and return home Thursday.

Watch video at the end of the story of Nels Hadden's return to Walla Walla.

There were some people who thought a homecoming might never arrive for Nels Hadden.

Including, once or twice, Nels Hadden.

Hadden, 47, returned here this week, his first time to touch Valley soil in nearly 13 months.

On Jan. 26, 2009, Hadden was struck by a car on Interstate 84 near John Day Dam as he was assisting a driver who had flipped her car on the black ice that coated the road.

Since that day, with massive injuries incurred, Hadden has lived in hospitals, his closest neighbors being others undergoing similar trauma.

His zip code changed, however, when Nels, wife Betsy and a medical crew touched down at Walla Walla Regional Airport on Thursday just before noon. The group had departed more than two hours earlier from Colorado's Craig Hospital, where Nels has spent most of his time away from home.

It was an emotional landing, Betsy said, watching as her husband of more than 20 years was being transferred from air to land ambulance on the tarmac under a drizzling sky.

It had already been a long day for the family, beginning with hard-to-say good-byes to the Craig staff who have served as family, cheerleaders and support group for nearly a year.

But neither tears nor rain could dampen the Haddens' enthusiasm for this moment. Nels, Betsy confirmed, was "really happy. Happy, happy, happy."

As he headed home in a Walla Walla Fire Department ambulance, Nels was looking forward to the next adventure, he said. First will come exploring the custom-built house and getting systems in place.

Then comes finding a "new normalcy."

It's been a long time coming. Nels has had more surgeries and procedures in the past year than birthdays. Many forward movements were matched by backward steps. At one point there was a possibility Nels would be released while still dealing with a persistent pressure sore that grew to the circumference of a dessert plate and went all the way to his tailbone.

Like a Christmas gift, the wound finally healed Dec. 23. However, his skin remains fragile in areas -- a commercial flight home with transfers could have torn the recently-healed areas open.

Even with simplified transportation, getting ready this day was akin to preparing for a moon landing, Nels noted, as the ambulance approached his new neighborhood.

Betsy's online journal reflects the same sentiment as she detailed splitting daily life between moving out of the family's Milton-Freewater home -- which could not be made over to work -- and being part of her husband's care team in Colorado.

"Super busy day. Got up early to get over to hospital, and worked on packing up the rest of Nels' room. Another 8 boxes!! Can you believe it? Oyyyyy!" she wrote Monday.

Payoff for her labor was seeing her husband rolled through the door of the Walla Walla house custom created for Nels' needs by Radu Nicoara of Sonoma Homes.

In addition to typical new-house touches like gleaming, stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops, details include a wheelchair-friendly floor throughout, extra trusses to accommodate lift systems and wide doors.

Even the laundry room door, pointed out Nels' sister, Randie Goold, who was on hand as part of the day's re-entry committee. "I think (Betsy) said his chores used to include folding clothes, so he can still pitch in," Goold said with a laugh.

"It's awesome," Nels pronounced at his first real look at the house situated in the Table Rock subdivision. "It's all open...they did a really good job."

The builder was nothing short of fabulous in working with experts to make this family home perfect for this family, Betsy said. "Radu went above and beyond the call of duty. He made sure everything was just right, he researched things."

It's one of the countless ways people in communities from The Dalles to Walla Walla and beyond have responded to the plight of the Haddens. From fundraisers at Oil Can Henry's to movers from the Milton-Freewater Elks Lodge, the outpouring of help has been overwhelming, the couple said.

More help was in place Thursday. Lorelei Holm from Adventist Care Personal Health introduced herself to Betsy as the night nurse. "Oh, fabulous," Betsy replied, shaking Holm's hand. "We'll spend a lot of nights together."

She's looking forward to those shifts, Holm said. To nurse for families in their home is "very rewarding. They become like a second family to you."

That personal involvement can also challenge professional boundaries, the nurse said. It's important to remember the job site is someone's residence and refuge.

Still, the work is an investment in someone's life, Holm added, tears adding unspoken emphasis. "I anticipate he'll become like a brother to me."

Once established in his 400-pound, custom-fit wheelchair that had been shipped from the hospital, Nels was ready for the next step in the day.

Two of Nels' family members hadn't seen him since the accident, and they were voicing an anxiousness to reunite. Dakota, the flat-coated retriever, and Max, the pampered Pomeranian, had been consigned to wait behind doors until the proper moment came.

"There's Daddy," Betsy said as eight legs and four ears came flying in.

Looking slightly unsure at the commotion, Max allowed his master to nuzzle, head-to-head love. "He was supposed to be the kids' dog," Nels explained. "But he ended up being mine."

Numerous hurdles remain to overcome or go around for Nels, but being at home with pets, son Will (daughter Chelsie is attending Whitworth University) and Betsy is a great launching spot, all agree.

A newfound proficiency with a voice-recognition computer system allows him to be in "much" better touch with friends, as well as part of a larger world through e-mail and Facebook. The software program responds as fast as he once could type, Nels added.

"Yeah, but you couldn't type very well to begin with," Betsy reminded him with a grin.

A moment later, she picked up signals invisible to others indicating Nels was beginning to feel pain. Interviews needed to be ending, she reminded reporters. "We need some time."

Yet it continued to be a good day for Nels Hadden. "At one point we didn't know if this day was going to come. It's nice that the day is actually here."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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