Strong recovery

Becky Vargo • Jul 29, 2017 at 9:00 AM

Dave Rickert said he remembers everything about the day a homemade firework exploded, critically injuring him and causing him to be hospitalized for almost the entire month of July.

It’s not something the former Spring Lake man really wants to forget.

Despite the injuries and the pain, Rickert said he wants to use it as a positive experience to reset his path in life and make sure others don’t make the same mistake he made that day.

While the nation around him celebrated Independence Day, Rickert fought for his life at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.

He finally got to celebrate his own independence with his release this past Wednesday from Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids.

The 57-year-old man who now lives in Fremont was emotional when he greeted his mother, Ferrysburg resident Donna Lemieux, with the news Tuesday afternoon.

“I love you, Mom,” he said as they embraced. “I will never do anything like this to you again.”

Rickert used a cane to walk down the long hallway after riding in a wheelchair to the fourth floor of the rehab center. He traded excited high-fives and hugs with staff, many of whom said they would miss his positive attitude and hard work.

Doctors said it was that attitude that probably pulled him through the initial injuries, as well as his first few days in the hospital, Rickert relayed as he got ready to eat his last lunch and prepare for his last physical therapy session at the center. 

How it happened

A former welder, Rickert said he was preparing some cheap, homemade fireworks to take to his friend’s house later that day for a Fourth of July celebration.

“When I was in high school, I took a course at the skill center,” he said. “It was a shop class. The instructor did a demonstration using balloons filled with acetylene gas.”

Rickert said he experimented with the balloons and had been creating them for his own “flash and boom” show for the past 25 years. 

“I never overdid it,” he said. “I was always careful.”

But he did something different this year.

Normally, he would put the balloons in an open cardboard box to transport them. But on July 4 this year, he put them inside a plastic tote.

“I was behind the van and was trying to close the lid,” Rickert said. “I heard it squeaking and left the lid off. I knew something was wrong.”

Before he could react, the balloons exploded, disintegrating the plastic tote, and the force pushed him back a good 6 feet, amazingly upright.

A large, strong man, Rickert said he realized he was seriously injured — but, for some reason, he knew he should remain standing until the ambulance helicopter arrived. He remembers repeating to a friend, “911, hello,” several times.

Rickert said he refused to lie down on a stretcher when first responders arrived, somehow remaining upright until the helicopter pilot told him they were there and he could lie down now.

Rickert said he had to help them get his legs inside the helicopter. Because of the burns and cuts on his legs, emergency workers were reluctant to move them around to get the tall man inside.

Once inside the helicopter, he remembers a female crewmember telling him that it was OK, that they had him now.

The next thing he remembers is taking a big gulp of air when the breathing tube was removed.

Rickert said the exploding plastic was like sharp little Frisbees exploding everywhere. He had debris in his eyes and cuts all over his body. A cut on his arm required 150 staples. Both lower legs were burned and gouged to the bone. Skin grafts were taken from his thighs to help repair lower leg injuries.

The injured man’s body was swollen from the impact of the explosion and doctors heavily sedated him for the first couple of days.

He eventually had operations to repair a shattered pinkie on one hand and a damaged thumb on the other. His hearing is still bad and his eyesight is foggy, but Rickert said his prognosis is good.

“The first time I heard that I would regain my sight, either naturally or with the help of surgery, I cried and hugged the eye doctor,” he said. “After that, I felt like I could take on the world and do better.”

Time to reflect

While in the hospital, Rickert had a lot of time to reflect on his actions and his faith.

For once, he prayed for himself. “I always pray for others,” he said.

And he emphasized he could feel the prayers, which he called “sparkles,” coming from others.

The well wishes from friends and acquaintances on social media took him a long way, he said. Although he struggled to read, he eventually could do so with his cellphone right up to his face.

“It helped a lot,” he said. “I’d be down and out, and look at this. I appreciate all the thoughts, love concerns.”

Rickert said it also seemed like anytime he felt himself getting a little down, someone would walk through the door and it made all the difference.

Rickert also credited the hospital and rehab center staffs for his recovery.

“They gave me hope that I didn’t have,” he said.

Rickert’s recovery and therapy will now continue at home. He will have in-home nursing care every other day for at least the next couple of weeks. And every night, a friend will stay with him.

It will be a while before he can drive again, although he hopes his eyesight will return over the next few months.

Rickert was born and raised in Spring Lake. He lived in Cloverville for 25 years, and then moved back to the family farm on 148th Avenue after his father died. He lived there for nine years before eventually selling that property and buying a house in Fremont. 

Although he said he feels younger than he has in years, Rickert said it’s time to slow down.

“I’m going to practice being an old guy,” he said. “I don’t need the exhilaration anymore. I just want to enjoy everything.”

And he doesn’t need the “boom” anymore.

“That’s more like showing off,” he said. “Any time you show off, something’s going to happen.”

Rickert said that he wants to get the message out for guys not to do stupid stuff, and to think twice before trying something risky.

“I want to get it out there not to mess around with fireworks,” he said. “I don’t want kids’ parents and mothers to go through this.” 

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