Justin McMahan grew up in northeast Nebraska with a love for the outdoors. He’d spend his available free time in the woods hunting or trying to land a big cat from the Missouri River, much of it with his father Steve, who traveled for work during the week, but always came home on the weekends to spend time with his son in the outdoors.
After graduating high school he moved to North Dakota to study commercial aviation at the University of North Dakota, where he met his Danielle, a young lady he was set to start a family with. On January 4th of this year, the couple brought their first child into the world, a daughter named Samantha. It seemed that life for McMahan was off to a start that most would be thankful for.
All of that changed however on June 27th. While Justin and Danielle were away at work, propane had been delivered to the house and when the couple returned with baby Samantha, they immediately noticed the frightening intense smell of propane. Before they could evacuate, the home exploded, throwing Justin 30 feet into the air, Danielle was thrown 100 feet and baby Samantha, just six months old, was tossed 125 feet away, where she died instantly.
Life as they’d known it had been crushed in a tragic instant.
Justin’s feet and legs were shattered. Danielle suffered a fractured neck and spine, a broken pelvis and tailbone, and her feet were crushed. Both were life-flighted to a trauma center in St. Paul, Minnesota where doctors assessed the situation.
“Doctors knew within hours that Justin’s feet and part of his legs would have to be removed,” shared Rebecca Freichs, Justin’s mother, “Within days he’d underwent several surgeries to remove both of his legs from below the knee.”
Danielle faced her own hurdles as well, after being stabilized, she underwent eight surgeries to repair her injuries.
One thing Justin was adamant about was saving his knees. Through researching amputations and prosthetics, Justin knew that if he could save his knees, it would allow him a lot more mobility.
“His love of tromping through the woods hunting would be limited if he lost his knees,” shared Freichs.
His doctors wanted to remove his knee and Justin wouldn’t allow it. Infection was the real danger and surgery was performed almost every other day to clean the wounds in his leg.
“Doctors were still not optimistic, but Justin was,” shared Freichs, “Bone was shaved and vacuums were placed in the wounds with the hope of beating the infection. Any time he went in for surgery, he knew there was a possibility that he would lose more of the leg, but he was too stubborn to give up.”
A hunt had been planned for the 2011 Nebraska deer season and Justin was planning on taking part in it. Anything to get back to the place that he loved to be. Nothing was going to stand in his way.
“My father and I hadn’t missed a deer season together since 2000 and this would have been the first year I’ve missed one and that wasn’t going to happen,” shared Justin.
Finally, in August, doctors had told Justin the news that he was waiting to hear: the infection was gone and his knees had been saved.
“I told you not to give up on me,” was his response.
More painful skin and muscle grafts followed, but he was finally able to come home on August 30th after 14 surgeries, 60 plus blood transfusions and 64 days in a hospital.
“I still remember the day that I found out I would get one of the prosthetics,” shared Justin,” I joked and told my mom ‘well it looks like I could be on crutches in time for deer season this year’, she laughed and said ‘you are your father’s son.’”
The first week out of the hospital, Justin and his father Steve went to the local shooting range, where they shot rifles and shotguns.
As summer gave way to fall, Justin’s thoughts turned to deer hunting and together with his father, the pair put together a plan to construct a blind that would accommodate Justin’s wheel chair and where they’d set for their hunt.
It was the last day of the Nebraska rifle season and so far Justin hadn’t had much success in seeing anything. He was set up in his box blind with a Marlin .243 that he was nervous about using as his trusty deer rifle had been lost in the home explosion. A lot of the deer were bedded down due to the cold weather (8 degrees) but Steve spotted a group in a stand of cedar trees. After pushing them out of the cedars, a small buck separated from the group of does and Justin was able to drop the deer from 150 yards!
No one would blame Justin McMahan for not feeling thankful this Thanksgiving. With the loss of his beautiful baby daughter, his legs, the injuries to his Danielle, his home…it’s almost too much for anyone to comprehend or accept in this day-to-day existence that we call life. Yet on Thanksgiving, a day in which he also turns 24-years-old, McMahan is thankful for the time he now gets to spend hunting with his father, a recovering Danielle that’s now able to walk in short spurts on her own, and knowing through the prosthetics that he’s learning to use, his passion for hunting will only be limited by life’s trivial occurrences instead of tragic ones.
Author’s note: Justin and Danielle McMahan are still rehabbing from their injuries at home, near family, in Norfolk, Nebraska. Danielle has graduated from her wheel chair and now walks with a cane. Justin plans on returning to school where he’ll change his studies to nursing. He plans on participating in the Nebraska muzzeloader season December 1st. A fund has been established to help pay for medical bills, which now measure more than $3,000,000. If anyone would like to contribute, you can do so through correspondance to: Justin McMahan c/o J. Kint PO Box 38 Randolph, NE 68771