ENID — The metal jaws of a grain auger robbed Tyler Zander of his right leg. But he found healing, he said, because he accepted what God had asked him to endure.
“I'd cry in the shower,” he said. “I was jealous of everyone around me with two legs, and I felt inferior to everyone. I thought I wasn't good enough for my family or for my girlfriend. I felt like my best days were behind me.”
Physically, he said, “I was improving beyond what anyone had imagined. But mentally, emotionally, spiritually, I wasn't where I needed to be.
“I knew that if I had a chance of being happy again, I needed to get to a point where I wouldn't take this accident back — where if I was asked to do it all over again, I would.”
So he sought once again the peace he had felt on Aug. 4, 2011, as he waited on the floor of a grain elevator for a medical helicopter to take him to the hospital.
He was 17 on the day of the accident, and it was the summer before his senior year at Chisholm High School. He expected to spend the year playing on the varsity basketball team, spending time with his girlfriend and earning high academic marks before attending Oklahoma State University. He wanted to be a heart surgeon.
“I was a perfectionist and an overachiever. I used to think that in order to be someone of value, I had to accomplish something big. I always had to be in control.”
The day before his last scheduled workday at the Zaloudek Grain Co. elevator in Kremlin, Zander and his friend, Bryce Gannon, began their morning shift by placing wheat in a flat storage unit where an auger on the ground would pull it through a metal spinning shank before the grain was transferred to other storage locations.
Kremlin, a town of 258 just north of Enid, is in a region known for crop production. Wheat had been pouring into the elevator.
The temporary storage room was full. Wheat covered the floors and walls, leaving dusty air and causing their eyes to water. The auger was fast at work.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Zander heard Gannon scream.
“I just knew,” he said.
“I knew he was in the auger.”
Unaware of how to turn off the machine, Zander ran to Gannon. Zander reached out his hand, and for the first time in his life, he lost all control.
The auger caught Zander's leg, nearly tearing it off, and taking with it the fragile skin and tissue that led to his tailbone.
The pain, he said, was “like a metal rod tearing its way through your body.”
A co-worker ran to turn off the auger.
The boys lay with their legs wrapped around the screwdriver-like device until paramedics arrived.
Zander said it was the most peaceful time of his life.
“I think I accepted that I was going to die,” he said. “I remember thinking ‘Why am I not more scared than this?' Because my whole life, I had been taught that death was something scary. But I had never experienced a sense of peace like I did while I was in the auger.”
Long road to recovery
After a friend called Rhonda Zander and told her son might have been hurt, she called her husband, Lee Zander, and drove straight to the elevator, beating paramedics to the scene.
The couple moved past Tyler's concerned co-workers and toward their injured son.
“He was ghost white,” Rhonda Zander said. “But calm and talking to us.”
“I wasn't worried about losing my leg or never getting to play basketball again. I made them promise me that my younger brother would be saved,” Tyler Zander said, referring to his Christian faith.
The victims were taken to OU Medical Center where doctors confirmed each must have a leg amputated. Tyler Zander's parents were told he might not make it through the night.
He suffered from blood loss, E.coli caused by an open pelvic fracture, a bacterial infection that he was exposed to when wheat dust settled on his wounds, and an extreme loss of white blood cells, his mother said.
“There was a gash where you could see right through his body,” she said.
Doctors removed Tyler Zander's right leg and femur, the only bone in the human thigh. He had 30 surgeries, received 97 units of blood and dwindled to 92 pounds.
After doctors said Tyler Zander would live, they told his parents he probably wouldn't be able to walk or have children. For 72 days, his parents alternated bedside vigils. Members of the community lifted them up.
Two women from an Oklahoma City church took multiple meals to the hospital.
In Enid, schools, churches and businesses raised money through bake sales and by leaving out donation boxes. Residents of Kremlin sponsored a blood drive.
“I must have written 600 thank-you cards when it was all done,” Rhonda Zander said.
“We never asked for help, but we never went without. There was always food.”
Despite the light that Tyler's parents and his community tried to create for him, he was facing the darkest period of his life.
“When I was in the hospital, the future was unpredictable. I didn't know if I would have another surgery, if a wave of pain would hit me, if I'd graduate. I'd have panic attacks and times when I felt I couldn't breathe. And then the pain would come,” Tyler Zander said.
“There would be two to three days of constant pain. I'd lay there squeezing my parents' hands and praying for the pain to stop. I'd think ‘How much more of this can I take?' Then one day I looked up and saw a Bible verse someone had sent me tacked to my wall. It was Joshua 1:9, and it slapped me on my face,” he said. “I thought what a stupid thing for me to wonder how much more pain I can take, because with Him I could take this forever.”
Tyler Zander returned home in early October 2011, to a lawn full of Chisholm High School students, teachers and parents holding banners and cheering.
He got stronger each day and was eventually walking without crutches.
The community lifted his spirits but couldn't bring him out of his depression altogether.
So he set spiritual goals, along with each physical one.
He started praying and tried to focus on the positive.
“I was so focused on feeling sorry for myself that I couldn't see every miracle that had occurred since that day,” he said.
“They said I probably would die, and I lived. They said I wouldn't walk again, and I do, and they said I'd never have children, and I just found out that I can. Once I took the focus off myself and put it on Him, I prospered.”
Doctors told him that without a femur, the likelihood of getting a prosthetic leg to fit would be about 5 percent.
But he has one today, with Joshua 1:9 inscribed on it to remind him of how his faith brought him through the hardest time of his life.
“Before the accident, I was a lukewarm Christian. I'd pray and go to church, but I didn't have a relationship with God. The accident made me change my priorities.”
Gannon said he is not ready to talk about the accident but said he graduated from Kremlin Hillsdale School and is attending Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva.
He is studying psychology and hopes to become a therapist.
Tyler Zander graduated as valedictorian of his class. He is studying biology and medical entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
Come summer, he hopes to get a prosthetic running leg.