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Published: Thursday, 11/25/2004

Survivors of adversity give thanks

If all goes to plan, a bandaged Jillian Badenhop will hobble out of a Toledo hospital today for a Thanksgiving meal at home - surrounded by food and family.

Her face and legs are badly burned. It hurts to move. But she's thankful, considering what surrounded her five days ago.

Flames. Smoke. Screams.

A semi had rammed the 22-year-old's Chevy Blazer in Henry County, and a passer-by pulled her to safety moments before fire overtook the vehicle.

When Ms. Badenhop talks of what she's thankful for this year, she said only a few words before she's overcome by tears: "My family."

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On a day when families across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan gather for the annual holiday ritual, Ms. Badenhop and four others who overcame adversity, say they have plenty of reasons to give thanks.

Despite his wife's death and his failing health, Rex Brown has found fulfillment and smiles in helping others.

A motorcycle crash left John Zeitler nearly immobile, but family and friends have stepped up with support.

Illness forced Judy Leb to give up a fast-paced career as a corporate attorney and opened her eyes to a family-friendly lifestyle and career helping kids.

In John Schaeufele's battle with cystic fibrosis, a double lung transplant saved the pediatrician's life and allowed him to keep caring for kids.

And there's Ms. Badenhop, of Liberty Center, whose crash scared and amazed her fellow parishioners at St. Patrick Church in Providence.

Rex Brown wears a lifetime in the deep, soft lines of his face.

They are the markings of a life etched by hard labor, lost love, and several dangerous dances with death - a ragged battle with tuberculosis as a boy and congestive heart failure last year among them.

But the creases that have permanently wrapped around the easy smile of the retired sheet metal worker from Delta are the most telling.

"Sometimes I get a little down," he conceded, but brightened again quickly. "I'll tell you: I'm just not sure how I got so old so fast."

In short, Mr. Brown's glass not only is half-full, it's served with perpetual smile or a funny story.

So when he lost his wife to liver failure several years ago, it only made sense that he threw his energy into the Fulton County Senior Center, driving homebound seniors to critical medical appointments.

"I was so lonely and so upset. I was married for almost 57 years. I just couldn't stand this empty house," he said.

He took them to dialysis, the dentist, chemotherapy, or radiation treatments. He learned their funny stories.

"I really got into it. It just seems that there are so many people with so many needs," he said.

And there it is again: Mr. Brown's unwavering it-could-be-worse attitude.

Go ahead, ask him about his failing hearing or eyesight or the 14 operations he's had. He'll tell you instead of being knocked off his feet on one particular job as a young man, teetering over the edge of a platform as he watched his hard hat tumble in the wind to the ground 160 feet below.

He smiled: "'Almost died that day. And I'm lucky I'm as healthy as I am. I'm 84, you know."

Ask him how tough it's been since losing his wife, and he smiles as he remembered the first time he met the pretty, shy Bertha Jean Abbot at a Sunday school party more than a half-century earlier: "She was so scared of me at first, she nearly tripped running away from me."

Ask him about what he'll do today, given that his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now live out of town, he'll talk kindly about a woman who makes up his scrambled eggs and rye every morning at the little restaurant at the edge of town. She's invited Mr. Brown and several of her other patrons to have dinner with her family.

He chuckled. Again.

"She's going to have a dinner at 1 p.m. for us vagrants," he said, adding: "Who can complain when you know good people like that?"

John Zeitler's life changed in an instant.

The Sylvania man was enjoying a late-summer ride on his motorcycle on a sunny Sept. 10, headed west on U.S. 20, when a car pulled in front of him.

Mr. Zeitler, 52, who was going about 50 mph, said he had no time to react and slammed into the car. The motorcyclist was thrown from his bike and suffered multiple injuries, including a broken left arm, a broken left leg, a torn right rotator cuff, a severe laceration in his right foot, and numerous other cuts and bruises.

He was hospitalized for nearly five weeks after the crash, having his broken bones set and undergoing foot surgery. At one point, he required treatment for a blood clot in his right leg.

Because of his injuries, he was off his job as Lucas County's budget director for seven weeks. Nearly 2 1/2 months after the collision, he's not back full-time - he spends half of every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday undergoing arduous physical therapy sessions.

He remains on crutches and seldom ventures outside his home or office because he has so much trouble getting around. In a sort-of-milestone, he attended his 12-year-old son's lacrosse game last week.

He finds his newly sedentary lifestyle frustrating.

"I'm not depressed, I just feel that I'm not being a productive as I could be, because I was always very active."

Still, despite his injuries and his slow, painful recuperation, Mr. Zeitler said he has plenty to be grateful for, starting with motorists who helped him at the accident scene.

His wife, Kathy, "stepped up and took care of me and my boys" after the crash. "Without her, it would have been a much rougher experience."

Mr. Zeitler said his sons, ages 17 and 12, also helped out, "getting things for me and making sure I was comfortable."

He also realizes his injuries, while serious, could have been much worse.

"I'm talking to you on the phone, and right there, that's the biggest thing," he told a reporter. "People say, 'It's great to see you.' I say, 'It's great to be seen.'‚óŹ"

Perspective cost Judy Leb a lot of money. It paid out big, though, in terms of happiness.

