HOULTON, Maine — Tuesday, Oct. 12, was a bright, crisp fall day in Aroostook County, and most people were just wrapping up their lunch breaks when the power went out at Courtney Wetzel’s workplace on Academy Street in Presque Isle.
“That is kind of odd,” Wetzel recalled thinking to herself that day. But she knew she could find out the reason for the outage quickly, because her father Stan Hartin and her husband Zane Wetzel both worked for Maine Public Service Co.
“My first thought was to call my dad, and he answered right away,” she said on Wednesday afternoon.
Then, her father told her something that she said “pulled my whole world right out from under me.”
Her father was hovering over the severely injured body of her 25-year-old husband. Just a short time earlier, Zane Wetzel had been electrically shocked in an accident at the MPS substation on the Parkhurst Siding Road. He had suffered a flash burn to his chest, back, arm and neck. Fifty percent of his body sustained third-degree burns.
“It was every wife’s worst nightmare,” Courtney Wetzel recalled, speaking from outside the intensive care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she has been ever since her husband was flown to the facility in the hours after the accident. “Every morning before he went to work, I always told him to be careful. But my biggest worry was that he would fall off of a pole or something. Contact with electricity never even crossed my mind.”
Wetzel, an apprentice lineman, had only been working for MPS for 10 months. The Ohio native moved to Maine with his wife, who grew up in Aroostook County, in fall 2009. He secured the job with MPS, and the couple began making plans to build a home in Mars Hill.
On the day of the accident, Stan Hartin rushed to his daughter’s workplace, and the two of them sped a short distance along Academy Street to The Aroostook Medical Center. Inside the emergency room, one of the first caregivers that Wetzel saw was his mother-in-law, Paula Hartin, a nurse at TAMC.
“Zane was awake when he got to the ER,” Courtney Wetzel said. “He has some memory of what happened there. He remembers telling my mom ‘Tell Courtney I love her, please, tell Courtney I love her.’ I was in the hallway, and my mom pulled me into the room where they were treating Zane, and he looked at me and told me that he loved me. I told him I loved him, and they immediately sedated him. He wasn’t awake again for another two weeks.”
During that time, Zane Wetzel underwent a number of skin grafting surgeries. He remained heavily sedated as doctors tried to prevent infection from setting in and battled to keep his intermittent fevers from getting out of control. He was fitted with a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, and he was on a ventilator. He would wake at times, agitated and confused, only to be sedated again so he could heal.
All the while, Courtney Wetzel sat at his bedside, but has rarely been alone. Her mother has lived in a rental apartment in Boston with her daughter ever since the accident, and Stan Hartin also has spent a significant amount of time at the hospital. Zane’s parents frequently have visited from their home in Ohio, and Courtney’s younger twin sisters, Brianna and Chelsea Hartin, flew to Boston from college in Tennessee after the accident to comfort Courtney and her husband, whom they call “Zizzle.”
“It was a lot of watching and waiting and praying,” said Courtney Wetzel of those early days in the hospital. “My faith has never left me for a second. Prior to this, I thought that if anything bad ever happened to someone I loved, I would just break down. But that didn’t happen. God gives you what you need, and there has not been a moment where I have not felt comforted, safe and protected.”
She said that her husband’s doctors and nurses told her Zane would just “come out” of the haze he had been in one day, and that day was Nov. 8. The fogginess lifted, he began talking and required less pain medication. In the past week, he has been up and walking with the use of adaptive equipment, eating, carrying on long conversations and participating more and more in physical and occupational therapy.
Zane Wetzel has undergone five surgeries. He was transferred out of the intensive care unit on Wednesday evening, and Courtney Wetzel said things are going so well that her husband might not need inpatient rehabilitation therapy. He will need outpatient therapy, however, so the family will remain in Boston for the foreseeable future to be close to the hospital.
Courtney Wetzel credited the medical staff at TAMC for transferring Zane to Boston so quickly and said the outpouring of support from people across the nation has lifted her spirits and those of her husband.
Her boss, Dr. Henry Ford in Presque Isle, and her coworkers have been intensely helpful, and the family has received a stack of cards “a foot tall,” she said on Wednesday. She has received hundreds of comments on her blog, projectprettyblog.com. The blog is usually an interior design-home improvement blog, but she began using it to update people about Zane’s progress immediately after the accident.
Wetzel said her husband’s prognosis is “very good.” He has sustained some nerve damage in his right hand and has little feeling in it at this point.But doctors have said that with time and work, he eventually should make a complete recovery.
On Wednesday evening, Wetzel was looking forward to sharing Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner with her husband and entire family.
“Everyone changed their plans and are either flying or driving from Maine or Ohio to be [in Boston] with us,” she said. “This will be the best Thanksgiving we will ever have. We have too many blessings to count this year. You never really know how fragile life is until something like this happens. We have so much to be thankful for.”
To keep track of Wetzel’s progress visit www.projectprettyblog.com.