Greensburg tornado victim reclaiming life

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

It takes time. Danny Trent takes several deep breaths, then gingerly swings his legs off the bed. He waits till the pain subsides. And then he stands. On May 4, doctors didn't know if he would survive. The Greensburg tornado had sucked Danny up out of his house and slammed him into a water-filled ditch 100 yards away.

He had blood on his brain, a fractured neck, several broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, a punctured lung, a collapsed lung and a dislocated hip. A cut on his back came close to severing his spinal cord.

But seven weeks after his house blew away, Danny, 40, took his first step -- and another, and another -- at a Wichita rehabilitation hospital.

Each day is a struggle.

Each day is filled with pain and shortness of breath and frustration.

Each day, his first steps are uncertain. But he is determined. And dozens of people around him will not let him fail.

Thrown by the tornado

As the black whirling cloud approached their 1950s ranch home in southwest Greensburg, Danny looked outside. He told his girlfriend, Suleenia Charlton, he was afraid they would get hit.

They had no basement, so Danny, Suleenia and her 11-year-old daughter, Mariah, huddled in the shower. Kasha, 16, was at a forensics tournament in Salina. Nathan, 15, was bowling in Pratt.

Danny can't remember what happened, but Suleenia does.

"The bedroom wall blew in, and the square tiles in the bathroom began popping off the wall one by one," she recalled. "Wires started popping, and I covered my head."

They held onto each other. They joke now that they flew United -- together.

They were blown 100 yards into a gully. When Suleenia came to, they were surrounded by chest-deep water and debris.

Mariah had two 4-inch triple-hook fishing lures embedded in her back. But she managed to scramble out of the debris.

She did her best to dig the adults out, but she couldn't. It was dark. She could hear people driving by, but nobody stopped. She was afraid her mom and Danny would die.

Finally, the driver of a pickup stopped.

In Dodge City, Danny's parents -- Theresia and Butch Trent -- watched the storm on television around 9:50 p.m.

They called Danny. No answer. They kept calling.

"We were pacing the floor, crying," Theresia Trent said.

At 11:15, Western Plains Regional Hospital in Dodge City called to say three family members had arrived at the hospital.

The Trents saw Mariah first.

"Her poor little body looked like she had been in a skateboard accident," Theresia said. "I held her down as they cut those fishing lures out."

She couldn't get into the emergency room. She caught just a glimpse of Danny through a door. Blood ran from his ear. Machines were keeping him alive.

He and Suleenia both had fractured necks and gaping head wounds.

At 3:30 a.m., a helicopter flew Danny to Wichita's Via Christi Regional Medical Center-St. Francis Campus.

He would be there 45 days.

Life-threatening injuries

The first several days at St. Francis were a blur of surgeries and setbacks.

Danny's parents had thrown a few clothes in a suitcase and driven through the night to Wichita. Suleenia came, too, but in a medical helicopter. She went to Wesley Medical Center, where she had surgery.

Danny would spend the next month in a drug-induced coma. He occasionally tried to pull out the tubes. He thought he was in a nursing home.

Suleenia was released from Wesley on May 9. Wearing a back brace and using a wheelchair, she went to see Danny for the first time since the tornado.

"He was so medicated, so unresponsive," she said. "They had to restrain his wrists and he didn't understand what was going on. I hated to see the man I love that way. He's so strong."

During surgeries, titanium rods were secured with screws to repair Danny's fractured neck and back. Chest tubes were placed to drain fluid from around both lungs, which later were scraped clean of debris.

He endured pneumonia, fluid on the lungs, and countless tests.

His relatives could see him for only 30 minutes at a time, four times a day.

Theresia recorded each day's ups and downs in an 8- by 5-inch green notebook.

A week after the tornado, Danny's teeth were brushed for the first time. The blood and the grime were cleaned from his skin.

His mother wrote: "You're doing as well as can -- vitals good. At 1:50 p.m. they did a tracheotomy to get the ventilator out of your throat so it would be more comfy for you."

On May 15, she wrote: "You were a little restless. They wanted to take you off the ventilator a few minutes to see how you could do it on your own. You shook your head 'No.' But they did it anyway. You did good. Later we figured out that maybe you said 'No"cause you thought they were unhooking you to die -- you poor thing."

At times, Theresia and Butch thought Danny might die. They had a sick feeling. They couldn't sleep. They didn't want to leave him.

They took turns holding his hand. They would say, "Danny, if you can hear us, squeeze our hand."

Most of the time there was nothing.

Every once in a while, though, he would faintly squeeze back.

