Life, death and third grade

Life, death and third grade

June 5th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in News

Andrew Ellis, 8, uses his left hand to place his right hand onto a walker as he prepares for a physical therapy session at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Andrew was badly injured in the April 27 tornado that struck Apison, Tenn., but doctors are optimistic that eventually he will recover fully.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA-Andrew Ellis, the 8-year-old Rossville boy who lived to tell about being thrashed by a 190-mph tornado, sits on the edge of his hospital bed, slightly hunched over.

The look he casts toward the sunny day outside his window is a distant one, and it calls to mind two questions he asked his doctor in the early morning hours of April 28, a day after tornadoes killed 77 people in the Chattanooga area.

"When can I go home?"

Another week or two, his doctors say today.

Five weeks ago, authorities found Andrew unconscious, broken and bloodied in a ditch.

They airlifted him to the pediatric intensive care unit at Chattanooga's Erlanger hospital, where life-threatening injuries made getting him through the night the goal.

Now he's on the fast track to walking, jumping, running and playing in the rehabilitation wing at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where doctors are preparing him for third grade at Cloud Springs Elementary.

"Why am I here?"

Much tougher to answer. He lost his half-brother, cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother as a tornado laid waste to the area and destroyed their Apison trailer.

Everyone in the trailer died except Andrew.

"It's kind of like dropping an egg," said Dr. Joshua Vova, who's managing the boy's care in Atlanta. "Sometimes when you drop an egg, it doesn't crack, and other times it splats everywhere. It's how it lands on that particular angle."

Andrew can't explain it. But he remembers.

Before his mother drove him and his 17-year-old half-brother, Adam Carroll, to Apison on April 27, Andrew remembers "it rained real hard," cutting the power and rendering both boys bored without their gadgets.

"My brother wanted to text because he only had one more bar on his phone," Andrew said. "I wanted to play my Xbox."

He brought the video game system to Apison, but he never plugged it in. Weathermen dominated the TV screen; like almost everyone in the surrounding area, the five family members gathered on the couch to watch the radar.

Suddenly the power flickered, "the wind chimes were chiming real hard," and his cousin, Joshua Poe, 29, walked up to the window, where he saw the funnel cloud getting bigger.

"I jumped in the bathtub, and my grandma [Brenda Prescott, 56] jumped on top of me," Andrew said. "I got banged around; then my grandma flew off."

He lost consciousness for a moment and woke up "flying through the air, eyes squinted from all the debris. Then I fell face first into the ground," he said.

"After I hit the ground, I don't remember anything," he said.

A therapist at the hospital in Atlanta gave Andrew a "doodle pad" about two weeks ago. At the end of eight hours of occupational, recreational and physical therapy, he opened it and shared his work with a guest.

His voice fits his age: Mickey Mouse pitch, sweet-natured delivery, bouncy tone. He pointed to four rectangles, drawn black.

"That's my brother's grave, that's my granny's grave, that's my cousin's grave and that's my nanny's grave," he said, pointing to each one.

Asked about the final moments before the tornado, Andrew said it happened so fast, "I can't remember if we had a conversation."

Wendy Ellis, Andrew's mother, said that in the days after he woke up, "he never asked about his brother. We had to tell him."

"I think it was because he didn't want to know," she said. "He'd lost too many. It was too much for him."

The family held two days of visitation, and all four funerals and burials occurred on the third day. Andrew wasn't able to attend.

Andrew said he looked up to Adam. After that statement, his lower lip trembled and he began rolling a full Sprite can over red, hospital-issued Play-Doh.

"I don't know what to say," he said.

The tornado blew Andrew a full quarter-mile from his grandmother's trailer, authorities said. He spent some time airborne, but the devil wind mostly dragged him against the earth and anything else in its path.

"He definitely spent a large amount of time just being pushed across the ground," said Dr. Julie Zielinski, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Erlanger. "He had deep, traveling lacerations that show as if something had been pushed across his skin."

The tornado came through about 8:30 p.m. When paramedics reached Andrew nearly three hours later, he was face-down in a ditch with a disfigured left leg.

"It was like someone scooped a chunk of his leg out. You could fit a baseball or a cell phone in there," said Spence Person, a firefighter and EMT with the Tri-Community Fire Department.

The crew had ordered a helicopter hours earlier. Until it arrived, all they had was a medical kit they had used throughout the night. They improvised, making a splint out of triangular bandages. It was everything they could do to "hope he didn't go the way of the reaper," Person said.

"We're thankful he doesn't remember most of that night," Person said. "There were things nobody needs to see."

A Life Force helicopter missed the location five times before it landed, Person said. High-tension power lines hung a few feet overhead, and they began to unravel as the propellers whipped around.

The paramedics placed Andrew on a back board and picked their way about 100 feet to the chopper, dodging debris and live lines they barely could make out in the black night.

"Everything worked in our favor that night for him," Person said. "We all thought we were about to bite the dust."

Paramedics airlifted Andrew to Children's Hospital at Erlanger, where staff discovered extensive damage: An undetermined head injury. A broken left femur. Cuts all over his chest, legs and arms. An elbow laceration that destroyed muscle and exposed bone.

The next morning, an Erlanger trauma surgeon cleaned grass, sticks, glass and fecal matter off his skin before Zielinski repaired his femur, inserting a steel rod between his left hip and left knee.

Andrew is expected to recover fully from all his physical injuries. At his age, Zielinksi said, growth and recovery happen so quickly that it's not a matter of if, but when, doctors will remove the steel rod.

Zielinski recalled the many children she treated with multiple complex fractures in the storm's aftermath.

"The first thought that went through my mind is, this kid is really lucky," Zielinski said. "It could have been so much worse for him."

The recreational therapy room at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where Andrew was taken by ambulance three weeks ago, is a place to heal.

Exercise balls fill the shelves. Therapy dogs hold court. Staffers wear Marvin the Martian T-shirts.

Andrew wheeled himself into the room one day last week. It took two therapists, Andrew's parents and 15 minutes to strap him into a modified tricycle.

Tape, tubes, safety belts, Velcro.

Andrew craves independence. He smiles and flexes his muscles on command, but his face falls when his parents insist on helping with anything.

He's embarrassed by the purple helmet he must wear on the tricycle, but his dad, Gus Ellis, knows how to chide: "One slip, and you're back where you started."

"Remember, we don't take chances," Wendy Ellis says.

Strapped in, Andrew challenges another small boy to a race and makes a hospital employee dodge the tricycle as she enters the restroom. For the first time all day, he's grinning.

He retreats to his room, where his goals are posted to the door: Make new friends. Bend right elbow. More walking. Get stronger.

Another goal consists of one word: Memory.

"I wish there were magic pills for everything," says Vova, the doctor who's supervising Andrew's care in Atlanta. "The major issue is the thinking skills. Personally I've never been through a tornado, but I'm willing to guess it's not a gentle landing."

The tornado did not affect his curiosity. In the course of an hour, he asks what scholarship, overexert and therapeutic mean while the adults talk.

Vova says Andrew will be relocated to the Ronald McDonald house in Atlanta for about a week after he recovers from an infection in his elbow. After that, it's possible he'll be home for good.

Andrew said he can't wait to return to Rossville, and for his homecoming party, he's requested hot dogs, soda and the medics who rescued him.

"I feel lucky," Andrew said. "That's all."