Rob Nelson has much to give thanks for.

Rob Nelson and his sons, Kyle, 20, and Jacob, 18, may seem like any other father-son team when they’re on the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital construction site where the trio works together. Rob, an ironworker for more than 25 years, has worked on several construction projects on the UI Health Care campus over the years, and he’s brought both of his sons into the business, too. He works for Hawkeye Erection, a second-tier subcontractor on the new UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital project. Gilbane Construction is the lead contractor for the project.

None of the projects have been as personally satisfying, however, as their involvement with the construction of the new UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“I wouldn’t have my family today if it wasn’t for that hospital,” Rob says.

Rob credits UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital for saving both of his sons’ lives – Kyle was born prematurely, and Jacob was involved in a dirt bike accident and wasn’t expected to survive.

“They saved my kids, and I take great pride in what I do here,” Rob says. “I want to do whatever I can do to be a part of this team.”

Kyle Nelson

Left: Born prematurely, Kyle is approximately the size of his father's hand.
Right: Twenty years later, Kyle works with his father and brother, Jacob,
building the new UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

Rob’s wife, Tammy, was diagnosed with preeclampsia in 1994 when she was pregnant with Kyle – which meant that in order to save both their lives, the baby had to be delivered right away. Kyle was born in March 1994, three months premature.

“Twenty years ago, when he was born, they said babies born that early only had a 50 percent chance of survival,” Rob recalls. “We didn’t know what to expect.”

Kyle weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces and remained in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for three months before he was allowed to go home.

In 2009, Jacob, then 13, was involved in a dirt bike accident. Rob says his son had two brain bleeds and was in a coma for 18 days. He was diagnosed with a diffuse axonal injury – one of the most devastating kinds of brain injury – and his jaw was broken in two places.

“No one thought he’d be up walking again,” Rob remembers. “They all thought he’d be in a nursing home in a vegetative state.”

Jacob Nelson
Left: Jacob's first night after his dirt bike accident at age 13.
Right: Five years later, Jacob graduates from high school

“They took a CAT scan right after the accident and it was pretty scary,” Rob recalls. “There was no activity there at all.”

Rob says he didn’t sleep much – if at all – while Jacob was in a coma, mostly because he was afraid to go to sleep.

“You don’t want to go to sleep when you don’t know what’s going to happen with your son,” he says. “You don’t want to miss anything.”

With Jacob’s strong spirit, and the support of his medical team, he emerged from his coma and spent the next two months at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. He then went to a rehabilitation center in Des Moines for physical therapy and rehabilitation, before returning to the family’s home in Lockridge, IA.

Now that they’re older, both boys are working alongside their dad – and both say working on UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital holds special meaning for them, too.

“I’m really just paying it forward,” Kyle says. “They helped me, now I want to help them, too.”

“It’s good to be back here and helping out,” Jacob says. “I don’t remember anything from the accident, and very little from the hospital. But my parents told me I wasn’t expected to live, and they made it happen. This is the place to go when you’re hurting and need someone special to make it right.”