The truth to our story, in a nutshell
I have been wanting to sit down and write this before I forgot the details. You may wonder how a person could forget what happened to our family on October 15 th, 2006. I can’t forget, but I am trying hard. There were many stories circulating through the grapevine and in newspapers of which I want to clarify. This story is not an effort to gain sympathy just an effort to set the record straight. Contrary to one report, I never posted anything to the Ocicats of North America website that we had a fire and I also was not awake and sitting on the couch watching TV when the television suddenly burst into flames like it was reported in a local newspaper. I hope that anyone who saw this was able to realize that this was merely sensationalized journalism. Here is what really happened.
It all started on October 14 th, 2006 with our family all together for the evening going to Dairy Queen for ice cream. Collin and Luka were tickled about getting a treat. I was tickled because Sandy and I and the boys were then going home to watch what would be the final game of the American League Championship Series which sent the Detroit Tigers to the World Series. Our family is huge Tiger fans. Sandy likes Magglio Ordonez, I assume because of his hair. I like him because he is an awesome baseball player. For us, it was fitting that Maggs was the guy that hit a “walk off” homerun to win the series. To say the least, we were thrilled. We decided then that it was bed time so we got up from our sofa. Our six year old son, Luka, had fell asleep earlier on the couch so we just left him to sleep. I took a quick shower before turning in then I went to bed. It was probably 11:00 pm. Sandy woke me shortly after midnight and asked me to go tie our puppy up to our cat tree in the family room because she was harassing the cats, so I did.
We woke in panic at about 4:00 am to smoke detectors and the worst sounds that I hope I never hear from a dog again as long as I live. She was screaming, yelping in terror and it did not seem like she would stop, but it did… a little too late. I remember Sandy sitting up in bed and saying “Mike the puppy” and that the house was on fire, though she does not recall that. We jumped out of bed and headed to the family room with Sandy in the lead. She had stopped for a moment to turn on the lights and then turned around and ran into me. The lights did not work because the power was out. At this point I know I was not thinking straight because I tried to open the front door which would have let in air to feed the fire. I could not see the fire yet, but I guess my thought at the time was that by opening the door, maybe some of the cats could find their way out. When I grasped the door knob I remember the searing pain from the heat and let go, but tried it with the other hand with the same result. The house was black with smoke and coupled with the early morning darkness it made it hard to find my way, even though I knew this area like the back of my hand and had a good idea about the obstacles that may be in my path. All I knew was that I had to make my way to the sofa where we had left Luka; that was the only thought that I had. I could not make it there but I knew I needed to get some air so I went back into the bedroom to the window. I know that I went back into the family room three times but I am having trouble remembering exactly what happened the second time.
Our 10 year old son, Collin, had been sleeping in the room next to ours and woke when we did. Fortunately, they had fire prevention week at school that week so he knew to check the door for heat and decided to go through the door into our bedroom instead of the one going into our family room. It’s a good thing he did. Sandy and Collin exited the house though our bedroom window. I knew they had gotten out. Since she could not find our cell phone, Sandy ran to our Ford Explorer and headed to the neighbors house to call 911. Collin went to the barn to turn on the water to try to fight the fire. Two months later he chewed me out for having parked my pick-up truck tire on the hose. Meantime, I had made my way back into the family room to look for Luka. The first thing I saw was the fire, for the first time, coming out of the television in what looked like a blue tube of flame about the diameter of a volleyball and was going all the way to the ceiling. Everything else was black smoke. I made another attempt to get to the sofa which was about 10-12 feet from the television but I was once again turned me back by the heat and smoke. My main goal was to find my son but if I had the chance I would have saved any living thing I came across. I did not find anything. Gasping, exhausted, and now disoriented I headed back into our bedroom for the last time.
Meanwhile, Sandy was just returning from the neighbors just before I reached the window. I know that because I saw the headlights as I walked in the bedroom. That is when I passed out and fell to the floor. I remember Sandy pleading with me to get to my feet because she could not lift me out of the window by herself. At that point Kevin Gascho, our neighbor, appeared after running through the woods to help. I must have been below the smoke long enough to get some clean air because I remember standing up so Sandy and Kevin could pull me out.
What I did not know was that Luka had crawled into bed with us in the middle of the night and was lying between us, probably right after I had tied the puppy up, so he was not even out in the family room where I was searching. Sandy says that when she came back from the neighbor’s house, he was standing in the open bedroom window with smoke billowing out. To her, he had a look on his face of abandonment. She must have lifted him out just as I was coming in the room or possibly he was there while I was passed out. We will never know. I cannot stress enough that I did not know he was out of the house.
