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Blind man run over in Willmar still in hospital, but recovering

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ST. CLOUD -- It was a nice evening, so as the sun set during the late afternoon of Nov. 16, Tom Sykora decided to walk from his Willmar apartment to McMillan's Restaurant for the evening special.

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Sykora, who lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa about 20 years ago, and his guide dog, Nectar, waited one cycle of the traffic controls at the intersection of First Street and 19th Avenue before attempting to cross 19th Avenue going south on the west side of First Street. Prior to leaving his home, he had donned a bright yellow jacket, with strips of reflective tape sewn onto the fabric, similar to those worn by road construction workers, and took his white cane in hand.

"I've gone across that intersection hundreds of times," Sykora said. During the crossing, everything seemed to be going fine, he added, but then something didn't feel right.

"I was about 12 feet from the curb and heard sounds like two vehicles colliding," he said Tuesday from his hospital bed at St. Cloud Hospital. It took him a moment to realize that he was the one who had been struck by a vehicle. "I can't describe the sickening thud,"

Sykora was thrown to the ground, but that was just the beginning of the trauma. "A second later, a car wheel was going over the top of me," he said, adding that he was worried his time was up. "I flashed to the grandparents, and decided to wait it out. Then another wheel hit me."

He was left face down in the street, bleeding from his face and having more and more difficulty breathing because the vehicle had driven over his chest. Fearing further injury, Sykora didn't move. "I thought to get the cane in the air so someone else wouldn't drive over me ... if I could find it."

Sykora never lost consciousness as emergency responders came to attend to him and take him by ambulance to Rice Memorial Hospital's emergency room. He was then airlifted to St. Cloud Hospital, where he was scheduled to have surgery to repair his broken ankle Friday afternoon.

All but two of Sykora's ribs were broken. While he was at Rice, chest tubes were inserted to drain blood and fluids from his punctured and collapsed lungs. Doctors later discovered that his right scapula was broken. Sykora spent much of the first week in the hospital in significant pain as medical professionals worked to determine which pain medications would address his discomfort. "The pain was just incredible, just incredible," he said.

On Monday, doctors inserted an epidural catheter into his spine. The treatment is commonly administered to women in childbirth.

While he was lying facedown in the street, "I could feel the pallor of the drivers in the cars," he says. No vehicles were moving. Finally, a woman came to him and asked what she could do. He told her to call 911. Others arrived to help. A first responder brought him a blanket. The entire time, he didn't know where Nectar was.

As Sykora rested in his hospital bed during this interview, Nectar was sleeping in the corner of the room. After a few days of separation, friends and family members reunited the purebred Black Labrador guide dog and her master. The dog was not injured in the incident.

The suspected driver of the vehicle that struck Sykora has not yet been charged in district court in connection to the incident. According to police reports, Sykora was run over by a 2002 Ford pickup driven by Willmar dentist Gary Lee Mattson, 55. Mattson allegedly left the scene, but was located later by law enforcement officers.

A witness to the incident reported seeing the vehicle stop, pull out to right turn and then bounce as it ran over Sykora.

The bright yellow jacket Sykora was wearing is hanging in the closet of his hospital room, with a dark mark on the back. Dark bruises -- ranging from black to blue to purple -- cover Sykora's arms and legs. He says he has marks that resemble tire tracks across his back.

Sykora's daughter, Kelley, has posted updates and photos of her father on his caringbridge.org web site: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/tomsykora.

On Tuesday, neither Sykora nor his daughter, who arrived a day after the incident, had been contacted by law enforcement regarding the incident.

Sykora says he has been "blown away" by support from the community, many people who post messages of support on his caringbridge site mention that they don't know his name, but recognize him from seeing him walking along First Street.

He says he's looking forward to getting back home to Willmar and to teaching Nectar new routes to new destinations in town and wants folks to know that he's doing fine.

"I've got a positive spirit that will not quit," he said. "Things will work out."

Editor's note: A benefit account for Sykora has been established at Lake Region Bank and donations can be received at Willmar or any local branch of the bank.

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Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

(320) 214-4373
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