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Severe Burn Victim’s Survivor Story Inspires Others

Zane Wetzel spent 47 days in a coma, and awoke to the realization that he was involved in a life-changing accident. But with the love of his wife and unwavering faith and optimism, he and his wife have gotten to a place where they can actually help other burn victims too.

It has been a little more than two years since the 27-year-old apprentice lineman for Maine Public Service Co. in Presque Isle, Maine suffered a flash burn to 50 percent of his body while working at an electrical substation. His chest, back, arm and neck suffered third degree burns in the accident.

Wetzel was standing on a scissor lift with several other co-workers when a charge of electricity arced and touched the corner of the lift. The electricity traveled to the ground and bounced back, burning him. Safety equipment prevented Wetzel from being fatally electrocuted. And no one else around him was injured.

Wetzel was in a drug-induced coma for 47 days in the intensive care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He has endured a dozen surgeries, including several operations to place skin graft from his legs onto his burned areas. After seven weeks, he was transferred from Brigham and Women’s to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He spent two weeks in that hospital and remained in Boston for outpatient therapy before coming home at the end of January 2011. For several months, he spent up to 2½ hours a day, five days a week, at County Physical Therapy in Presque Isle working with therapists on exercises to increase his range of motion and mobility and improve his quality of life.

After Zane was released from the hospital, he and his wife Courtney began receiving invitations to speak at churches, Christian schools and other venues about the accident and its aftermath. They now have traveled all over New England and also spoke in Zane’s home state of Ohio.

“We always tag-team during these engagements because he doesn’t remember the first month after the accident and we had two different challenges,” said Courtney. “Mine was that I didn’t know if my husband would live. His was waking up and realizing the condition he was in.”

Wetzel still has virtually no memory of the accident. At the emergency room, “I remember being scared and confused, and then I heard my mother-in-law’s voice and I calmed down,” he said. “I remember whispering, ‘Tell Courtney I love her.'”

When Courtney arrived at the Boston hospital a few hours after the accident, she repeatedly asked doctors and nurses if Zane would live. They just stared in silence. “I really just had to put it in God’s hands,” she said. “I turned it over to Him.”

Zane’s family traveled to the hospital from Ohio to join Courtney and her loved ones. As they watched, he struggled. Feverish and thirsty, he thought he was being held captive in Mexico, the constant sedation leading him to believe that his captors were drugging him. His loved ones watched him kick and flail in his hospital bed, with Courtney humming “Amazing Grace” to him every night before she left.

The doctors assured her that one day Zane would just emerge from his sedation and start talking to her. That day was six weeks after the accident. Although he was still on the feeding tube, he began eating his first real meal of peaches and ice cream six days later. To the amazement of his family and caregivers, he was well enough to make a trip home for Christmas 2010.

Wetzel’s last operation was surgery on his neck in June 2011 and he will have additional neck surgery soon. He also may be facing a procedure on his thumb. “But hopefully, that will be the last one,” he said.

His physical therapy has decreased to three days a week and he is now lifting heavy weights. He has gained mobility and strength. He can lift weights over his head now, something he could not do a few months ago.

The biggest change, however, has been the public speaking. The Wetzels are strong in their faith. The couple said they’ve had unbelievable reactions when they tell their story in public. “I always people that your strength doesn’t come from you, God gives you the strength to get through,” said Courtney. “Things happen for a reason, and you have to be strong.”

During each session, Zane unbuttons his shirt and shows the audience his chest, which was the most severely burned in the accident. “I am not ashamed of my scars,” he said. “And we always get a positive reaction when we speak — lots of tears and people telling us how inspired they were by our story.”

Zane adds that “I do want to go back to work. I will talk to the doctors to determine what sort of job duties I can perform.”

Since he can’t expose his skin to sunlight for very long and has poor circulation in his hands, which makes him more susceptible to frostbite, he cannot go back to his position as a power lineman. Still, he wants to return to work in some fashion and has kept in contact with his colleagues, who he called “very supportive.”

The couple said they have amazing support from family, friends, and the community. They credited medical staff at both hospitals in Massachusetts as well Zane’s team at County Physical Therapy for his recovery. They now are back to making plans both personally and professionally and looking forward to their next steps after the long journey home.

If you or someone you know suffers an injury such as third degree burns or smoke inhalation, you should call Kramer & Pollack LLP in Mineola, New York so that the personal injury attorneys in that firm can determine whether another party has legal liability for injuries suffered, and if the injured party has a strong legal case.