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Two reasons to be thankful

Hastings native Ryan Gelhar left Regions Hospital in St. Paul earlier this month and will celebrate Thanksgiving at home with his wife, Heidi (Cordell) and their dog Norm.

Two short months ago, Hastings native Ryan Gelhar laid flat on his back in a coma. Today, he's home for Thanksgiving.

It's an outcome the Gelhars had dreamed and prayed for, but one they weren't planning on. Ryan had fallen about 15 feet through a garage ceiling. He landed on concrete. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. Who knew what to expect?

And for 10 days, nobody knew what to expect. Would he make it out of this coma? What would he be like when he did come out? Would he remember his wife, Heidi (Cordell)? Would he remember his father, Mark, who lives in Hastings, or his mother, Nancy Olson?

Turns out, he woke up and was just fine. That much became clear one day in mid-October after doctors had removed his breathing tube at Regions Hospital. A co-worker of Ryan's, a guy named Joe, walked into Ryan's room. Ryan pointed to his wife and, in a raspy and strained voice, said to Joe: "Hey. See that lady over there? She's crazy."

"That's when I knew it was going to be OK," Heidi said. "He always calls me crazy."

Doctors considered his recovery exceptional. He even got his sense of humor back right away.

"Ryan; How do you feel," one doctor asked.

"Like a hundred bucks."

"Do you mean a million bucks?"

"No. Just a hundred."

After 10 days in a coma, another 10 days on his back in surgical intensive care and three weeks in rehab, Ryan finally went home Nov. 7. He was reunited with his dog, Norm, and then left and traveled up north to his grandparent's lake cabin for a long weekend.

They came back and started planning for a Thanksgiving that should have a little extra meaning this year.

"Back in October, I wouldn't have imagined we'd be doing this," Heidi said.

Yet, here they are. It hasn't been easy, that much is certain. Ryan just got the cast off his right leg because of a fractured heel. Now, there's one last hurdle to go. Doctors removed a portion of his skull while he was in a coma to allow his brain to swell. The swelling keeps going down, and Ryan now has a noticeable indentation on his hairline from where the skull is missing.

A new bone is being fabricated and will be surgically installed sometime around Christmas. Until then, Ryan gets to wear a hockey helmet around town.

Occupational therapy will continue and sometime in January of February, Ryan will be given a couple brain tests. Those tests will help determine when Ryan will be able to drive again, and work again.

"Thanks to everyone," Ryan said. "There are a lot of people I don't even know who have come up to me and said they're praying for me. That's really nice."

In what might be the greatest understatement of the year, Mark Gelhar said, simply: "We have a lot to be thankful for."

Out of the gate, Heidi had concerns about Ryan's short-term memory. Doctors told her that short-term memories are considered to be anything within the last five years. Since she and Ryan have only been together four years, she wondered if she would be part of his memories at all.

But, once he came to in October, he could remember everything up to about August. Now, he remembers everything up to the accident early Sunday, Oct. 28, in Red Wing.

Mark Gelhar has been astounded at the number of people who have helped out, called, prayed, written or sent along their well-wishes.

"Hastings has grown a lot since we were kids, but something like this happens and you get that sense of community right back," he said. "All of a sudden, it's a real small town again."

Three years earlier, Ryan walked away from a serious car accident. The accident also took place in September, so Heidi said she may consider bubble-wrapping her husband in September 2009.

For Ryan's father, Mark, the night of the accident was horrifying for so many reasons. In 1972, Mark's oldest brother, Ronald John Gelhar, died in a car crash. He was 24 years old.

Mark thought of this as he was trying to get his son, Ryan Joseph Gelhar, age 24, to the hospital.

It was something that ran through his head. He didn't share it with Heidi until this interview.

"I'm glad you didn't mention that before," Heidi said.

The first time Ryan looked in a mirror after the accident, he saw stitches all over his face. He was shocked by his own appearance.

"I was like, 'Where the heck did those come from?'"

In February, Ryan and Heidi will be able to travel to Mexico on an airplane so Ryan can be a groomsman at a friend's wedding. The doctor's OK to fly meant a great deal to the Gelhars.

