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Photo by Steve Schulz Robert Tubandt III had his severed hand reattached after a workplace accident in Arizona.

Wadena native takes three horrifying accidents in stride

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The first time Robert Tubandt III nearly lost his life was when the cable company lineman was high up on a power pole near Phoenix, Ariz.

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"The power lines over my head exploded," said the Wadena native. "I was just lucky to be alive."

The Aug. 20, 2003, accident left second- and third-degree burns on Tubandt's arms, hands and face. In the burn center in Phoenix, he spent two weeks lying in a tub of water while nurses peeled his skin off with what looked like a butter knife.

"It would hurt so bad I would faint," Tubandt recalled.

Doctors said he should get used to being on the ground -- they told him he wouldn't climb a pole for a year.

Two months later, Tubandt was back at work, scurrying up a pole.

"It was just ... I could [do it]," he explained. "I healed up good -- no infections. I wasn't going to let it get the best of me."

The second time Tubandt nearly lost his life was also on a pole.

It was Feb. 27, 2006. Tubandt said his usual partner, a hard-working, smart kid, wasn't available, and he was assigned two men who barely spoke English. But Tubandt figured with three people, they could get a lot accomplished.

Tubandt went through the game plan with the two helpers, explaining both the safety precautions necessary and the work that needed to be accomplished as they strung overhead line between poles over a highway and into a business for an owner who wanted a cable modem. He said the two indicated they fully understood his instructions, but he said they made a series of errors that led to his accident.

Tubandt scaled the pole and started working, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw the line he was stringing go slack, and sag down to a foot off the highway, snagging a car in oncoming traffic. Before he could react, the car dragged the slack in the line and the car was instantly -- almost cartoonishly -- stopped in its tracks, Tubandt said.

"It came to a dead stop -- like, right now," Tubandt said.

The pole he was on and the next pole over both bowed, then snapped back. The wire retracted like a whip.

"Before I could do anything, it was buzzing by my head at 30 miles per hour," Tubandt recalled.

He reached down to release his belt with one hand while the other hand held him to the pole. There was just one problem. His hand was missing.

Tubandt's hand -- still inside his glove -- was found about 100 feet away. Meanwhile, he had another problem. Without two hands, he wasn't going to be able to climb down.

He lost three pints of blood as he hung on the pole, waiting for rescue workers to free him. Luckily, he said, he had a piece of rope to tie around his arm to act as a tourniquet. Doctors told him that saved his life.

He was again airlifted to Phoenix. The owner of the store found Tubandt's hand, put it on ice, and sent it in the helicopter with him. Someone standing in the road fainted as they watched the scene.

Surgeons took veins, nerves, muscles and tendons from Tubandt's legs, side and arms. They reattached the hand and wrapped it with what they called a "meat flap" -- a Frankensteinish mix of other parts of his body. It was the first of 20 surgeries already (with more still scheduled.)

Asked if he has a high tolerance for pain, Tubandt said, "I do now."

After the surgery, nurses came in to poke holes in every one of his fingers on his hand to attach leeches, which promoted circulation through the hand to keep the tissue alive. Sometimes the nurses would bristle a bit at touching the leeches. Ever the Minnesota boy, Tubandt helped out.

"I'd just grab the leech and put it on," he said. "I'm from Minnesota. It's no biggie to me."

With nearly two dozen surgeries and weekly physical therapy, Tubandt has not only regained motion in the hand, he sports a firm grip for a handshake. But he also has to wear a large mitten on the hand to keep it warm. He said if it gets cold, he has two hours of excruciating pain ahead of him -- pain so bad he said he considers cutting the limb off again.

Again, two months after the accident, Tubandt was back on the job. He said he needed to work again, and though he wasn't allowed or able to climb poles right away, he could supervise on jobs and do a lot of prep work.

A year to the day after his accident, Tubandt was shocked when he was told he was being let go from the job.

Though worker's compensation has been great, he said, paying for the surgeries and helping him with job retraining, he said he only gets $1,500 per month to live on, compared to the $1,500 per week he used to earn on the job. He said he wants to work, and is upset that the company cut him loose and let the two men who contributed to his accident stay on the job.

"I think [the company] realized there was nothing I could do to sue them," he said.

He said losing his job plunged him into a temporary depression, but he's worked his way out of that. "My job right now is to get well," he said. "That's my first priority."

He's also planning to take advantage of job retraining so he can start a new career. He's got designs on a job in computers, drafting or heavy machine operation.

"I'm 47 now," he said. "I've got another 20 years of work ahead of me."

He said going back to school will be one adjustment, and there will be others.

"I'm left handed now," he said. "I used to be right handed."

And Tubandt said although he's not currently working as a lineman, he will someday get back on a pole.

"I will climb another pole, you know, just to say I did it, that I'm not scared." Tubandt said.

Tubandt said he had gained a rigorous work ethic later in life after wandering during his youth. After graduating from Wadena Senior High in 1980, he attended the Wadena AVTI for a short time, then dropped out and eventually moved to Arizona.

He got a job with a cable/telephone company there, and upon learning the linemen who climbed the poles received an extra $1 per hour of pay, he started climbing.

He said he drank and used marijuana, and was caught in Texas for possession of marijuana, and spent time in the Texas penitentiary system, which he called a "scary place." It scared him straight. He got sober when he got out, and has been ever since.

"I wasn't a good kid," he said. "I went down the wrong road."

He said being clean and sober saved him when his hand was severed. He said if a blood test had shown anything was in his system, it's doubtful he would have gotten any assistance from worker's comp.

And he's not slowing down. He was driving an ATV on July 8, 2008, and was thrown from the vehicle, fracturing his back and breaking his ribs.

"I'm lucky to be walking," he said.

He's fully recovered from that accident, which he said was minor compared to his previous two. But Tubandt said it's not lost on him that he's nearly died three times, and has lived to tell the tale.

"There's a reason I'm still alive," he said. "That was the third time I've walked away from a serious accident."

He said he knows he's supposed to do something more with his life, and now that he's seeing things clearly, he wants to help others while he helps himself.

"Maybe this story will touch some people," he said. "Being clean and sober has made a big difference in my life."

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