Andrea Vellinga was expected to die from her injuries in the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011 that killed seven people. But she miraculously recovered. And she's ready to run a half-marathon. (Dwight Adams/IndyStar) Wochit
Andrea Vellinga was supposed to die like seven other concertgoers did. But she didn't. She's ready to run a half-marathon.
The coma lasted for six weeks. Andrea Vellinga didn't know that. She was lying in a hospital bed. She didn't know that, either. All she knew was that a woman had walked in with a gloriously beautiful bouquet of roses, declaring with tears running down her face: "These are for my miracle patient." What? The words startled Vellinga. "I had no idea what she was talking about. And then I started asking, 'What’s going on here?' " Vellinga said. "I’m a miracle patient?"
"I had no idea what she was talking about. And then I started asking, 'What’s going on here?' " Vellinga said. "I’m a miracle patient?"
That's the first clear memory Vellinga has — a nurse with flowers, calling her a miracle — after a freak accident at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on Aug. 13, 2011, left her clinging to life. Vellinga had gone to the fair to see her favorite country band, Sugarland. The tickets were a 30th birthday gift from a friend. A massive storm hit just before the concert was to start. While the band waited to take the stage, gusting winds sent stage equipment tumbling down, collapsing on top of the crowd.
Vellinga, there with a group of friends who managed to run to safety, was found with her skull crushed, barely breathing, a huge stereo speaker by her head. She doesn't remember any of it. What she wore to the concert. Or the tragedy that took the lives of seven people. She doesn't remember August or September. Memories, even months after the accident, are a blur for Vellinga, who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. For Vellinga, now 35, life is nothing like it was five years ago. "This is literally like being born again," said Vellinga, who lives in Pendleton. "I had to learn how to talk, walk, eat, all that stuff. Really everything, I’ve had to learn again."
She has had seven surgeries, including painful shots and procedures to replace the missing piece of her skull. She has bad days. She gets angry and frustrated. There is a lot of fatigue, and she needs to nap frequently. She has been left with weakness on her left side. Her left arm moves but is useless. She has to do everything one-handed: take showers, get dressed, do her hair and put on makeup. Her speech is slower than it used to be. She carefully pronounces words and, sometimes, repeats herself. She and her husband, Mike Vellinga, divorced. "I'm hard to deal with. He wanted his wife back," she said. "And I wasn't her." Her daughter, Lydia, was 4 years old when the accident happened. Vellinga said she struggles with parenting decisions and has to work to be a mom and not a friend.
Of course, Vellinga has good days, too. Her food tastes have changed. She likes spicy now, so dinners with friends and family eating sushi with wasabi or spicy salsa at Mexican restaurants are fun. She has a job, working two days a week at the Fishers YMCA. Vellinga was awarded a settlement as part of lawsuits that were filed. She didn't want to reveal how much money she received but said it has been a "blessing" and "really helped" her. She runs and is training for a half-marathon in September. It's the same Indy Women's Half Marathon, put on by Carmel Road Racing Group, she was training for when the accident happened. She goes to concerts, Zac Brown Band and Taylor Swift. She goes to the State Fair in the summer. People ask her how she could go back to that fair. "I'm not scared to go to the fair. I'm not scared to go to a concert there or any concert," she said. "I know it was a freak accident."
But she cries more easily than she used to. She hasn't asked doctors why. She doesn't want to know the details. She did ask the couple who saved her that night — a doctor and her husband, a paramedic — a question. What did she look like when they found her? "We could tell that you were alive," Vellinga recalls them answering, "but you were just barely breathing." It's probably good, Vellinga said, that she has no memory of that night. Sandi Voss doesn't have that luxury. She remembers exactly when her daughter's life changed forever. "It's written in our hearts," Voss said, "how this all started."
Voss was watching her granddaughter Lydia in Pendleton when a storm came through with a vengeance. A little concerned but really more curious, Voss called Vellinga's phone at 9:15 p.m. to ask whether the storm had hit Indianapolis.
Vellinga didn't answer, but that didn't mean anything. Her daughter was at a concert. The music was probably blaring.
What Voss didn't know was that the stage rigging had collapsed at 8:46 p.m. There was no way Vellinga would be answering her phone. Not then or for months to come.
It didn't take long for the nightmare to reveal itself when Voss' phone started lighting up. People on Facebook were saying there had been an accident at the State Fair.
She ran to her husband, Steve Voss, and they turned on the television to breaking news reports. This was a massive tragedy. Dread set in.
The phone rang. It was Vellinga's husband. He told the Vosses that Andrea's friends couldn't find her. After a couple of more calls with no information, Sandi and Steve Voss decided they couldn't sit at home. They didn't know where to go, but the TV had said the injured victims were being taken to IU Health Methodist Hospital.
