Three central Indiana residents and their families don’t need a reminder of what they’re thankful for — they’ve spent months giving thanks for their lives.
During the spring and summer Jason Andrews, Randall Conner and Tahlia Velasquez were all in accidents that nearly killed them. Andrews was struck by a train while walking along tracks in Franklin, and Conner lost a leg during a motorcycle accident while riding through Johnson County. Velasquez’s leg was seriously injured after she fell into a creek while riding her bike with her mother.
All three are still recovering physically and mentally from their injuries. None of them know when their recovery will be complete, but they are grateful to be alive and with their friends and families.
‘It’s just a scar now’
Tahlia Velasquez is proud of her gymnastic, jumping jack and sit-up abilities.
The Custer Baker Intermediate School fifth-grader loves to move around and play basketball. Her attitude has let her power through her recovery from the severe leg injury from a bike accident in July.
Velasquez’s left leg was cut down to the bone when she hit and flipped over a guardrail on Division Road southwest of Bargersville, falling 15 feet into a creek bed.
She’s had four surgeries and lost some of the muscle from her left quadricep, meaning her leg tires easily and makes it difficult for her to regain her balance if she starts to fall. And sometimes Velasquez’s leg starts tingling very intensely as the nerves continue to heal.
“It feels like someone is sticking needles in my leg,” she said.
But her recovery has progressed faster than anyone expected.
Originally, doctors weren’t sure whether Velasquez would be able to keep her leg and thought she would be hospitalized for weeks or a month. After her second surgery, doctors saw the leg was beginning to heal and she was discharged after a week.
“I would not be able to stay in that bed for a month,” she said.
“It’s just a scar now,” she said of the cut on her leg.
Velasquez still hasn’t gone bike riding since the accident, and her mother, Alice, is having a harder time dealing with the anxiety that’s followed.
What are you thankful for?
Alice Velasquez goes out of her way to avoid driving by the site of the accident on Division Road. And while she was grateful her daughter was feeling well enough to roller skate during gym class she refused to sign the parent waiver.
“Mentally, it hit me a lot harder than it hit her,” she said.
Alice Velasquez also gets nervous anytime she sees anyone riding a bike down the street. Seeing the bikers get her thinking about what she could have done differently as she was trying to find help for her injured daughter.
But then she starts thinking about what went well that day: the motorcyclist who stopped to watch Tahlia while Alice ran for help. The emergency crews who were training nearby and who were able to respond quickly. The fact that Alice, a former Army medic, was able to think clearly in the middle of a horrible situation.
“I have chosen since then to look at everything that went right,” Alice Velasquez said.
‘So far, so good’
Once a week, Jason Andrews attends therapy sessions designed to help him better control his emotions.
During the past nine months, the Franklin Community High School freshman has been through physical therapy to help him relearn to walk and talk. Cognitive therapy helps him rebuild his short-term memory.
But right now his biggest priority is keeping his mood under control.
Doctors told Andrews and his mother, Kyan Botts, that mood swings are common after traumatic brain injuries and Andrews might become quickly overwhelmed, frustrated or angry. In therapy he’s learning to deal with that frustration and anger by taking his mind off of whatever is upsetting him and refocus.
Part of what frustrates Andrews is that he knows he’s not the same person he was before being struck by the train in March. He’s not able to relax as easily, spend time with friends or play basketball or other sports he used to enjoy. Neither Andrews nor Botts knows when his recovery will be complete, but Botts is grateful Andrews has progressed as much as he has.
“The day we brought him home was a miracle, so I’ll take him as he is,” she said.
Andrews still has to avoid contact sports, which is frustrating for him, and some days he still has problems remembering what happened a few hours before.
Andrews and Botts regularly have to face reminders of Andrews’ accident.
The bus that takes Andrews to school passes the train tracks at State and Monroe Streets near Franklin College where he was struck. The details of the accident are slowly beginning to come back to him: He now remembers seeing a college student looking at him right before he was hit, and seeing the tracks every day can be difficult, he said.
Botts thinks about what happened every time she hears a train.
“I still ... every time I hear a train, it just takes me back to that day. Every time,” she said.
But both are grateful that Andrews is able to go to school and that he’s doing well in his classes, earning mostly A’s and B’s.
No one expected Andrews to be able to return to school so quickly, Botts said. But despite the frustration Andrews knows he’s making progress.
“I’ve been on and off, but so far so good,” he said.
‘I felt like I owed him my life’
Every Friday, as Randall Conner meets with a group of fellow motorcyclists, he wonders how much longer it will be until he can get back on a Harley-Davidson.
He knows that can’t happen until spring or summer. For now, the Anderson resident is learning how to steady himself and walk using a prosthetic leg.
Conner lost his left leg in April while riding his motorcycle on State Road 44 near Franklin, after striking a car.
He thinks about the accident every day, wondering what happened. He doesn’t remember much after the crash, but he does remember hitting the car. Witnesses told police that Conner’s motorcycle crossed the center line, but Conner is certain he didn’t do anything that would have caused the crash.
He also doesn’t remember 23-year-old Johnathan Ward, a former Marine, saving his life by putting a tourniquet around his injured leg, or a woman named Stacey Eggers keeping him calm as he laid on the ground while emergency crews arrived.
But he credits both with saving his life.
Conner was at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for six weeks after the accident. Along with the loss of his leg Conner also had a broken left hip, a broken right knee, a broken left cheek bone and a torn ACL.
He had another two weeks of in-patient rehab after he returned to Anderson, and he now has two 45-minute therapy sessions a week where he learns to walk with his prosthetic. He has to learn how to balance himself on the prosthetic limb, which is customized with an American flag and the Harley-Davidson logo.
“Once you get that Harley in your blood it’s hard to get it out,” he said.
Conner talked with Eggers and Ward after the crash. He and Eggers speak sporadically through Facebook, and Ward called Conner briefly while he was still in the hospital.
Conner is grateful he had the chance to say thank you.
“I wanted to thank him. I felt like I owed him my life. If it wasn’t for him I probably would have bled to death,” he said.