Not leaving his side

In the intensive care unit, family gathered around Danny. They prayed. Other people heard about Danny and prayed, too.

Prayers came from Greensburg, the rest of Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri.

"People we didn't even know opened up their hearts," Theresia said. "I think he survived because of all the prayers. I think God's hand kept him from being paralyzed. That cut on his spine ran straight across but didn't sever the spinal cord or nerves. I think there was a finger or two in there saving him."

Others said Theresia fought for her son. She was protective, vigilant. She acted as caregiver for both Danny and Suleenia and kept track of the kids.

Theresia and Butch made themselves as comfortable as they could with hospital chairs and pillows. They haven't been home to Dodge City. They rely on friends and family to pick up their newspapers and mail them their bills.

"We wouldn't leave Danny until we could take him home with us," Theresia said.

'Take me home'

Danny didn't like the hospital. He lay with a foam wedge tied between his legs, so he wouldn't dislocate his hip again. Tubes snaked in and out of his body.

On May 16, his mother wrote: "You lipped, 'Take me home.' We tried to assure you that we will as soon as you are better."

On May 26, Danny thought everything was over.

"You wanted to die. No roses, you said. Butch asked you if you realized you were in a tornado. You said no. We both cried," his mother wrote.

"... You are pretty confused, thought your truck was out in the parking lot -- told Suleenia to trade her car off for one that gets 500 mpg."

Danny began to improve. He shed his feeding tube. Doctors began to talk about rehab. But Danny said he felt worse.

On June 8, they operated one last time on his right lung, to scrape out more debris and pockets of infection.

He began to eat ice, then to drink liquids, and finally to eat. He lost his trach tube and his last chest tubes.

On June 19, he left the hospital, one of the last tornado victims to be released.

The hard steps of rehab

But Danny didn't go far.

On a recent day at Via Christi Rehabilitation Center-Our Lady of Lourdes Campus, he takes a couple of deep breaths.

"Let's go for a walk, my darling," he says to his occupational therapist.

One. Two. Three hundred steps. Four hundred and fifty, 500. Now 1,000.

He practices marching, lifting one leg, then the other.

When he's tired, he sinks back into the wheelchair for deep breaths. A back brace stays snug around his upper body.

He looks at the walker in front of his wheelchair and begins to focus his energy to stand again.

He's anxious to get out. He's always been healthy, until now. His 6-foot-4 frame has lost 41 of its 220 pounds.

His doctors plan to release him Friday. They expect him to recover fully, although it may take six months to a year.

"He's strong in the legs," said physician Kevin Rieg, medical director of Our Lady of Lourdes. "He still has breathing problems, rib pain, and that right shoulder may limit him for a while."

He plans to go to his parents' house in Dodge City until a FEMA trailer is ready in Greensburg.

He worries how he will take care of his family.

"He has such a strong will. He told me, 'I've got to get out of here to take care of the kids and you,' " Suleenia said.

Before the tornado, Suleenia had worked as supervisor of housekeeping at Kiowa County Memorial Hospital and as a certified nurse's aide at the Carriage House, an assisted living center. She hopes to return to work eventually, when doctors clear her, probably in late August.

As soon as he can, Danny wants to return to work as a mechanic for the city of Greensburg.

Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt says Danny's job is waiting. "He will be an employee as long as he want to be. As a mechanic, let me tell you, he earned his weight in gold."

Regaining strength

Wednesday, Danny walked unassisted for the first time, about 8 feet. He did it twice, so his mom could see.

Earlier, as he watched his son regain strength, Butch couldn't help but think of the boy he'd taught to hunt and fish -- the man who could barbecue a feast for 100 or more people.

Danny's handmade barbecue grill is one of few possessions that survived the tornado. One of his specialties is baked beans. "He had four to five roasting pans -- or he used to -- that he'd cook those beans in," Theresia chimes in.

Danny nods. He called them Hodgeman County barn rockers.

He recites how he would grill and smoke pheasant breast with a secret recipe.

He tells his folks he misses ice-cold beer.

Then he gets ready to walk again.

He focuses and braces to get out of the wheelchair, saying to himself:

"Hold on, Danny-O. Got your superman shoes on."

He walks twice around the therapy room, then sinks into the wheelchair, panting.

His therapist tells him to breathe like he is blowing out a candle. Keep the air in for awhile, make the lungs expand.

She asks him to rate his pain on a scale of 10.

He tells her it's a five.

Butch Trent leans in and tells his son, "You did darn good, Danny-O. I'm proud of you."

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