Leyden man well on the road to recovery

Jeff Stebbins defies the odds

  • Recorder/Franz<br/>Ann Zaveruha of Leyden stands by her tractor that her husband was using to transport a full 300 gallon plastic tank of water, like the one in the background of this photo, when the tank fell backwards crushing him and breaking the steering wheel, hydraulic controls and bending the seat back.  <br/>

    Recorder/Franz
    Ann Zaveruha of Leyden stands by her tractor that her husband was using to transport a full 300 gallon plastic tank of water, like the one in the background of this photo, when the tank fell backwards crushing him and breaking the steering wheel, hydraulic controls and bending the seat back.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeffrey Stebbins, 65, hopes to return home by Thanksgiving, after almost two months in the hospital from a near-fatal accident.

    Jeffrey Stebbins, 65, hopes to return home by Thanksgiving, after almost two months in the hospital from a near-fatal accident. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Recorder/Franz<br/>Ann Zaveruha of Leyden stands by her tractor that her husband was using to transport a full 300 gallon plastic tank of water, like the one in the background of this photo, when the tank fell backwards crushing him and breaking the steering wheel, hydraulic controls and bending the seat back.  <br/>
  • Jeffrey Stebbins, 65, hopes to return home by Thanksgiving, after almost two months in the hospital from a near-fatal accident.

LEYDEN — Almost killed in a tractor accident and hospitalized for two months, a local man hopes to be home for Thanksgiving.

Jeff Stebbins, 65, was moving a full 330-gallon plastic water tank one September night when it shifted and fell onto his back, slamming his chest into its steering wheel hard enough to break every rib in his body, both shoulder blades and four of his vertebrae.

He was flown by helicopter ambulance to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield for trauma surgery, but the outlook was bleak at first.

“For the first few days, the doctors told me that, in all likelihood, my husband was going to die,” said Ann Zaveruha, about a week after his Sept. 11 accident. “They didn’t candy-coat anything, they wanted us to be prepared.”

Few in her situation would have been as prepared as Zaveruha. A nurse practitioner, she is familiar with medical terminology, and her brother, a thoracic trauma surgeon, was able to clarify anything she didn’t fully understand.

She was even able to provide medical assistance on the scene of the accident, as was her daughter, who’s received EMT training, and her son-in-law, a veteran of the Afghanistan war who received basic medical training from the Army. They all swooped into action before emergency responders arrived.

Now, nearly two months later, her husband’s outlook is much better.

Thursday, Stebbins was moved to the Farnum Rehabilitation Center at the Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H.

“They said that, at the rate he’s going, he’ll only be there for about 10 days,” said Zaveruha.

He’s a bit cantankerous there, she said, refusing help to stand, and swearing at staff at times.

“His physical therapist laughed it off,” she said. “He said that’s the type of patient they like. It’s the ones who say ‘I can’t do it’ that they have to worry about.”

Once her husband is home, she said, she’s going to try to make sure he takes it easy.

“He’s going to get frustrated,” she said. “To see his wife doing things he normally did will be a kick in the pants. As long as he can vacuum, I’ll be happy. I’d rather be out splitting wood.”

Stebbins is the tidy one of the couple, and even takes care of most of the decorating.

“I’ll never again take for granted the fact that Jeff keeps a clean house,” she said. “We’ve always razzed him about it, and called him Marty Stewart.”

Though she can joke now, there have been some trying moments along the way.

After surviving the massive trauma, during which his lungs began to fill with blood, Stebbins was almost done in by a three-day nosebleed.

“He lost almost as much blood through his nose as he did from the accident,” Zaveruha said.

There was a procedure available that could stop the bleeding, but it had some serious risks.

It involved entering his blood vessels through his groin, snaking a tube all the way up to his sinuses, and releasing beads that would help his blood clot.

If all went well, it would stop the bleeding. But if it didn’t, it could cause blindness or a stroke.

Her husband wasn’t conscious to make the decision himself.

“Jeff always said he’d rather be dead than blind,” said Zaveruha. “He’s only got one eye as it is.”

Years ago, she said, her husband was putting siding on a house, and looked up just as a hammer left on a ladder fell from the third floor. It took Stebbins’ eye, meaning the procedure could leave him alive, but totally blind.

She told doctors her husband’s wishes, even though they went against her own, and they told her to take a day and think about it. They’d make sure he didn’t die by replacing the lost blood.

“My procrastination paid off this time,” said Zaveruha.

The next day, the bleeding had slowed, and eventually stopped.

Stebbins was also nearly struck down by a heart attack.

“He had formed a blood clot in the back of his throat,” she said.

During doctors’ rounds, Stebbins was turned from his back to his stomach and back over, loosening the blood clot and stopping his heart cold.

“His doctor said he’s the luckiest unlucky man alive,” said Zaveruha. “There were 15 doctors in the room. Normally, it would take five minutes to get doctors together.”

The brain starts to die after three minutes without oxygen-rich blood, leading to permanent brain damage. But doctors were able to clear the clot and start his heart well before that.

Even those complications couldn’t keep his spirits down. A hard-working, hard-living man, his strength has endured throughout. He even challenged his wife to an arm wrestling match at the hospital, to prove his strength. He won.

“A nurse came in while we were arm wrestling,” said Zaveruha. “She looked at us like we were crazy.”

At the rehabilitation center, they know the family’s quirks a little more.

“I used to work there,” she said. “It’s about the same distance as the commute to the hospital in Springfield, but it feels more like home.”

She’s made countless trips to the hospital to be by her husband’s side, staying 12 hours some days. They both needed the company.

She said she’s lonely without her husband home, but only when she is left alone.

“There’s a lot of activity here,” she said, with friends and family stopping by almost constantly to offer help or just keep her company.

Though she misses her husband, she’s used his time away from the family farm to get a couple things done without his interference.

“We always argued over moving our big woodstove from the living room to the cellar,” she said. “I had a few of his friends help me move it down there, and replace it with a smaller one. They’re trying to figure out which one to blame when Jeff gets home.”

People started showing their support right after the accident, and haven’t stopped since, she said.

Benefit event today

A benefit for Stebbins and family will be held from 2 to 9 p.m. today at the French King Bowling Center in Erving. Tickets are $20 each, or $35 for a pair, available at the door. There will be live music, food, and plenty of raffle items.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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