JEFFERSONVILLE — She survived the Henryville tornado with little more than a scratch, but the aftermath of the storm cost her all of her limbs and nearly took her life.
Louella Aker, 66, and a former Henryville resident, gave a tour of her new home with her dog Truman following closely behind. Aker recently moved into the Aberdeen Woods home after enduring a year spent in a coma, physical rehabilitation and an assisted living facility.
Aberdeen Woods is a 20-unit affordable housing community developed by New Hope Services Inc., in Jeffersonville, mostly geared toward seniors. Aker recently moved in to the home which, with assistance from March2Recovery, has been modified to accommodate her.
Moving into the new home has given Aker — a quadruple amputee — back her independence after she had been given a 10 percent chance to live.
MARCH 2, 2012
Originally from Clarksville, Aker had lived in Henryville for 22 years when tornadoes tore through the northern part of Clark County on March 2, 2012.
The single mother raised her five now-grown children in the community, but in March 2012 her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were still living with her.
Aker — who was an assistant manager at the Family Dollar in Henryville that was within walking distance to her home — was scheduled to work in the afternoon that day. She heard the early reports of the severe weather and as the day passed, the family kept gathering on the porch to see what was headed toward the small town.
“I kept telling my son-in-law and my daughter, it’s going to be nothing,” Aker said. “I said, ‘it’s going to blow over to Salem.’ They always blow over to Salem.”
As it got closer to the time when Aker was supposed to go to work, she said for some reason she didn’t get ready.
“I’m not sure why, but I didn’t,” she said.
As the weather reports continued to roll in, she called the store to make sure the employees knew what was happening. As the storm barreled toward the town, Aker and her son-in-law saw the funnel cloud.
“When you see them on TV, they’re always white,” she said. “This was the dirtiest funnel cloud I had ever seen. I mean, it was just black. When I heard it roar — and it truly does roar like a freight train — I had never heard that before, it was frightening. We all hit the basement.”
Aker and her family rode out the storm, then came outside to assess the damage the tornado had caused.
“Where the tornado went through and the trees were just broken, it looked like somebody had taken a bulldozer to build a new highway through there,” Aker said.
Her attention turned to work, where she was scheduled to be about the time the tornado hit the town that afternoon.
“My immediate thought then, I knew my kids were all right, the grandkids were all right, my immediate thought was the store. I’ve got to get up to the store,” she said.
She said she made it to the store just before a hailstorm that followed the tornado. Despite being damaged, people flocked into the Dollar General looking for flashlights, blankets and water. The employees began piling up goods and carting them to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which became an immediate gathering place for tornado victims and first responders. Aker repeated the trek from the store to the church the rest of the night and didn’t leave until about 1 a.m., when someone boarded up the Dollar General.
When she finally left, she was in a state of shock.
“I was just really in a daze,” Aker said. “I had never seen anything so horrible and so frightening. You just wanted to sit and cry. You wanted to cry because the school your children went to was not going to be the school your grandchildren went to, and you know the places that you knew so well were gone, and maybe the people were not going to rebuild and come back and it was your community.
“It was the toughest thing I had ever gone through. It really was.”
At the same time that she saw the destruction of her community, Aker saw residents come together, and like so many, she went to help her neighbors who were worse off than her.
“I couldn’t stay away, but I couldn’t stay at home,” Aker said. “We saw the best of humankind. I didn’t know there were so many people that could care so much for people they didn’t even know.”
At that point, Aker didn’t know it would be someone else who had been the victim of the tornado that would help her regain her independence after going through a fight for her life.
Aker said she started feeling sick toward the end of March 2012.
She remembered the physical downturn because it was shortly before her nephew’s wedding that she was so excited to attend. But as the weekend grew near, Aker felt worse and worse.
Aker’s daughter tried to nurse her through the illness and took her temperature, which read 104 degrees. Aker dismissed it and said the thermometer must be broken, took some Tylenol and went to bed. She missed the wedding, and the day after, having still not improved, her daughter told Aker it was time to go to Scott Memorial Hospital.
“Truly, we were just thinking flu,” Aker said. “I sat in one of the little plastic chairs [in the emergency room] and that is the last I remember of anything.”
Aker slipped into a coma.
From Scott Memorial Hospital, Aker was transferred to Clark Memorial Hospital. She was there for a month when doctors told her family that they wanted to do exploratory surgery.
“I had these horrible things all up and down my legs and arms, they were these huge blisters,” Aker said.
The family agreed to the procedure, but doctors found nothing. After the surgery, Aker remained at Clark Memorial Hospital for another three to four weeks before she was transferred to Jewish Hospital in Louisville. She remained there for another few weeks before she finally awoke from her coma.
“Both of my arms and both of my legs looked like I had been put on a charcoal grill,” Aker said. “They were just black and crispy. From that point on, it was doctors and more doctors.”
Eventually, Aker was told they would have to amputate her legs and arms. The surgeries to remove her limbs took place individually, each about three days apart. No definitive diagnosis was given as to what caused the damage to her limbs, but doctors believed it may have been a bacterial infection.
