By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Robert Messbarger doesn’t remember the accident that nearly claimed his life.
It was March 10, 2015, and the University of Nebraska at Kearney student, then a freshman, was heading to his parents’ home north of Kearney.
As his 2001 Nissan pickup slowed along Highway 10 to make the turn onto West 92nd Street, the vehicle was struck from behind by a semitrailer hauling a backhoe. That collision pushed his pickup into the southbound lane, where it was hit by an SUV before coming to rest in a crumpled pile on the highway’s west shoulder.
Messbarger suffered a fractured skull, traumatic brain injury, two collapsed lungs, multiple pelvis fractures and two fractured vertebrae, which damaged nerves in his right leg. He spent five days in a medically-induced coma, underwent several blood transfusions and had a steel plate and rod surgically inserted to stabilize his pelvis and vertebrae.
He didn’t leave the hospital for three weeks.
“Sometimes it seems a little surreal to think about the condition I was in and look at the pictures,” said Messbarger, who knows he’s lucky to be alive.
The Kearney Catholic graduate has come a long way over the past three years.
The steel rod and plate were removed within a year and he started running again five months after the crash. Within 18 months, he was back to 100 percent – or as close to it as he can expect.
Messbarger still experiences minor back pain, as well as hearing loss and tinnitus in his left ear.
“Those are things I know I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life,” he said.
But he’s not complaining, and he’s not angry about the accident that late-winter afternoon.
“I’m very thankful for where I’m at,” said Messbarger, whose father Rob is a family physician at Family Practice Associates and mother Lora is a preschool teacher in Kearney.
The former high school athlete who could barely get into a wheelchair during the initial stages of his rehabilitation will walk across the stage May 4 at UNK’s Health and Sports Center to receive his degree in criminal justice.
It’s a moment many people helped make possible, starting with the first responders who freed him from the crushed pickup and rushed him to CHI Health Good Samaritan – a process that took just 21 minutes from the time the emergency call went out.
“It was incredible if you think about the whole response,” said Messbarger, who is quick to thank the firefighters, paramedics and medical staff involved. Physical therapists and family members joined in during his recovery.
Messbarger, an Omaha World-Herald/Kearney Hub scholarship recipient and Honors Program member, was able to maintain his academic standing with assistance from UNK faculty and staff members. He finished two spring courses from home following the accident then enrolled in 12 credit hours the following semester to catch up.
“I can’t say enough about how much UNK worked with me and how appreciative I am,” he said.
Messbarger, a member of the Alpha Phi Sigma criminal justice honor society, is also heavily involved with the Catholic Newman Center at UNK, where he assists with mowing, snow removal and maintenance as part of the grounds committee and helps with retreats and other activities.
The 21-year-old believes faith played a big part in saving his life.
“I think it’s apparent to anybody who looks at my story the role that God played, that faith played,” said Messbarger, who had a metal visor clip of St. Michael in his pickup the day of the crash.
The UNK senior previously hoped to become a military pilot after graduating from college. He got his pilot’s license in high school and had his sights set on the U.S. Marine Corps.
However, because of the head trauma he sustained and the possibility of long-term effects such as seizures, Messbarger must wait five years from the accident date before the Federal Aviation Administration will give him medical clearance to return to the cockpit. By then, he said, a military career is likely a long shot.
Messbarger, who interned with the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, still plans to serve the public.
He’s applying for law enforcement jobs now with hopes of getting hired this summer and starting the 15-week state training academy next fall.
“Hopefully, I’ll be in a position where I can help others,” he said.