Naked, I remember gasping for air but by and large I was not feeling any pain. I must have been in shock. Sandy had broken a window into our bathroom so she could find some blankets to cover me with. She cut her hands real bad doing this. When she got in, she got the blankets and was about to leave when a 6 week old kitten appeared so Sandy scooped him up and took him with her. It turned out that he would be the only cat to survive the fire. As Sandy covered me with blankets, I remember Kevin kneeling at my side and asking me if I believed in God. I told him that the Lord and I were real close. Then he said a prayer. I know that Gene Schull was the first responder from the fire dept. Gene is a neighbor who lives about a half mile from us. It was comforting to me that they were there. I remember thinking that it could be a while before the Fire Department showed up, but then they were coming down the road with the Ambulance right behind. To their credit the response was very fast, easily within 10 minutes of the call. I remember the Ambulance backing up towards me with lots of lights aimed my way. That is when I looked at my hands, it looked like melted skin was dripping from my finger tips and hanging 6-7 inches from them, but it was skin that had peeled from my hands. The crazy things that you think of in situations like this…. I was concerned about the Ambulance driving over the septic tank in the yard, funny now, but that was the least of my concerns. When they loaded me into the Ambulance I remember watching the fireman spraying water on the house which was pretty much fully involved at this time. I finally learned just this summer that the Paramedics were dousing me with water all the way to the Hospital. The Paramedic I remember from that night, Mike, ended up being a Father of one of the boys on Collin’s baseball team this summer. One day during practice we talked at length about that night. He told me that I kept repeating “I could not find him, he must be dead”. He tried to reassure me that Luka was safe and so were Sandy and Collin. I don’t remember him saying anything about Luka. Mike told me that from what he saw, he was sure I was not going to survive. When I told him about the skin hanging from my fingers, he told me that it looked to him like all the skin on my arms had pooled around my wrists as well.
I still don’t think I ever came directly in contact with flames. I think I was baked. My Dad is a retired Firefighter of 24 years and had been in burning structures numerous times wearing equipment designed to withstand heat. He says you can still feel it through the heady coats and gloves. Knowing how hot it gets he thinks I must have been moving through the house with my hands covering my face since I was not as badly burned on my face. .
At Three Rivers Hospital they were waiting for me and everything was moving at a feverous pace. I remember an oxygen mask being applied and the nurse putting in an IV. The next thing I remember was Sandy coming in…. She was pitch black! I mean everything about her except her eyes and teeth were black. I was pretty stunned at the sight. I remember her talking to me, but I don’t recall what she said other than that she loved me… She was telling me that she and the boys were ok. At that time the boys were in the next room with oxygen masks on. Luka’s eyes were burned a little because they did not use a pediatric mask so the oxygen irritated them.
It never occurred to me that I was seriously hurt; I figured they would have to do something about my hands and treat me for smoke inhalation, but I never thought I would possibly face death. I do remember the Doctor telling me that he was about to give me something to make me sleep. I did not know it would be for 2 months! Everything went blank. I was then air lifted to Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I would be there for the next 78 days.
It seems like the original estimate was that I had 2 nd and 3 rd degree burns over 70% of my body, later downgraded to 60%. I don’t think they took any better care of me than any other burn patient, but they did comment to Sandy that it was somewhat refreshing to have a burn victim who was not burned in a Meth explosion. They told her that they were more concerned with my lungs than my burns. I was in the fight for my life and I did not even know it. They put me into a drug induced coma. I had wonderful long dreams. I soon had Pneumonia, Pseudomonas, Strep, Staph, and E coli among other things. I was constantly fighting some kind of infection. They had me hooked up to a dialysis machine because my kidneys were failing and also a respirator to breathe for me. They were pumping tons of black crap out of my lungs and they were pumping a ridiculous amount of fluids into me. They tell me that on Halloween my health was grave. Dr. Blostine even told Sandy that he did not know what else to do for me. Sepsis had set in. I am thankful that they ended up pulling the right strings.
