“It is what it is,” Kurt said. “It sucks, but I don’t have a choice. I’m going to be okay, and if I can help anyone else out along the way that’s what I want to do.”

" Jason Sturek

Just as fast as the intense pain shot through him, Kurt Kaser knew why.

The Pender farmer didn’t have time to dwell on his immediate regret, though he felt it as intensely as his wailing nerve endings. His foot was caught in the unrelenting pull of a grain auger.

Weeks ahead of this Good Friday afternoon on the farm he’d owned and operated since getting his high school diploma Kaser had modified the protective screen over the opening to the auger hopper and cut a hole big enough to temporarily improve its performance in passing pesky soybean pods due to unseasonable ice.

The hole was also just big enough for his foot to slip through as he stepped down onto the hopper that had grains of corn obscuring the danger lurking beneath.

“It was just right,” Kaser said, shaking his head. “I’m just glad it was me and not one of our hired guys or someone else.”

Kaser’s clothing was wrapped around the spinning auger that wouldn’t slow, grabbing him tightly with promises never to let go and possibly pull him in further. He could see his foot was severed clear of his body in the hopper. His tibia — the shin bone — was clearly exposed some place between where his ankle used to be and his knee, and the auger’s action violently shook his whole body as it churned.

He was alone. He guessed he was losing blood. His cell phone was not nearby. His pocket knife was.

Kaser reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small retractable blade about six inches long. He then went to work — with one hand on the bone and the other on the knife — cutting whatever he had to in order to free himself from the auger’s grip.

“It was partly clothing,” Kaser says calmly, as if to downplay what the other portion was.

If the constant pain was like a chorus, the sawing motion against his bone and remaining flesh were like soloists crescendoing above the rest. Kaser guessed those spikes in pain “like needles” were nerves.

Once free, the husband to wife Lori of 41 years and father of three grown children, Amanda, Adam and Whitney, battled to shut off his truck, tractor and the auger — tasks that require effort even on a ho-hum day. He then crawled like a wounded soldier on his elbows about 200 feet to an office on the farm place he’d spent nearly every day of his life since he graduated Pender High School in 1974.

He summoned Adam, a member of the Pender Volunteer Fire and Rescue, and when he knew help was on the way he managed to rest, tired in every way.

Surprisingly, his blood loss seemed disproportionate to the injury and he stayed awake. He was stabilized at Pender Community Hospital a few miles from the farm and then flown by helicopter to Bryan West Medical Center in Lincoln. The bigger city stop wasn’t by accident. His daughter, Amanda Kaser-Malousek, is a trauma nurse who flies on rescue helicopters for a living. That’s where she wanted him to go.

From there, he spent time at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, taking on the next part of a journey that will forever be part of the 63-year-old’s story.

And what a story it is.

‘Kurt Kaser’ goes global

Channel 7 News in Omaha was first to introduce a wider world beyond Pender to Kurt Kaser. Try an Internet search of his name, and in the first handful of results you’ll see the Washington Post, CBS News, ABC News, NBC News, Fox News, People Magazine, live on the air with Piers Morgan on “Good Morning Britain” and the Japan Times.

Yes, Japan.

The day of this interview with Kaser on May 20 with his hometown newspaper, a film crew from Germany was making plans to schedule its time with him.

All Kaser can do is shake his head some more and wonder why his story resonates as it does with such a wide audience. What he knows — and about all he says he knows — is that when you’re faced with what he was survival is your only choice.

“I wasn’t making a decision about saving my leg. Maybe if it wasn’t as bad as it was it would have been a harder decision. The leg was gone. I could see it was gone,” Kaser said.

With so much regional, national and global exposure to his story has come phone calls and letters. One woman from Wisconsin called recently and is dealing with her own traumatic
story involving the loss of a limb. She just wanted to talk.

Another didn’t call to talk to Kurt, but instead wanted to give Lori some kind words because they knew firsthand that life’s many adjustments extend beyond the individual.

Not his first life change

Kaser talked easily about his ordeal, in part because he’d already been interviewed countless times in the month since he lost his leg on April 19.

The other reason came with a bit more hesitation.

“I couldn’t have done this nine years ago,” he said. “I’d have said, ‘No way.’ ”

It has been that many years since he had his last drink of alcohol.

The process he went through back in those days — through Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — have opened him up to the power and value of speaking.

Whether it’s to emphasize the importance of farm safety and how easy it is to make a mistake while in a hurry — or how to cope with a life-altering disability and keep a positive attitude — Kaser said he wants to be there for people in need.

There for each other

Adam Kaser looked his father over for the first time after the accident.

“God damn, dad.”

He said the words as a son — and also perhaps now as a brother.

Adam suffered an accident six years ago with amateur fireworks that took nearly his entire dominant hand. Many surgeries and life lessons later, he knows that difficult days lay ahead for his father, and he also knows that he’ll be there for him like his family and friends have been there for him.

“There’s something special about living in a small rural community,” Lori said. “People just take care of each other here.”

Kurt Kaser sits in the bed where he is recovering less than a couple hundred feet from the auger that caused all the trouble (one he says he has no reason to trade in or sell, by the way, since it still works).

He has a table full of compression socks, medications and other caretaking items nearby. He knows he’s got at least one more surgery to prepare the remaining part of his leg for a prosthetic and ensure he has only healthy tissue. There’s phantom pain that he’s unsure how will impact him in the long term, and it jarringly fires sometimes.

There will be more rehabilitation.

“But it could always be worse,” Kurt says.

He saw others in rehab with less of a chance for something closer to the life they were accustomed to. And he has proudly seen Adam overcome his obstacles as he will try to do himself.

At some point, there’s wishing things didn’t have to happen to people — but there’s also seeing what they are capable of when push comes to shove.

“It is what it is,” Kurt said. “It sucks, but I don’t have a choice. I’m going to be okay, and if I can help anyone else out along the way that’s what I want to do.”