Josh Duda – Stories from the Finish Line

Josh Duda

Josh Duda, a 42-year-old flight helicopter paramedic from Minnesota, has played a vital role in saving numerous lives throughout his career. Despite being an avid biathlete since high school, it wasn't until 2007 that Josh ventured into his first triathlon, an experience that captivated him, much like it does for many of us. From then on, he participated in sprint and Olympic distance races. In 2013, he volunteered at IRONMAN Wisconsin and was so inspired by the perseverance of the participants that he promptly registered for the following year. Clearly, he was hooked. Josh successfully completed the Wisconsin event in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

His plan for 2019 was to go back to IRONMAN Wisconsin and add in IRONMAN Whistler. But, like many of our plans in life, they can hit a brick wall. Just after midnight on June 28th, Josh's world literally came crashing down. He was working on a medical helicopter flight that had just finished transporting a patient to a trauma center. He and the medical crew on board were ending their shift, about ready to land at their home airport. With minimal warning, the helicopter shrouded in fog and clouds, dropped out of the sky and crash-landed on the tarmac. The crash killed his friends and co-workers on impact: Tim McDonald, the pilot, and flight nurse Debra Schott, his workmate for 14 years.

Josh survived and was transported to the local ED; his initial injuries were life-threatening. His wife Amy was told they were not sure he would make it through the first 24-48 hours. But Josh turned the critical corner quickly, to the surprise of the medical team. To this day, he credits it to his IRONMAN training. His injuries were extensive: a finger amputated because it was crushed, multiple bones broken and shattered throughout his neck, back, arms, legs, hands, and feet. His body was a mess, but he was thankful he hurt. It reminded him he was still alive. The long, tough road ahead would be healing physically from his injuries and healing mentally from losing his beloved colleagues.

Upon the recommendation of his close friend Jessica Hinkley, we arranged a call for me to speak with him a few days after the incident. I didn't know what I was going to say to him, but the conversation flowed through his past races and how he would get back to the start line. I was amazed at his positive attitude and the radiant spirit he displayed.

After the accident, Josh finally made it back home after eight weeks. Over the course of four years since the incident, he has faced restricted mobility or complete immobility, enduring a total of 12 surgeries. Half of these surgeries took place during his initial hospitalization, while the remaining procedures were carried out after his return home. It took time, but he has come to grips with losing his flight crew; he thinks about them daily. His last surgery was in June of 2022 to remove bone plates, screws, and hardware that has given him issues. The remaining hardware will stay in place until it gives him trouble. A nasty reminder he obviously doesn't need.

There is finally light at the end of his long runway. In the last few months he has been cleared to increase his physical activity. He walks on a treadmill, and since March, he has been able to pick up speed and attempt a few jogs. But the fractures in his back, arms, and legs remind him that there is still a long way to go. Besides being able to race again, one of his most significant motivating factors is his QR triathlon bike, which he purchased just one month before the accident. It only has 125 miles on it, and Josh is determined not to let it go to waste. Josh's family and friends, who have been by his side on this long, arduous journey, have witnessed him push through the pain. They are inspired by all that he has accomplished and have no doubt they will be cheering him into a finish line soon.

Now there is a finish I wouldn't want to miss!