Mom and Dad where up to see me everyday with Dad only missing 2 days, once because I was in surgery and the other because I called him to say I was real tired and was going to sleep. Sandy spent mornings and afternoons with me and switched off with Mom and Dad for evenings. I do not specifically remember the moment that I woke up but I know there were lots of people there that I did not know but would become good friends. The ones I remember most are Nurses Wayne and Jane, my Occupational Therapist Jill and Dr. Blostine. There were tons of other nurses who I have talked to since who cared for me, but I feel terribly that I do not remember them. Knowing that I am a sports nut, Wayne had ESPN on the television for me, that’s probably the first thing I remember. I know I spent a lot of time watching that and then dozing off while people were in and out of the room, including Sandy. I remember trying to talk to Mom and Dad while the trache was still in my throat, I don’t think they could understand me.
Sandy said they stopped administering the medication that kept me in my coma just before Thanksgiving. It’s hard to explain the affects of a coma on a person much less the drugs, but I can say that when I woke up I was in a daze. Sandy would sit next to me and it was like I was looking through her to see the TV. I kind of remember doing that and now I feel bad. She was worried that she was going to have to care for a vegetable for the rest of my life. That lasted for a while till one day it became clear to everyone that I was really “there”. When Sandy came in that day I said “I missed you so much”. That was my first sign of emotion.
They tell me that I hallucinated quite a bit at first. Guess it was all because of the Morphine and Atavan they had been giving me. My sister Laura thought I would feel more at home if she brought me a batch of rabbits and I guess Sandy and the boys thought I should have my pigs and chickens in my room as well. One time I told Sandy or one of my nurses to be careful because I had “kitties” under the covers. Funniest thing was when my cousin Rick ran into my room one morning wearing only his yellow boxer shorts. The more I think about it, I think they were only yellow in front J
I still had not saw my boys at this point but the nurses thought it would be good if they came to visit because I had been trying to tell them that I knew Luka was dead and was pretty distraught about missing my sons funeral. So even though it was not yet advisable, they decided to let the boys come up to prove to me that Luka was fine. I was extremely happy to see them, especially Luka, not that I was not happy to see Collin. I think that my spirits brightened quite a bit that day. The boys stayed with Tom and Mary Yost for I think 2 weeks and then they went to stay with Mom and Dad. Collin was able to go with Dad to do his chores every day (feed chickens, ducks, pigs and dogs). Gene Schull helped out by bringing a Fire Truck out about once a week to re-fill the water tanks in the barn since we were without power to run the well.
Everything became somewhat clear one day to where Sandy could give me details and I would actually understand them. They all thought it would be best to “spoon feed” it to me slowly. The fact that our home was a total loss and that all the cats had perished took its toll on me and I became an emotional wreck. I would start crying for no reason. Writing about losing the cats is very hard for me even now. I know I cried more than I ever had in my life. I knew they were in danger, but I thought that at least some of them would make it out. The way it hit me was hard on Sandy as well because she had to go through this all over again after trying to put it behind her 2 months ago. She told me of the family and friends who came to the house the day after the fire to gather and bury the cats and the puppy before Sandy could witness them. Sandy’s Mom, her sister Sheri, our niece Kristy, our son TJ, Mary Yost and her family were all there to make it go as fast as it could. Then she told me of the benefit dinners that were held for me and the tremendous amount of people who were there. They ran out of food at one of these dinners. You never know how many friends you have until something like this happens to you. Then she told me about how supportive the cat fancy has been of us. It made me start crying all over again but for more happy reasons because I had no idea how much people cared. Then she told me about the boy kitten she saved that she had not named. I did not hesitate. I told her that his name was going to be Magglio! And so he was.
I still didn’t realize how the World Series went; I was bummed to hear that the Tigers lost. The guys at the shop bought me a portable DVD player and my boss, Jay, recorded all the games for me. One night after all my company left I decided to start watching the games. The next time I saw Todd Batten from the shop he asked me if I had watched the games and I told him that I was able to watch all but part of the last game. He said not to bother because they lost! Smart Ass! I guess I still didn’t have a clue how bad off I was because I started asking how soon I could go back to work. I knew I had a job to finish. Wayne told me in a matter of fact way that I was not going to be going back to work any time soon. The guys had finished that job for me the next week and at ran like a champ!
