Written by Kevin Grasha for the Lansing State Journal
Published July 20, 2009 23:52 PM
The therapist told Ron Fandrick to lift his head, but he couldn’t. It was Fandrick’s first physical therapy session, about a month and a half after being critically burned in a March 1 fire that gutted his Delta Township home. Fandrick’s friend, Bill Waldon Jr., died in the blaze. The 60-year-old Waverly High School teacher and clinical psychologist already had spent about five weeks in a medically induced coma. He suffered severe burns to his face, arms and shoulders. His lungs were burned black. He nearly died twice from his injuries. Fandrick, a former football player and two-time All-American wrestler in college who regularly worked out, had lost most of his muscle during the coma. A neurologist told him he would never ride his beloved Harley Davidson again. He was in a wheelchair. He couldn’t feed himself. He couldn’t even lift his head. “Looking back,” Fandrick said last week, sitting on a couch in his new, furnished apartment – thick red scars running along his arms – “I think when a person goes through an extreme trauma, you’ve gotta have hope and faith, and you’ve gotta set goals.”
“A very lucky” survivor
That mindset – inspired by his psychological training as well as the Harley-Davidson motto, “Live to ride, ride to live”, helped Fandrick make an unexpected recovery. “Anybody who survives that kind of heat and fire, it’s a miracle,” said Delta Township Fire Chief Victor Hilbert, who was at the scene of the fire. “I think he’s a very lucky man.” When Hilbert visited Fandrick in early May, Fandrick barely had the strength to shake hands.
Difficult road back
Recovery has been a long, painful road. Fandrick was discharged from Dimondale Nursing Care Center on June 19. His 23-year-old son, Ryan, moved in with him. The burns to his face are mostly gone. He said medical tests show his lungs are back to being pink. Fandrick has set goals and met them. One was to attend Waverly High School’s graduation, where he received a standing ovation. Another was to ride his Heritage Softail Classic. He recently drove it around a winding apartment complex driveway. Now, four days a week, he goes to physical therapy, rebuilding muscle and working on his coordination. He plans to return to psychology practice in August and begin teaching psychology at the high school in September.
Wall of flames
The night of the fire, Fandrick was awakened in his second-floor bedroom. He said he heard Waldon, who lived in the basement, through an air vent, say something about a fire. Half-asleep and wearing only a tank top and shorts, Fandrick went downstairs and eventually realized there was a raging fire on a semi-enclosed porch at the back of the split-level house. Officials say the blaze started after an outdoor fireplace had been left unattended. Fandrick said the house on Stoll Road he bought in 1985 had smoke alarms, but they apparently were not working. Fire investigators found no evidence of smoke alarms in the wreckage. Fandrick ran outside to the front yard. When he realized Waldon, as well as his 18-month-old Rottweiler, Amo, were still inside, he ran to the front door. When he opened it, a massive wall of flames rolled toward him. “I didn’t even have time to yell,” he said. “Immediately, this wall of flames was on top of me.” Soon after, he blacked out. Fandrick’s next memories are a month and a half later, when he was at the Dimondale Nursing Care Center.
Life in jeopardy
Paramedics took Fandrick to Sparrow Hospital. But the injuries to his lungs were so severe that he was transported that day by helicopter to the burn unit at Spectrum Health Biodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids. Doctors eventually induced a coma, his family members said, because the pain could have caused a heart attack. “They did not think he would make it,” said his sister, 58-year-old Nancy Fandrick, who traveled back and forth from Waukesha, Wis, to Grand Rapids to be with him. Nancy and other family members, including Fandrick’s four adult children, kept vigil.
About three weeks after arriving at the burn unit, Fandrick’s body crashed. His kidneys, liver, and pancreas shut down and his heart went into arrhythmia. It was the second such crash following the fire. Doctors told family members they had done everything they could. Then a miracle happened. No one knows why, but in late March, Fandrick’s condition began to improve. Nancy said, “All of a sudden, he had an energy within him,” she said. “Everyone was amazed – happily amazed – from the medical staff to the family.” Eventually, although Fandrick has no memory of it, he opened his eyes. He began to speak. In mid-April, he was transferred to the Dimondale rehabilitation facility.
About two weeks into his rehabilitation, he wanted to give up. He could not make his hands grip an upper-body strengthening machine. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to do this.’ “ he said.Soon, his background as a psychologist and therapist kicked in. He told himself not to accept defeat. He told himself to reframe the problem. After that, he viewed everything – from painful stretching exercises, to the upper-body strengthening machine – as a challenge. Instead of focusing on what can’t be done, Fandrick said, “You’ve got to find a way to connect that hope and the belief that you can do it.” Fandrick also says his recovery could not have happened without the support of his students and the entire Waverly community. The visits, the cards, the handmade posters, the Wendy’s and Burger King deliveries – all made a difference. “Through this horrible incident,” he said, “I’ve grown to understand the depth and breadth of the wonderful place I teach and practice in.”