The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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November 3, 2012

Joplin man, whose family housed tornado volunteers, now focus of helping hands

JOPLIN, Mo. — Hanging shelves is a task that requires both of Andy Zeller’s hands.

He’s braced a bit awkwardly against the kitchen counter, the crutches pushed aside for the moment as he finishes his work.

His wife, Tiffani, says it’s typical of her husband. A mechanical engineer at EaglePicher, he always has a project he’s focused on.

“Part of Andrew’s problem isn’t getting him going, but getting him to stop,” she says with a laugh.

The new shelves finished, Andy makes his way to the living room. He’s able to put more weight on his leg now, but it’s still slow going.

Now settled on the couch — his wife nearby on the floor playing with their 11-month-old daughter, Eva — Andy reflects on his journey over the past few months.

It’s a journey that started in August with a slow, agonizing crawl toward his front door.

There were moments when his family worried he would never open his eyes, never speak, see or walk again.

For the Joplin family who have always tried to embody the biblical principle that “it’s more blessed to give than to receive,” the past few months have been a period of adjustment.

They’re not used to being on the receiving end of things.

Crushed

The motor was leaking.

The skid-steer loader sat in front of the house. Andy had sold it earlier in the day, but wanted to make a few minor repairs before the new owner retrieved it.

As he crawled underneath to repair the leaks, the hydraulics hose burst, sending the loader and its bucket down on top of him.

“It crushed me under there,” he says. “The bucket came down on me too.”

He was able to tilt the bucket and raise the machine up just enough for him to crawl out from underneath it.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh crap, I’ve paralyzed myself,’ and the first thing I did was make sure I could wiggle my toes,” he said. “I knew it was pretty bad. I crawled (toward the house), yelling the whole time.”

The family’s nanny — who had been inside the house watching the Zellers’ three children, Isaac, Isabella and Eva — ran outside and saw him, then called 911. Tiffani arrived home from work not long after the ambulance got to the house.

Andy was awake and talking, and was transported to Freeman Hospital West. He had a crushed pelvis and a spiral fracture in the left fibula and a break in the tibia. After about two hours, doctors decided to life flight him to University Hospital in Columbia.

The following day, they operated on his pelvis, using a series of plates and screws to repair and reinforce the shattered bone structure.

But after the surgery, Andy didn’t wake up after the anesthesia had worn off. His doctors wanted him to wake up on his own and gave him a shot to reverse the medications he had been given, but to no avail.

“At this point, they said they wanted to start doing tests and checking things off the list,” says Tiffani.

Those tests included and MRI and CAT scan, which on Sunday revealed the problem.

Fat embolisms released by the broken bones had bypassed his lungs and went straight to his brain, causing a series of strokes.

“They were everywhere,” Tiffani says of the strokes that appeared on her husband’s brain scans. “It showed slices of the brain, and every single one of them had more and more strokes. Seeing those pictures, I wouldn’t think someone could function.

“The doctors said that the degree to which he would be affected would be a wait-and-see game. He may wake up, he may never wake up. He may heal, he may never heal.

“The worst part was having to go into the waiting room and tell (Andy’s) parents.”

Awake

Braced for the worst, Andy’s family began taking shifts sitting at his bedside.

“He was never left alone,” says Tiffani.

His pastor from Faith Lutheran Church in Pittsburg, Kan., even came and read him “The Hunger Games.”

Doctors performed a tracheotomy and gave him a feeding tube, and administered a drug designed to reduce the swelling in his brain. Surgery was needed for his leg. The truth was, however, they were in uncharted waters with Andy’s condition.

“It was frustrating, but I was reassured that they were telling me that instead of telling me it was great and me knowing it wasn’t,” Tiffani says. “They were doing the best that they could.”

On Saturday, Aug. 18, a full week after slipping into unconsciousness, Tiffani’s brother was alone in the hospital room with Andy when he finally awoke, whispering that he wanted some juice.

While his family rejoiced, they knew that it could be a long road back. His memory was spotty and he required physical, speech and occupational therapy.

“He’d start to get antsy and try to get up,” says Tiffani. “I’d tell him, ‘Andrew, you know you can’t get out of bed, right?’ And he’d say, ‘No,’ and I’d have to remind him what happened and explain why he couldn’t stand up.

“Sometimes he would get really mad at me. For a while, he wasn’t sure how many kids we had, what their names were or their ages.”

After two and a half weeks at University Hospital, he was transferred to Columbia’s Rusk Rehabilitation Center.

“For a couple of days, they would ask me ‘Where are you? What month is it? What year is it?’” says Andy. “They would have me do brain exercises. I felt pretty stupid most of the time.”

But he began showing a great deal of improvement as therapy continued.

After another two weeks, he was discharged to return home.

His therapy has continued at Freeman Hospital, along with exercises at home.

“The only time now I can see anything is when he’s really tired,” says Tiffani. “His eyes will do this thing where you can tell that he’s searching for something.”

He’s set to return to work on Nov. 13.  

In the meantime, as those new kitchen shelves indicate, it’s hard to keep Andy down for too long.

“He always has side projects. Some people’s husbands come home and want to relax because they’ve been at work all day,” she says. “His form of relaxation is finding a skid-steer project or messing around in the garage. I can’t get too mad at him because he’s working.”

Offers of help

Almost immediately after Andy’s accident, offers from others to help the family began to pour in.

A hot-dog feed at EaglePicher brought in $2,000. A fundraiser was also held at Schreiber Foods, where Tiffani had only worked for a short time before her husband was injured.

She calls the show of support an “amazing blessing, but one we feel kind of bad about.”

“We’re usually the givers, so it’s hard to be the ones accepting things,” she says.

Soon after the accident, Tiffani’s brother set up a page on CaringBridge, a website that allowed friends to stay up to date with what was happening. She was initially resistant to the donations and assistance that began to pour in.

“But (my brother) said, ‘So many people are calling and wanting to do something. You’re helping them by letting them help you.’

“I could relate to that. When something happens to someone, I want to help.”

The Zellers were quick to try to lend a hand after the May 22, 2011, tornado tore through Joplin.

The family had returned home from eating at El Vaquero not long before hearing news of the devastating storm.

Knowing they had friends who lived in the tornado’s path, they drove into town to make sure they were OK.

As they walked through the rubble, Globe photographer B.W. Shepherd came upon them and took a photo of Andy and then 1-year-old daughter Isabella, who had gone back to try and move their car closer. The photo would appear in the Globe’s book “32 Minutes in May.”

Eventually, the Zellers found their friends, whose house had sustained serious damage but was not destroyed.

In the weeks that followed, they volunteered their time to help those impacted by the tornado, and soon found another way they could be of service.

Tiffani said that they learned through their church that a Lutheran group from Wisconsin wanted to come to Joplin to help but had no place to stay.

“Something we could do was to host volunteers because we have this huge house,” Tiffani says.

The volunteers came in groups, sleeping on extra beds and air mattresses that the Zellers provided.

“At one time, we had about 16 people in the house,” she says. “We had devotions every night with these amazing people.”

Now, the givers are the receivers.

A concert and a 5-kilometer run are among the upcoming events set to help the Zellers with Andy’s ongoing recovery.

“We don’t really like attention,” he says. “We want to give it. I think about it all the time ... what people did for us and how blessed we are,” he says.

He’s sharing his story, “to let people know that God is the one who got me through this and to let people know how much we appreciate everything they’ve done for us.”

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