Three and a half months after a hunting accident nearly took his life, Black Hawk Middle School teacher Christian Wenzel is finally home.
The trip down Water Street last Friday to his home on Hilltop Lane was an emotional outpouring of the love and support this community has for Wenzel.
Dozens of well-wishers lined the road holding up signs of welcome and expressions of love for the art teacher. Even the emergency personnel who came to his rescue that day in the woods were there to greet him, along with family members, fellow teachers, students, friends and church members.
Students ran alongside the car to give Wenzel high fives and handshakes. Among the crowd was the family dog, Chewy, who excitedly raced up and down the road, bouncing in and out of the procession.
“I’m dying! I’m dying,” he shouted as family members helped him out of the car into his wheelchair. “I’m dying with joy!”
The happy day was a long time coming for Wenzel as the road home was a long, difficult journey.
The date was Oct. 6 and it was a perfect day for deer hunting. Wenzel and his wife Laurie had made plans to watch a movie early that evening, but Laurie Wenzel said her husband called at the last minute and “begged for mercy.”
“The conditions are ripe — a cold snap,” he told his wife. “It’s overcast and the wind has died down. Can I go out and get in the stand?”
Laurie Wenzel said the next thing she knew she got a call from a Warren County sheriff’s deputy telling her that Wenzel was being airlifted to the hospital.
Wenzel climbed up the tree with his portable deer stand and, in a hurry, paused near a bend in the tree with his stand perched at a precarious angle.
“The deer were moving so I kind of felt rushed,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t take a shot at this angle.’ I knew I had to adjust the stand.”
Wenzel normally used a safety harness that secures him to the tree, but he didn’t have it fastened that day. He remembers adjusting the top portion of the stand first, which required him to insert a hook with a cable into a tube and lock it in with a cotter pin. Because he was in a rush, he didn’t fasten the pin properly and when he sat down, the cable came loose sending him crashing about 23 feet to the ground.
Wenzel landed on his back across a log. He couldn’t feel his legs so he knew immediately he was seriously injured.
“I thought, ‘I’m not supposed to be alive with this kind of injury,’” he said. “Then I was thinking, ‘Lord, this could be it, but I’m not ready to leave my family yet.’ Right then, I was reminded of where my phone was.”
Some time ago, Wenzel was out in the field in front of his house when he got his leg caught between the tractor and three-point hitch. He thought he was going to lose his leg and said he was screaming for help. Luckily, his daughter heard him. After that incident, Laurie Wenzel insisted he keep his cellphone in the front pocket of his coveralls. And luckily for Wenzel, he listened.
He pulled it out and dialed 911.
“I had two collapsed lungs and was having a conversation,” he recalled. “I chalk this up fully to Christ.”
Wenzel was able to help emergency personnel find him, and he was flown by helicopter to Mercy Hospital St. Louis.
Road to Recovery
Wenzel made it to the hospital, but he was far from being out of the woods. Laurie Wenzel said that first night his condition declined rapidly and she and their three daughters were told to prepare for the worst.
“The girls (Aubrey, Faith and Grace) were brought in about 6 a.m. to see their daddy and tell [him] how much they love him,” she wrote in the journal she has kept since the accident.
Wenzel, who survived cancer of the appendix four years ago, survived that night and after a few critical days, started to gradually improve. There were setbacks and there was progress, but by December he was well enough to be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where he spent at least three hours in therapy each day to get strong enough to go home.
A Caring Community
While Wenzel recovered, the community rallied, holding numerous fund-raisers and donating time to help the family with its day-to-day needs.
“They helped with home renovations, ramps, a new shower, care for the kids, rides for the kids, meals, donations, prayer groups, encouraging posts, texts and visits, and so much more,” Laurie Wenzel said.
“I never realized how much people really cared about me,” Wenzel said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Wenzel, who said he may likely spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair unless God heals him, has not let his situation waiver his faith. Instead, he said he reflects upon what God may be trying to tell him about his future and wants to focus on what he is able to do, not what he can’t do. He picked up a small book from the kitchen counter.
“This is a quote from Sir William Osler,” he said. “‘Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but do what lies clearly at hand.’”
Wenzel said not all was lost in the woods that crisp October day that seemed like a lifetime ago.
“I’m the proud owner of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder),” he said. “I wear it proudly, but it’s made my life sporadic, and sometimes reckless, but that’s just me. I’m looking forward to being slowed down. Instead of doing eight things in a day, I might do two, but that’s OK. The lesson? God’s telling me to slow down, take stock and realize how awesome (life) is.”
Plans for the Future
Wenzel is still facing another surgery in the weeks to come and he knows his recovery is going to be still many more months of healing, physical therapy and adjustments to everyday life without the use of his legs.
But he said he is going to live his life “in the least restricted environment.” He is planning to return to teaching next year and is already contemplating a vehicle with hand controls. And he said he has already been approached by someone through the Missouri Department of Conservation about making a video on deer stand safety.