November 23, 2014

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After horror of crash, Tomasheski family survivors try to find new normal

GRAFTON TWP. — The dark-haired girl with the feather weaved into her hair bounces into the living room and plops down on the couch, clutching a cell phone in her right hand.

Tom Tomasheski hugs his daughter, Danielle, during an interview Monday. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

Tom Tomasheski hugs his daughter, Danielle, during an interview Monday. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

Danielle Tomasheski, 13, is hanging out until her teachers finish their day at Midview Middle School and then come over to tutor her for her first day of school at the home of her aunt and uncle, where she’s been staying since she was released from the hospital following a crash on June 11 that killed her mother and brother and left her and her father, Tom Tomasheski, seriously injured.

It’s a big step in the eighth-grader’s recovery, but one she is ready for, now that the effects of her injuries — which basically paralyzed her whole left side and damaged her internally — are abating after intense physical therapy. Her left hand still gives her trouble, but therapy continues.

Across the room, Tom Tomasheski, 38, shifts in his chair — well, it’s his brother’s giant chair known as “The Beast” — but for the time being, it’s where he settles in while he recovers from his latest surgery, a bone graft on his right ankle done just before he left MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland on Sept. 2.

A cast encompasses his lower leg, and he’s still heavily bandaged around his middle. His skin is scarred both from injuries sustained in the crash and from where doctors mined healthy tissue to do repair work, particularly on his leg — a leg that doctors recommended be amputated because it was so severely damaged in the crash.

He can’t walk comfortably because he can’t bear weight on the refashioned ankle, but he’s alive and he’s home with his daughter, even if home for now is the Grafton Township home belonging to his brother and his family, Todd and Amy Tomasheski.

Not so long ago, that hardly was a given.

At one point on his long and continuing road to recovery, doctors gave his family a grim message: They didn’t think Tom would survive. While Danielle’s condition initially appeared more perilous, she was progressing. Not so with Tom. There were just too many injuries, and the many surgeries to repair them were taking their toll.

It was a message his close-knit family — already devastated from losing Tom’s wife, Tammy, and Tom’s 11-year-old son, Tommy, in the crash — refused to hear.

“You basically start pulling out all the stops,” said Todd, who like his brother is tall and broad — hence the need for the beast chair. He’s two years younger than Tom, and he’s taken on the role as Tom’s chief motivator or, on some particularly rough days, his tormentor.

“That’s the way Dad taught us — to always fight. I told Tom ‘You need to keep fighting, to keep pushing the envelope,’ ” Todd said.

Tom smiles and nods.

“If you give up once, you’ll give up the rest of your life is basically what we were taught,” he said.

The crash

On June 11, the family had headed up to Beaver Creek Marina, where they kept a boat, because a storm had swept through and Tom thought a gorgeous summer sunset would follow. He grabbed his professional-grade camera and snapped pictures of his family walking along the pier and enjoying the evening.

They were heading back to their home in Liverpool Township about 10:30 p.m. when repeat drunken driver Gerald Wetherbee Jr. fishtailed in a borrowed Kia Optima and crashed into the family’s Honda Civic on state Route 83.

Wetherbee, 35, who had a suspended driver’s license for unpaid child support payments, has been found to have had a blood-alcohol level of 0.209 — more than twice the 0.08 limit at which Ohio law deems a driver impaired. The Ohio Highway Patrol also tested him for 10 classifications of drugs; the results show he had none of those in his system.

He’s been imprisoned since he was released from the hospital after the crash for violating the conditions of his parole on sex charges.

Tommy Tomasheski died at the scene. Tammy Tomasheski, 36, Tom’s high school sweetheart, died shortly thereafter.

Tom Tomasheski, a corporal in the corrections division at the Lorain County Sheriff’s Department, was conscious after the crash and remembers it in detail.

He remembers seeing the headlights coming at his car and trying to swerve to avoid the collision to no avail.

He remembers trying to roll down the windows because the dust from the airbags had filled the car, and he remembers a Good Samaritan — he thinks his name may have been Pete — trying to calm and comfort the family immediately afterward.
Tom said it was that Good Samaritan who told him his son didn’t make it, but he did so only reluctantly after Tom — who was pinned in the car — pleaded with him to explain why his son in the back seat wasn’t answering.

He helped pull himself free when the safety workers moved the crushed metal off of him, and he said he felt the rush of a warm fluid — blood — run down him as he was freed. His training told him that that alone meant his injuries were bad — really really bad, he said.

“The ambulance ride was pure horror,” he said. “My insides were like jelly and every bump hurt.”

He lost consciousness when he arrived at MetroHealth Medical Center, where he was driven directly from the crash scene.