“They seemed to think it could have been some type of bacteria that was picked up because this tornado was so large, and came so far, and picked up so much stuff, but there was really no way to tell,” Aker said.
Similar mysterious cases of bacterial infections were reported in the wake of other natural disasters, including a tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., in 2011. According to the Joplin Globe, 13 people were diagnosed with a fungal infection in the wake of the tornado. Five of the 13 people who were infected with the bacteria died.
The fungus — apophysomyces trapeziformis — grows in soil, water and wood, and is harmless to humans unless it penetrates the skin. When it does penetrate the skin, it enters the capillaries and cuts off the blood flow to tissue, killing large areas of tissue, according to the report.
A team with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention identified the Joplin cases as mucormycosis, an infection that results from the fungus. Those with diabetes or cancer are at an increased risk for the infection. Aker is a breast cancer survivor.
But doctors could still not definitively say what caused Aker’s illness.
REBUILDING HER LIFE
After the surgeries, Aker began the rehabilitation process that lasted nearly a year, first at Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville, then at Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation in Sellersburg.
She was fitted for prosthetic limbs at Frazier Rehab before she was moved to the long-term facility in Sellersburg. And during her rehabilitation, Aker discovered several things about herself.
“I learned television was not my cup of tea,” Aker said with a laugh. “I could not watch TV for the rest of my life. I wanted to be back on my own.”
When asked by a doctor what her motivation was, Aker said she really wasn’t sure.
“The only thing I could think of was I was so active to begin with that I was going to be as active as I could be,” she said. “I was not going to be wheelchair-bound.”
Maybe the motivation was an embodiment of Henryville after the tornado.
“We had help from a lot of people, but the entire community was very strong,” Aker said of the town. “Everybody who came through it, came through it stronger. And I think they came through with an appreciation of the human spirit.
“I think if people are going through a rough time, it really doesn’t help to say, ‘well, my time is tougher than yours.’ The only thing I would say is have faith. Things usually, maybe, don’t work out the way you want them to, but they work out. You may end on a different path. I truthfully thought I would live in Henryville the rest of my life. It’s where I thought I would be.”
It may also have been the desire to reclaim her former life and to watch her family continue to grow.
“I wanted them to think, ‘granny might have different arms and legs, but she can still play with us,’” Aker said of her grandkids.
However, she admitted she was not immune to the depression that comes with such a traumatic experience.
“I still have low points, I try not to,” Aker said. “I think I always knew I was going to walk,” she added very matter-of-fact.
While she allowed herself time to be upset, she didn’t let it last for long. She said one day during her rehab at Frazier she cried from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and told her doctor she wasn’t going to be doing anything that day. But she added she put limits on how much pity she could have for herself.
“I told him, ‘I’m crying today and this is all I’m going to do today,’” she said. “I said, ‘Tomorrow I’ll be better. I promise you I’ll get up and work hard tomorrow.’”
Aker has picked herself back up. She said she still scares her kids when she falls walking with the prosthetics, but she’s learned how to do it so she doesn’t get hurt. And while she said that she has slowed down, she hasn’t stopped.
“Everything was a reminder that my life is different now,” Aker said. “It’s something you never think will happen to you and you just pick up and go on.”
BUILDING AROUND HER
As Aker was wrapping up her rehabilitation, she said she received some help from Stephanie Decker, who was also a victim of the Henryville tornado.
Decker had both her legs amputated after her home came crumbling down on top of her during the tornado. But Decker, who helped Aker through her recovery, also put her in touch with the volunteers with March2Recovery.
While the long-term recovery organization told Aker it wasn’t feasible to build a new home in Henryville, the group was able, along with New Hope, to find a home in Jeffersonville. The home in Aberdeen Woods was specially modified to accommodate Aker.
“March2Recovery helped to pay for adaptations to the home,” said Carolyn King, the nonprofit’s executive director. “By the time she was out of rehab, we were about finished with this, so we could work it so she could move right in to a new place.”
The modifications included lowering the stove, widening doors, installing tile floors throughout and modifying the bathroom in the single-story home. Grace Lutheran Church in New Albany also helped Aker with some specialized furniture and appliances for her house. She said she received help from many others to regain the biggest gift she would receive — her independence.
“When I first woke up, I immediately wondered how I would do anything,” Aker said. “I had my own house, had a garden, raised chickens ... I saw all of that slipping away and I wondered if the rest of my life would be in a nursing home in a wheelchair.
“I just did not ever think I would see this again. To raise my kids and have my grandkids stay with me, and to see myself getting back to that stage is just miraculous, it really is.”
Aker goes on a mile walk each day, has met most of her neighbors and walks Truman regularly. But the best part of regaining her independence is having her grandchildren in her home.
“Being in that kind of facility kind of scared them,” Aker said of the rehabilitation centers. “They are no longer scared — they play around here just like they did before I got sick. It’s just been wonderful. I can sit and watch them with a big grin on my face.”
Aker said she’s not finished. Her next goal is to be able to drive a car again. Then, to get a job.
“I would like to work again,” Aker said. “I feel like I need to be busy and needed; I need to do something. I don’t know whether [it’s] something to give back or just something to help other people, I think I’ll be able to do that. I really do.”