By AUSTIN KOELLER
KEARNEY – Dylan Wells had just finished branding cows. He and a friend decided to go trap shooting.
It was May 3, 2014. His junior year at Axtell High School.
“I dropped him off at his house, went to my house and grabbed our shotguns, our blue rock and everything,” Wells recalls. “We were headed back out, and we were driving kind of fast. I hit my brakes and they locked up.”
In a matter of seconds, Wells’ pickup swerved on the gravel road north of Axtell and ramped over the ditch. It flipped end-over-end twice and barrel rolled six to eight times before slamming to a stop in a bean field.
Wells remembers all of it.
“When they (brakes) first locked up, I honestly let go of the steering wheel,” said Wells, whose friend was following him in another vehicle. “I didn’t think I was going to live. … At the end, I was partially ejected. I felt my back break and everything.”
Wells severed his spine in the accident and today is confined to a wheelchair.
After the wreck, Wells was hospitalized at Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney for two weeks then transferred to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, where he remained another seven weeks.
A five-sport athlete and popular student, news of the accident spread quickly through Dylan’s hometown. The emergency room waiting room filled with friends, teachers and counselors within minutes of the accident.
“That night in the intensive care waiting room, we probably had the entire high school student body coming in and asking if they could step in his room long enough to see him,” said his mother, Kari. “They were praying with us in the waiting room. It was just amazing.”
“We had prayer circles for him the day after,” said friend Sophie Mellema of Axtell. “We all were just concerned. Everyone went up and visited whenever we could. It had a big effect on a lot of people.”
The community support helped Wells in his recovery.
“It was amazing to have them supporting me,” said Wells, now a freshman exercise science major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “It really gave me strength to work hard.”
As Wells made early progress on his road to recovery, he still had not been told that his injuries had left him paralyzed from the waist down. “They wouldn’t tell me straight-out that I was [paralyzed], but I couldn’t move my legs, so I kind of assumed that,” Wells said.
While doctors broke the news to her right after the accident, Kari Wells said the family decided to wait until Dylan was healthy and went through surgeries before telling him. Dylan’s family and doctors didn’t tell him he was paralyzed until a week after the accident.
“The day that we told him, we were planning on this being the roughest day of our lives,” Kari said. “We had our pastor there and we had grandparents there. We asked his close friends to make sure they were able to come after school that day.”
Garrett Miller of Axtell, a friend since kindergarten, was present when they broke the news.
“He kept bringing up how he was never going to walk again,” Miller said. “That’s the negative part of it. I tried to bring up the good part about it: the fact that he’s still alive. It could have been a lot worse.”
After learning of his paralysis, Wells remained positive.
“I was pretty accepting because they said I would be able to go to Madonna and do therapy,” he said. “I was OK with that.”
His mom was amazed how well Dylan took the news.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be the worst day of Dylan’s life.’ I remember him looking at me and saying, ‘This has been a pretty good day.’ I just thought, ‘How is he even saying this?’ I think he just made up his mind to remain positive,” his mom said. “Even on what should have been the worst day of his life, he ended that day saying he had a lot of good friends there and it turned out to be a pretty good day.”
Confined to a hospital bed in the weeks following his accident, Wells immediately embraced the challenge of learning how to use a wheelchair once he arrived at Madonna Rehabilitation for physical therapy and rehab.
“The minute he got to Madonna, they had a wheelchair right there for him,” said his mom, Kari. “That kid could not get out of the bed fast enough into that wheelchair. He just started exploring and wanted to go everywhere. He wanted to go outside and wheel around the hospital.”
Becoming more mobile was an immediate priority.
“We did a lot of therapy,” Wells said. “We lifted weights. We learned how to do wheelies, go up and down curbs in a wheelchair, how to go about getting dressed, transferring to different chairs and couches, and how to drive.”
It didn’t take long for Wells to also tap into his athletic interests. He was introduced to wheelchair tennis and quickly became a force in the sport. He turned heads at a Lincoln tourney, where nationally-ranked players were shocked at how well he played, said his mom.
“They were coming up to him saying, ‘Wow, you should stick with this. You could be where I am in a couple years. You could be ranked nationally,’” said Kari Wells.
Dylan has also taken up adaptive rock climbing. “One of my friends, an outpatient at Madonna, is a really avid climber,” he said. “He knew I didn’t want to be inside.”
Wells eventually wants to climb outdoors using his own adaptive rock climbing equipment. He also wants to try adaptive skiing.
Miller, his longtime friend, is surprised at the range of parasports Wells is able to participate in.
“He’s been doing stuff that I never thought was possible. He’s rock climbing and stuff like that. That really surprised me.”
However, few are surprised by Dylan’s willpower.
“It’s just his personality,” said Mellema. “He tries to do everything. He’s very independent and likes doing things on his own. He likes to do it and get it done. That’s just the way he is. One way or another, he’ll get something done.”
Nearly two years since the accident took away his ability to walk, Wells continues his recovery and has his eyes set on earning his college degree from UNK.
He talks about his future goals and says he wants to help those who have gone through situations similar to his.
“I want to get my degree and go into either exercise science or pre-occupational therapy,” he said. “Then I’ll go to ‘O and P’ school and get a degree in orthotics and prosthetics.”
Upon graduation, Wells wants to build braces and prosthetics. He aims to be a resource for people by sharing his own experiences with them.
Throughout Wells’ recovery, his friends and family said he has inspired them.
“He always has a very positive attitude,” Mellema said. “Sometimes something little happens, and I realize I shouldn’t be upset over something so little. Dylan has had this big event happen in his life and he has made the best of it.”
Kari Wells said she has learned not to give up and know there is a plan.
“We may not understand it right now, but I think there’s a plan,” she said. “Some day we’ll find out why all of this happened. Right now, we have to stay positive and focus on all the good things that have happened. Dylan is such a positive kid and has been willing to overcome all of this.”
Dylan said the main lesson he wants people to gain from his story is to maintain a positive outlook on life.
“You’re not invincible,” he said. “If bad things happen, you can overcome.”
Major: Exercise science
Year in school: Freshman
Family: Parents Mitch and Kari; Sister, Harper, sophomore at Axtell High School.
Contact: Todd Gottula, Director of Communications, 308.865.8454, firstname.lastname@example.org