“I woke up about a month later,” he said. “And that’s when my dad broke the news to me about my wife and son.”

The recovery

Todd points to the tape along the bottom of Tom’s cast, which has black smudges all over it. Those are from the daily walks he and Tom take along the driveway — the physical therapy they devised while awaiting removal of the cast and resumption of more strenuous therapy sessions.

Todd painted hash marks every 50 feet along the blacktop so his brother can measure his progress. And he sets goals for his brother — goals that he doesn’t hesitate to increase.

His physical therapist at the hospital did the same thing to him, Tom said.

“She’s a lot like my brother. I’ll be like, ‘Hey Todd, I just walked the entire driveway,’ and Todd’ll say, ‘Well, than walk it back.’

“There are still some days when you just melt and want to watch ESPN all day … but Todd and Amy aren’t going to want me to stay here until I’m 80 years old, sitting here with the DirectTV remote.”

While Tom lay comatose at the hospital, Todd and his father, Tom Tomasheski, a retired deputy from the Lorain County Sheriff’s Department who now works in accident reconstruction, did what they could to keep Tom strong.

His right arm was a pincushion of lines feeding nutrients and medication into him, so they worked his left arm and his left leg as they sat by his side.

“We just kept working that left arm, and it’s blatantly obvious during therapy that he’s a lot stronger on that left side,” said Todd, who along with his wife owns Plas Brothers Paving, a firm started by his wife’s family.

And, when Danielle hit a plateau during physical therapy, the family gave her the push needed to keep going. Amy said they had a family meeting and decided they needed to be frank with Danielle that the therapy was the difference between walking out of the hospital or leaving in a wheelchair.

“She was suffering through a lot of pain, but we knew we had to tell her that what you do now will help you so much,” Todd said.

Tom tosses a box of tissues across the room when the tears start flowing for Amy as she talks about Tammy. They were close enough to swap passwords on Facebook and poke at each other in jest. There’s been many a time in the past few months that she’s gone to the phone to call Tammy out of habit, she said.

Todd, meanwhile, points to a picture on a bookshelf running along the wall — the one in which he’s got his arms wrapped around Tommy as the little guy is fishing. He tells the story of the tournament and how Tommy was so patient while waiting for the big catch. The tournament netted Tommy $150, which he probably still had stashed — he kept his money in his top drawer, Danielle said — because he was a saver, not a spender.

“I lost a nephew that was more like a son to me,” he said. “First everybody got punched in the gut with Tommy and we were still reeling from that. Then we got punched again that second time with Tammy.”

While Tom and Danielle, who initially was at the Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, they weren’t left alone. The elder Tomasheski and his wife, Debbie, along with Tammy’s parents, Rick and Vicky Roche, teamed up with Todd and Amy to make sure someone stayed the night with each of them.

“I don’t know that many people have a family like I have,” Tom said. “I can’t say enough. My family is stupendous. Right now, Mom’s at home with several aunts — they are cooking meals for the week for us while Todd and Amy take constant care of Danielle and me.”

He also expressed gratitude for the many remembrances and fundraising efforts that were done and are continuing to benefit his family and the help that has been offered by close friends and by strangers.

For example, members of the Sheriff’s Department have been mowing and taking care of his house since he was hospitalized. And since Todd took his riding lawn mower over to Tom’s house to make it easier, Todd’s neighbor kindly has been mowing Todd’s grass for him.

There have been golf outings, car washes, candlelight vigils and change collections, including one in which they heard of a little boy who kept showing up at Sparkle Market and dropping chain into a bin for the family. The children of a family friend set up a lemonade stand and donated the proceeds to the family.

Danielle wears a clear heart necklace around her neck into which tiny charms fit. It was a gift from a family friend as she recovered, and the tiny charms inside carry significance for her.

“This one is in memory of my brother,” she said.

There’s a playground at the family’s church, Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church, dedicated to Tommy, and a football tournament was rechristened the Tomasheski Memorial Youth Football Tournament to remember Tommy, a player, and Tammy, who served as a league treasurer.

Both Tammy and Tom were active with the church’s youth group and Tammy also served as the church’s treasurer. Tom, meanwhile, was on his way to becoming a deacon at the church before the accident.

Tom sees the church as a big part of his future. He wants to provide counseling and do ministry through the church. He quietly acknowledged that some days, the losses are tough to accept.

“It seems to help a lot more because I can confide in a brother who is so close to me,” he said, shifting back to the future quickly.

“That’s the plan on my end — to get back on my feet and get back to work, to get back to somewhat normalcy. It will never be the same normal, but it will be the normal I can have.”

Contact Julie Wallace at 329-7157 or jwallace@chroniclet.com.