Karen, left, and Craig Wulfekuhle sit in the living room of their Petersburg home, with Craig showing some of the after-effects of a September methane explosion on their farm.

There’s no quantitative measurement for what the limits of the human brain are, as far as its ability to rapidly process information or block out pain, but certainly, Petersburg farmer Craig Wulfekuhle must have come closer than most people will ever need to.

Monday, Sept. 2 was Labor Day and a day off work for many, but not for too many farmers. Wulfekuhle was no exception.

“I was just finishing up on Labor Day; we were loading out hogs the next morning,” he recounted. “The bin was empty and I knew the bin would be empty and I forgot to go up and shut it off before I came in. I went up to flip the switch.”

Wulfekuhle stepped into an office to access the breaker panel located right next to the door. “I stepped into the office, hit the breaker panel to shut the auger off, and I could see a blue flame coming out of the breaker panel,” Wulfekuhle remembered. “I turned and ducked my head and shielded my face. There was the right mix of methane and oxygen, and that spark set it off.”

The explosion rocked both the building and Wulfekuhle, but he did not lose consciousness. Wulfekuhle said he opened his eyes to find his shirt in tatters, and the shorts he had been wearing reduced to just their elastic waist.

Wulfekuhle still had the presence of mind to try to get a neighbor’s attention, to no avail, so he jumped into his van and drove himself home. “I came in honking the horn, yelling at Karen (his wife) to call the ambulance because the building blew up.”

He then went into his garage and began hosing himself down with a garden hose. The Colesburg ambulance showed up and the emergency responders began wrapping him in plastic wrap to protect against infection.

As the ambulance left the scene, the EMT’s were unable to find a vein for an IV, due to Wulfekuhle’s burns. “A guy in the back said, ‘We’re gonna drill a hole in your leg to get you knocked out,’” said Wulfekuhle. “I watched him drill a hole into my shin and whatever he put in that hole I was out. I didn’t wake up for a month.”

Karen becomes Craig’s voice

Karen Wulfekuhle was the only one who could speak to what took place in the month that followed, but she began with offering words of praise to the Colesburg Fire Department, who never left Craig’s side until he was on the helicopter to be flown to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City. “Their quick response on a holiday was unbelievable,” she said.

Once in Iowa City, things first got worse before they started getting better. “That first week was pretty touch-and-go,” said Karen. “That Friday we about lost him. His heart rate would skyrocket and then plummet, and he had a temperature of 105.”

But survive he did, with Karen’s constant love and support.

“In those 54 days he was down in Iowa City, I went home a total of five days,” she said. “I had to be his advocate when he had the vent down his throat. I had to be his advocate when he had his (tracheostomy)in. He was mouthing words. We’d both get frustrated because it was a whole new thing trying to lip read.”

Perhaps the toughest thing for Karen was knowing she had to be no-nonsense with Craig. “I was pretty tough on him, as far as, ‘If you want that feeding tube out, eat.’ Two days later his feeding tube was out. I was like, ‘Get your butt out of bed and start walking, it’s the only way you’re going to get better.’”

And while the Wulfekuhles were busy in Iowa City, and followed that with a week of rehab in Waterloo, the farming continued with the help of friends and family. While the list of people both locally and in Iowa City that came into contact with Craig and Karen would be extensive, Karen wanted to make sure the names Jason Cusick, Jim Wessel and Aaron Rahe received special mention.

“Those people were my rocks,” Karen said. Wessel arranged for her to take the time off from work she needed, and Cusick and Rahe made the calls that kept the farm operating, with a long list of helpers.

Getting back to normal

The Wulfekuhles are back home and getting their lives back on the tracks they once were, but Craig’s physical therapy work continues, focusing on his balance, strength and range of motion as his skin heals and tightens. Craig remembers just one of his seven surgeries and still has open areas on his legs. He needs to keep all the skin-grafted areas of his body clean, but the temperature and force of the water from the showerhead require him to take morphine before he showers. Considering he had second- and third-degree burns covering 55-58% of his body, Craig and Karen know things could have certainly been much worse.

“This was a very humbling experience, and gratitude doesn’t even begin to cover it,” said Karen. Craig added, “It’s amazing how much our lives rely on other people. From a flash-bang like that, I’m 100% dependent on people, just like that.”

He also marvels at the people in the surrounding communities that know his story. “People I don’t even know ask me how I’m doing. You don’t get that anywhere else.”