When Omaha runners dedicated miles they ran this spring to those affected in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, UNL Durham School alumnus Derek Bierd added his to the total. His miles were especially meaningful, because Bierd knows a thing or two about out-of-the blue experiences that can devastate a life, and how to work back from terrifying circumstances.
In October 2010, Bierd was a Construction Engineering student who had just run a half marathon. On a Monday morning before going to class at The Peter Kiewit Institute, the former Millard North High School football player collapsed at his home. He could barely move amid excruciating pain; in the next day’s blur of hospital care, he worried to his parents and girlfriend, “I think I’m going to miss class.”
That day, surgeons removed a blood clot from the base of his cerebellum, and Bierd was told he was lucky that immediate treatment had enabled him to pursue a full recovery. He worked back from wheelchair to walker, then made himself “hobble” around his neighborhood; a mile that he formerly ran in under 8 minutes took 20 after the stroke.
Bierd was back in classes in a remarkable two and a half weeks after his stroke, but in engineering—never easy—he faced a frustrating mental comeback in addition to the physical rehabilitation. Though he fortunately had no memory loss or personality change, as sometimes happens with stroke victims, solving engineering’s math and reasoning problems took two to three times longer, especially in the early stages of his recovery.
Aiding his efforts in physical and occupational therapy (the stroke was on the right side of his brain and affected use of his left hand) were Bierd’s family and friends. Durham School faculty worked with him to get his coursework back on track. Later in 2010, doctors repaired a hole in Bierd’s heart, through which the clot passed, yet he graduated as planned in May 2011.
Now Bierd works as an engineer for Kiewit Companies, hired on with Kiewit Underground and currently on loan to KieCore: a group streamlining the companies’ processes such as estimating, business development and finance. “For an organization with 10,000 employees, making processes more efficient is a huge endeavor,” Bierd said, adding that he has enjoyed new horizons with his recent focus on purchasing.
Growing up, he’d always been fascinated by watching progress at construction sites, which led him to study at UNL. He said his interest in engineering stemmed from his childhood enjoyment of Legos, and their step-by-step way of building is how he has reclaimed his life.
Bierd said after his stroke he takes nothing for granted and hopes his story can inspire others addressing great challenges in life. A “normal” day is something to be grateful for, he said, as each day can be viewed as a second chance and an opportunity to improve.
- Carole Wilbeck