They grafted my own skin from my legs and feet. My entire back was grafted 3 different times, once with cadaver skin and twice with my own. My arms and shoulders were done once with a portion of my right shoulder needing work a second time because of a nasty infection. My upper chest, both hands and all my fingers were done once. Sandy said I was in surgery 7 times. She said they would pump 1-2 units of blood into me prior to each of my surgeries and 6-8 during each surgery. They tell me that I am a “Million Dollar Man” due to the bill I ran up at Bronson Hospital. I was shocked to see my wounds the first time they did my dressings while being coherent. They doctors had to debreed, cut away, all the dead tissue and skin from my arms, which still look strange to me. All that flesh has to grow back. My arms were purple and streaked; they looked like they had been beaten with a meat cleaver. My fingers looked like fat sausages. My legs were just purple, where they took skin to put on my burns. It would take the nurses 3-4 hours to change my dressings every day. I remember it being painful, but afterwards I would sleep well.
I then realized that my left arm and shoulder were paralyzed, but would hurt badly when it was therapy time. Jill and Wayne did their best to torture me. It was not long that with Wayne’s help, I realized that I was blind in my left eye. It was later determined that I only had between 50% and 60% of my vision in my right eye. There is no chance of improvement in my left eye, but they have told me that my right eye could improve. Even now it is like looking through a cloud and my vision is mostly double. There is a nasty scar on the cornea on my right eye that still bothers me. My first meaningful victory came on Dec. 27 th when Jill took me to the therapy gym where I was able to take 12 steps on the parallel bars. They hoped I could take 1 or 2, but the competitor in me would not allow that. I never imagined that walking would be so hard but it was very difficult because of the lack of strength and the pain in my feet. I had always been athletic. I played city league softball in two towns. I normally played 4 nights a week plus tournaments on weekends. I thought I was in pretty good shape before the fire, so I had a hard time understanding how the strength had just left me. I had carried 100 lb. bags of hog feed, on my shoulder, across the yard to a feeder the same day of the fire, but it would have been impossible currently.
On Dec. 28 th I was sent to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan where they really tested me. Sandy was allowed to stay in my room with me which was a big comfort. Mom and Dad and the boys made it up to see me every other day since it is so much more of a drive compared to going to Kalamazoo, but that was fine because by the time they would get there in the evenings I would be very tired. Therapy was from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm 7 days a week, but my days started at 7:00 am when the nurses came in with tons of medication and breakfast. Seemed like fistfuls of pills all the time. My Occupational Therapists name was Sanjeev and he expected me to have myself dressed, preferably without assistance, and ready for my first session of the day by 8:30. Putting on a 3X t-shirt proved to be quite a challenge, especially with an arm that would not work. Sanjeev was a lot of fun and so where the others. I’ll always remember Becky, Michelle, Aaron, Laura, “Dandy Mandy”, Dr. Blackbird and Dr. Vandenburg. They where tough on me but I am better because of them. I also saw people and children who were in much worse condition than I was, so I realized I was lucky.
My left arm was still not working and that weighed hard on me psychologically. I was sure that I was going to lose use of it. The nervous system is amazing. It is hard to understand how you are wired. In therapy, Sanjeev would try to get me to simply pull my hand towards my face. He would tell me “you are pushing, I need you to pull”. I would tell him that I felt like I was pulling, but he could feel the muscles doing otherwise. I was determined to get my arm going again. My driving force was that I wanted to be able to throw a baseball with the boys. I would get upset because I was not seeing improvements, but they kept insuring me that I was progressing well. Sanjeev told me that it was coming and that he hoped I could be content with that. He said the problem with me was that I wanted it all and I wanted it now! The rock group “Queen” sang a song called “I Want it All” and that became somewhat of a theme song for me. With lots of work and faith my arm started working again in April.
President Ford died while I was at there and was buried at the G.R. Ford Museum which was right around the corner from M.F.B. so Sandy and I got to watch lots of the commotion from my bedroom window. We saw the fighter planes fly right over us which was memorable.
Sandy left me for a weekend, maybe I should say that she took a break, in January to go to a Cat Show in Toledo to show Maggs who turned 4 moths old that weekend. I was happy that he made 2 finals, but he did not care much for the whole thing. After the show our friend, Dawn Skupin, of Stedam American Shorthairs, took him home with her for “boot camp” and also showed him for a while. We thank her so much for offering to do that for us. He did better after that. Poor guy had lived with the Gascho’s for a bit after the fire. Then he went to live with Sandy’s folks for a time until the Insurance Company got us set up with a trailer on our property, so all Maggs saw from the time he was 6 weeks old till he was 4 months old was dogs, no cats. Getting use to other cats was not easy for him but I understand.