While Ryan was in a coma, he gained about 30 pounds of water weight. Once he came out of the coma, those 30 pounds evaporated quickly. By the time he left the hospital, he had lost another 20 pounds. It's not exactly a weight loss plan that most dieticians would approve of, and it's a rather expensive way to lose 20 pounds, but that Minnesota Wild fleece jacket Ryan wears now fits a little more loosely.

The Gelhars all got used to life on the surgical intensive care floor at Regions. It's a tough place to be, no question about it.

On the same day Ryan came out of his coma, another young man about the same age died.

Last week, the Gelhars all went to the Hastings Fire Department to speak with ambulance drivers Paulson and Knoll, who were on duty the night of Ryan's accident in Red Wing.

After the accident, a friend of Ryan's met Mark Gelhar halfway between Hastings and Red Wing. Once Mark Gelhar saw Ryan, he called 911, and the Hastings ambulance team was on the scene quickly.

Once Paulson got a look at Ryan, he knew they had to get to Regions Hospital, and get there quickly.

Mark Gelhar said Paulson's recommendation and the speedy response time helped save his son's life.

A benefit fund is set up at Wells Fargo.

After losing their home to fire, the Sullivans will celebrate Thanksgiving ... at home

It will probably be served on a poker table, but the Sullivan family will be in their new home for Thanksgiving dinner.

Six months ago, the family's house on River Shore Court burned to the ground. The fire is believed to have been started by an overheated laptop computer that was sitting on a piece of upholstered furniture. Pam Sullivan thinks about the fire every day.

"When I leave the house the first thing I think is, 'I wonder what's plugged in,'" she said.

A light fixture hangs from the ceiling in the Sullivans' new dining room, but that's the only thing in there so far. Still, Pam said the house feels like home.

That's probably because the house was rebuilt to match their old house, and by the same local company, Harris Builders. A few wall colors changed, and a doorway was added in the basement, but it's essentially the same house.

"This is the second time I've built this house," Paul Harris, who was there Monday evening, said.

The family was been renting a house from a friend while their new house was being built. They began moving the few possessions they have into their new house on Wednesday.

"We don't have a lot to move," Pam said. "We didn't have anywhere to store anything so we didn't buy much, some clothes, dishes and flatware that I bought, and beds."

Their dining room table is on order, but won't be delivered in time for Thanksgiving. But the poker table that will go in the family's basement was supposed to be delivered Wednesday.

"So, I guess we'll have Thanksgiving dinner on the poker table," Pam said.

Their new house will likely be in the forefront of their minds as they sit down to turkey this year.

"It'll be a little different way to give thanks," Pam's husband, Tom, said. "We'll have something more tangible and concrete to be thankful for."

Pam was planning on going to the Mall of America to buy some beanbag chairs before the holiday so the family would have something to relax on after the tryptophan (from the turkey) takes effect. Tom, and their son, Matt, a junior at Hastings High School, are going deal hunting the day after Thanksgivings for a TV and DVD player.

And while they're planning to go shopping for all the creature comforts that make a home a home, the fire changed both Pam and Tom's outlook on the importance of material possessions.

"I have a whole different outlook on 'stuff,'" Tom said. "Stuff is stuff, it's replaceable."

But some things lost in the fire aren't, like Tom's dad's pocket watch and Pam's grandmother's table cloth. But, Pam knows it could have been worse.

"I still get the creeps thinking that my son could have been down there (in the basement during the fire)," she said.

Pam said she had to learn as she went when it came to filing insurance claims.

"It's been a learning experience," Pam said. "The insurance company has been good, but they don't give you a manual."

The day the fire happened, a woman who went through a similar experience came to the house and gave Pam a CD with advice about what worked for her. Pam hopes to provide something similar for others in the future, and said she's thinking about starting an Internet blog about her experience.

The family is happy to be moving back home, and Pam said some champagne just might be in order with Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Star Gazette staff writer Keith Grauman can be reached at kgrauman@