"People who have suffered adversity become more spiritual, and I don't necessarily mean religious. It makes you so very grateful for what you have," said the former corporate attorney at one of Toledo's largest law firms.

Now a recruiter for the Lucas County court-appointed special advocate office, she recruits volunteers to take on some of the county's worst child abuse and neglect cases advocating in court for the child victims.

But a career with a slant in social work was not what the mother of two had intended.

For years, Ms. Leb worked in a high-stress, 65-hour-a-week job as a health-care attorney. Her colleagues were wonderful. The work was cutting-edge, and the pay was good.

But about a decade ago, dizziness, fatigue, the inability to sleep, and shortness of breath overtook her daily routine. She often lay on the floor, unable to focus, unable to move.

The doctors called it autonomic dysfunction. Ms. Leb called it life-changing.

Though the symptoms ultimately became manageable, Ms. Leb chose to leave her job at the law firm and eventually landed the part-time position at CASA.

Though the salary is less than half what she used to make, she said, she counts as her pay intangible dividends.

"I love what I do because I know I'm making a difference. I work with the salt of the earth - the people who work here are genuinely compassionate people who care about our community," she added.

Just as importantly, the fewer hours mean time for things like the impromptu game of basketball with her 11-year-old son recently in a late-night chill, underneath the spotlights of their garage.

"I think people live life, and they go day to day, without really considering priorities," she said. "I don't do that anymore."

When John Schaeufele inhales the whiff of good home-cooking today, it will be the first time he's taken a deep breath on Thanksgiving.

Dr. Schaeufele, 50, has battled cystic fibrosis all his life. The lung disease often kills those it attacks in their 20s or 30s and those who survive beyond that slowly get sicker as their lungs deteriorate.

Two years ago, his condition worsened. Without a double-lung transplant, the chances he'd live much longer were slim, so he was put on a transplant waiting list in February. On Nov. 2, he got the call and rushed to the University of Michigan for the transplant. Yesterday was his first day home, and he said this Thanksgiving will be like none other, with some special prayers of thanks.

"I'm a blessed man," he said. "I'm eternally grateful for the donor who donated his organs."

Dr. Schaeufele is chairman of pediatrics at Mercy Children's Hospital in Toledo and has spent years treating children with diseases like cystic fibrosis. Being a patient himself "has taught me more than I ever learned from being a doctor. I've learned the things that make families worry, and the things that make families feel good."

For now, he's looking forward to some simple pleasures. He hasn't run, really run, since he was a small child. He sounded a little giddy talking about the possibility of breaking into a sprint after more than 40 years.

Walking in the park with his grandkids, something he hasn't been able to do for years, also sounds pretty nice, he added. "I want to live long enough for my grandchildren to remember me," he said.

This morning at St. Patrick's Catholic church, the Rev. F. Anthony Gallagher will ask members to think of things for which they're thankful.

They won't have to think long.

Saturday afternoon, 11 youth group members, two leaders, and parish mom Patricia Rupert set out from church on U.S. 24 to deliver food to nursing home residents in Napoleon.

An oncoming semi pulled out to pass, and the caravan's lead driver braked and pulled to the right to avoid a head-on collision. The caravan drivers behind her did the same. So did Jill Badenhop, behind them all.

But the semi behind Ms. Badenhop couldn't stop.

That started a chain-reaction crash that caused Ms. Badenhop's Chevy Blazer to smash into the three-vehicle caravan.

When the car and two minivans stopped spinning, a check revealed nobody was badly hurt.

Then Ms. Rupert heard the screams of Ms. Badenhop and raced to find her SUV afire and her window down. The 43-year-old tugged the 115-pound woman as hard as she could, and the pair fell out and made it across the road before the SUV's windows all popped and the car became engulfed.

About five hours later, just before the 5:30 p.m. Mass, Father Gallagher updated St. Patrick's parishioners about the safety of the youth group, and he mentioned Ms. Rupert saving a stranger in a burning car.

That's when parishioner Ann Westhoven spoke up.

It was her granddaughter who had been saved.

The grandmother had spent the afternoon fretting over the fate of Jillian, and not knowing who had pulled her to safety. Only during Father Gallagher's talk before Mass did she learn what had happened, she said.

Jillian, also a parish member, had been on her way home to Liberty Center after Christmas shopping in Toledo and ended up behind the church caravan.

Dazed at the crash scene, she didn't know who had saved her. And Ms. Rupert, herself dazed at the crash scene, didn't know whom she had saved.

Five days later, beyond giving thanks for her family and friends, Ms. Rupert will give thanks to her spiritual faith and guardian angels. It's what saw her through the rescue, she said.

Doctors have told Ms. Badenhop that she will require some surgery, and there will be frustrating weeks left in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center and months more recuperating. But she is expected to make a full recovery.

So when she gathers with her family today, whether at home or the hospital, she said she'll give thanks for the fact she can be there: "I'm pretty lucky."

Blade staff writers Steve Murphy and Luke Shockman contributed to this report.

Contact Joe Mahr at:

jmahr@theblade.com

or 419-724-6180.



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