Our good friend Sue Riley flew in to that show and brought Sandy a female kitten for our re-born breeding program. We named her “Moon Pie” in honor of her Dam GC, NW, BW Wildtracks Millennium Moon DM, aka “Moonie”. Moonie will always be remembered as our breeds “ FIRST” female National Winner in a season with more competitive Oci’s trying for best of breed than any since! Pie’s father was no slouch in the show ring either….. The season after Moonie was shown, Pie’s sire, GC, NW, BW Wildtracks Millennium Mystic got a National win as well. By anyone’s standard, Pie has an awesome pedigree. Thank you so much to Sue and Mark for allowing us to have a kitten as nice as Pie is.
Before coming home for good, they allowed me to go home twice. Once overnight and the other for a weekend just to see if I could do it without a fall. That was the first time I got to see our old house since the fire, it was a rough day for me. In between these visits, Melvin Hochstetler and his crew donated a day of their time to come over and tear down the part of our house that burned and stripped out all the walls in the other half that we hoped to save. They got a tremendous amount of work done in one day. Melvin told my Dad and Sandy’s Dad that we might be money ahead to just demolish the house and start over because as it was it would never pass code. I really wanted to be home on the day they did this work, but they would not let me go. We have hired Melvin and his guys to build our new home.
They let me go home for good on Feb. 5 th. I was still considered a high risk to fall because of my weaknesses. Even now I still cannot feel my feet, toes and fingers, but it was a bigger issue at that time because I was still learning how to walk. My nerves are still trying to find their way back to working order. I was still taking a bunch of medication and doing therapy on a daily basis, now back at Bronson Hospital with Jill and did these 5 days a week through March when my insurance company said they were done paying for it... I am still facing a few surgeries. I have calcifications that formed in my left shoulder and left wrist that limit my range of motion and ability to catch a baseball (cannot turn my wrist). After that they will need to do some release surgeries on my axilas (armpit areas) that will help me reach high places. My skin on my chest and throat is very tight. Dr. Messenger is my Plastic Surgeon, says he thinks he can do something about that as well. BTW, I never met Dr. Messenger until January because he went on vacation to London around Thanksgiving. At this time we don’t know when we will be able to start these procedures.
I would have been a Mold Maker of 20 years if I could have worked two more weeks at the shop I was employed at so I was able to use my skills to start “drawing” on the computer and designing our new home, I did CAD/CAM at work. You should see the house now. At this time we are still about a month away from moving in, but it is nice to know that we are getting closer to getting out of this trailer. Sandy is also back to school to finish her nursing degree. She had to withdraw right after the fire to be able to be with me.
Something I had lost hope of became a reality. I was selected to coach Collin’s 9-10 year old baseball team. I was really thrilled but uneasy about it because I knew my limitations would not allow me to go at this 100% like I wanted to and like the kids deserved. No one complained to me but I know I could have done better. My strength was still not good so I often sat in the dugout and directed from there. I had some very understanding assistants and parents. We had fun and Collin emerged as one of the very top catchers in his league. He once again made the All-Star team that ended up bowing out of the Little League tournament in the District Semi-Finals. He had the highest batting average on the team at .588! Luka is going to be a good ball player as well. He was good enough that as a 6 year old, he played on the 7-8 year old division. I am really proud of my sons.
Two years later I am playing in a pool league with the same guys I did before. I don’t think I am as good as before but they tell me I am not that bad. With my vision the way it is I just try to shoot at the ball in the middle J I just have to work on compensating more which is something I never had to do before. I pretty much wear sun glasses all the time because the brightness of the sun. I can take them off when the sun goes down. The heat of the summer is a problem too. I can handle the mornings and evenings, but I spend a lot of time inside during the day. I watch all the boy’s ballgames but that was and still is my livelihood. I have to wear sunscreen and keep my new skin covered up now. I cannot afford a sun burn because I am more at risk for skin cancer.
I have made myself available to Jill as an example if she needs me. I have been up to the Western Michigan University campus two different times where Jill has done educational lectures for prospective Occupational Therapy students. I also told Jill that if needed I would be willing to council any patients that wanted to know what to expect after severe burns. I am still not back to work. I am guessing that there are no jobs out there anyway with the way the economy is. I still have no feeling in my fingers and the coordination with them is not there yet. I also get disoriented and dizzy easily, so I don’t know if there is anything out there that I can do and be productive. I wake up daily with a headache that lasts all day. I want to be back to work… I am too young to be stuck at home. I take care of the boys’ chickens, the cats and easier things around the farm, so I have things to do. By and large, things are about as normal here as they can be. Thanks for reading and caring.