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Garden City burn victim: ‘I never knew I had so many friends’

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 30, 2013, at 8:53 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at 3:10 p.m.

Charlie Drussel’s legs were on fire.

“My jeans were flaming up quite a ways,” he remembered Tuesday. “I knew I was in trouble. My skin was coming off in my hands. I knew it probably was going to be something that Sherry couldn’t handle. I told the Lord to take me.”

He described those few seconds after he prepared to die as an out-of-body experience, “so peaceful and calm, peace that most people do not know.”

Drussel survived the accident Dec. 26 in his Garden City shop where he works on high-performance engines. He was able to get to a phone and call 911 to tell emergency dispatchers that a gas can he had been holding had exploded, catching his body on fire. He stayed on the phone with the dispatcher for eight minutes.

He now tells people facing death not to worry.

Drussel, 66, has spent the last four months in Wichita, two of them in a burn unit at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. He leaves the Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital on Wednesday to return home for the first time since the day he thought he would die.

Grateful to be alive

Doctors tried to save Drussel’s legs as he recovered in a medically induced coma.

They did skin grafts, using skin from his thighs and back.

But he wasn’t getting better.

Doctors amputated his left leg below the knee and some toes on his right foot in January.

His body still didn’t heal. Burned and dead tissue released toxins that were damaging his kidneys.

So on Feb. 8, doctors amputated both of Drussel’s legs above the knees.

“Bless them for trying to save his legs,” Sherry Drussel said.

As he came out of the coma later that month — a process that took a couple of weeks as doctors took him off sedation — he told his wife, “something’s wrong with my legs.”

Sherry Drussel answered: “They’re not there anymore. They had to amputate them.”

“Bless the Lord for saving my life,” was his response, she said.

Will you marry me?

Charlie and Sherry Drussel have been together for 21 years, married for 11. They were in the same class at Garden City High School — the class of 1965 — but didn’t know each other then.

Sherry Drussel joked that she was the shy, quiet, “good-girl type, so I didn’t think he knew me.”

“You have to understand I had a red Corvette in high school,” he joked back.

An informal class reunion May 21, 1992, brought them together.

Sherry, 65, lived in Norman, Okla., at the time and drove to Kansas to visit him several weekends a month.

Finally, after putting 21,000 miles on her new truck, she’d had enough with the trips and moved to Garden City.

During a moment of confusion as Drussel was coming out of sedation, he asked Sherry to marry him.

She told him they already were married.

They plan to renew their vows.

“I’m not going to take anything for granted again,” Drussel said.

The morning of the accident, as she left for work, as she always did, Sherry Drussel kissed her husband and told him she loved him.

She said that was the first thing she thought about when a neighbor called to tell her her husband had been in an accident and been taken by helicopter to the hospital.

Handling tragedy with humor

The accident is the second major health scare the Drussels have weathered together.

Sherry Drussel is a breast cancer survivor and underwent extensive reconstructive surgery in 2004. She lost 40 pounds in six weeks during chemotherapy, and doctors decided not to do a fifth round.

While meeting with the surgeon who would do her reconstructive surgery, Drussel joked, “I bet I’m the only man in Kansas who would get up at dark 30 and drive four hours so I can watch another man fondle my wife’s breasts.”

Humor is how they cope with life’s challenges, the couple says.

Drussel has gone from 260 pounds to 178 pounds.

“We don’t know how much of that was his legs,” Sherry Drussel said. “It’s not a weight-loss plan we would recommend.”

Garden City benefit raises $60,000

When the Drussels return to Garden City, they’ll find a home that’s been renovated to accommodate a wheelchair. Friends and Garden City businesses donated money, time and supplies to put in a new entryway, widen doorways, build a ramp and put in a new bathroom.

Supporters also raised $60,000 at a car show in March, where “Charlie’s Angels” shirts also were sold.

“I never knew I had so many friends,” Drussel said.

A welcome-home party is scheduled for the end of this month.

Dialysis three times a week is still in his future, but so are prosthetic legs. The couple plans to get hand controls for a vehicle so Drussel can drive.

“If I could drive, I’d be home by now,” he said.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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