What a cruel twist of fate, her friends and family thought. A woman who was not only training for a half-marathon, but who had been active her entire life. She had run track at Pendleton Heights High School and played volleyball so well that she earned a full scholarship to Wright State University. It was unbelievable that the woman with that sweet demeanor and feisty personality wasn't moving. "I still see her laying in that bed and just hoping to see that smile again and wanting her to open her eyes and hear her voice," Voss said. Friends and family poured into the hospital. Strangers. Coaches. Former Wright State players. So many people flooded the floor that Methodist declared ONE ROOM "Andrea's Room." But when things got quiet, the family's sadness set in. Weeks passed. Two other stage collapse victims died. "We just kept thinking," Voss said, "is Andrea going to be next?" *** Inside MyTime Fitness in Pendleton, Vellinga is standing on a treadmill smiling. The manager of the center, Connie Hathcoat, is trying to stop her own tears. This is where Vellinga was training five years ago, before the accident. This is the place where she trains now.
"She's amazing," said Hathcoat, whose daughter went to high school with Vellinga. "She has literally lifted this whole town."
In August 2011, Pendleton rallied around Vellinga with candlelight vigils. Each step of progress she made, the town celebrated. The pink helmet she wore to protect her brain became a trademark. The fitness center covered its space in pink bows for Vellinga.
"She just sets goals and just keeps going, regardless," Hathcoat said. "To watch her walk was one thing, and then she started running, and then she started cooking. If you don’t see motivation in that?"
A white dry erase board was the first sign that Vellinga might pull through. It was September 2011, and she had come out of the coma. But she couldn't speak and was restless, thrashing in her bed.
For some reason, her brother handed her the dry erase board. The family asked Vellinga what her daughter's name was.
She wrote "Lydia." Then she was able to write her phone number. Tears flowed. Happy tears.
"We had seen no sign," Voss said.
This was a sign that something was in there, inside her damaged brain. She knew things, and she still had a sense of humor.
As her brother was preparing to leave for home in North Carolina, he went to Vellinga's bedside and asked her if there was anything she wanted to say before he left.
She took the marker and wrote "No" across his forehead. Everyone laughed.
Little by little, she kept making progress. Vellinga was in long-term care centers and rehab centers. She was in and out of hospitals for a year and a half.
She received much of her therapy at Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, learning how to eat and walk again. And how to talk.
Voss and a speech therapist thought maybe a little music would get Vellinga to sing along, stir something up.
"And something came out," Voss said. "We didn’t know what it was because we got so excited. We started screaming and yelling, and all of RHI knew what had happened."
Seven weeks after the accident, Vellinga had said her first word.
To be running, that's a miracle. And Vellinga won't run the half-marathon alone. Breck Vining — Vellinga's nurse in the neuro intensive care unit at Methodist — will be her partner.
Vining remembers those early days and nights with Vellinga, learning that she was a young mother, a runner, training for a half-marathon.
"And in a blink of an eye, it wasn't going to happen," Vining said. "Not then, if not ever."
She told Vellinga they would run together one day.
Even after Vellinga left Methodist, Vining and the other nurses followed her. They had fallen in love with her family. Anytime they saw something posted on Facebook, any small accomplishment, they would celebrate in the break room.
Vellinga's support from her parents, her then-husband and her brother and his wife and friends was a key reason for her recovery, Vining said.
"There was never a question of stop or give up from them," Vining said. "I don’t think there was a provider that interacted with them that didn't love them instantly. There is a lot of respect that we have for that kind of support. Some of the patients stick with you more than others."
Vellinga was one of those for Vining.
So, when Vellinga called her last month to ask if she would keep that promise and run with her, Vining didn't blink an eye.
That Vellinga was a runner also contributed to her miraculous recovery. Doctors said her drive and endurance from running were crucial in overcoming the hurdles she faced.
That's one reason she has been named one of three "Phenomenal Women" to be honored at the Indy Women's Half Marathon next month.
"Very few people do a half-marathon," Vining said. "And to run post a very severe brain injury, it’s just awe inspiring."
Vellinga said she is doing the race to give people hope. Five years ago, she was in a coma when the race she was supposed to run took place.
"If you think you can’t do something, just believe in yourself and it can happen," she said. "I just want to give them hope."
Race organizers are honored to have her there.
“I am inspired by Andrea, how hard she has worked and how much she has achieved,” said race director Todd Oliver. “I think it is truly an amazing story, and we cannot wait to see her there. She is a great example to all women about overcoming adversity, no matter what your challenges may be.”
Why her? Vellinga doesn't think about that. She doesn't want to ask why it happened to her. But she knows why she survived. God had his hand on her every step of the way.
"My faith has skyrocketed since the accident," she said.
Her mother still asks why.
"And then I stop and I think. I think it happened because God definitely had something more for her," Voss said. "A lot of people's lives changed because of that. I think God makes good out of bad situations if you let him. I just think that’s why it all happened."