Wisconsin native returns to sports after near-fatal accident - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Wisconsin native returns to sports after near-fatal accident

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Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 12:30 pm | Updated: 1:41 pm, Tue Apr 17, 2012.

Dave Michels carries his glove and bat as he walks from the parking lot toward Del E. Webb Memorial Field in Sun City Grand.

Dressed in his orange Camino del Sol softball shirt, Michels joins dozens of other players as they prepare for a full slate of Wednesday games in the Sun City Grand Blue League.

Some play catch near the right-field line while others watch the game in progress.

No one stares at Michels in this sea of softball players.

No one seems to notice Michels doesn’t have a left arm.

“I served 14 months in Vietnam and came home without a scratch,” said the 63-year-old Michels, a Sun City Grand winter resident and Wisconsin roofing contractor. “And then this happened.”

Michels had planned to go to church on that fateful Sunday morning nearly 21 years ago.

Scheduled to volunteer as an usher at a 10:30 a.m. service, Michels figured he had plenty of time to take an 8 a.m. jog around his neighborhood in Nekoosa, Wis.

A hit-and-run driver changed his plans and nearly took his life.

Michels sustained a major head injury and numerous bruises when the female motorist, later convicted of drunk driving, plowed into him on that Sunday morning.

Michels underwent 6½ hours of brain surgery and woke up in the hospital with a permanent tire mark on his right arm.

“They told me I was fortunate to be alive,” said Michels, who also suffered short-term memory loss following the accident.

Rita Michels stayed by her husband’s side throughout the 20-day hospital ordeal.

“His head was a mess, and he looked like he had elephantitis in the right arm because it swelled so much,” she said. “The funny thing is they weren’t concerned about the left arm.”

Despite no outward signs of an injury, Michels felt constant pain in his left arm.

At first, doctors thought it might be related to the injuries he sustained on the right side of his brain.

Doctors made a more dire discovery when they determined the arteries in his left arm had been crushed in the accident. Without any blood flow, the arm was literally dying.

An operation might save the arm, but arm surgery also could adversely impact his recovery from brain surgery.

“It basically came down to saving his brain or saving his arm,” Rita Michels said. “No pun intended, but that decision was a no-brainer.”

Doctors decided to amputate just below the left elbow. When that failed, they came back and amputated above the elbow.

“I didn’t feel a thing after that first operation because that area was dead,” Michels said. “After that second operation, I needed 13 shots of morphine because the pain was so intense.”

Michels said he never wallowed in self-pity and even began making business calls from the hospital during his 20-day stay.

“There was no time to feel sorry for myself, and I attribute a lot of that to my faith and my wife,” he said. “She’s my left arm.”

The accident may have changed his appearance, but Michels was determined it wouldn’t change his life.

“If someone tells me I can’t do something, I am determined to prove them wrong,” he said.

He taught himself to climb a roofing ladder with one arm and resumed his contracting business.

By August of that year, he was back on the golf course. Now, he carries a 15-handicap in Sun City Grand.

Eventually, he also had the urge to play softball, another one of his favorite sports.

Byron Brown, a fellow Wisconsin native and Sun City Grand resident, helped convince him to move to Arizona.

Michels has been a solid performer as the lead-off hitter and right-center fielder for Camino del Sol this season. As of last week, Michels was hitting .680 with two inside-the-park homers hitting from the right side of the plate.

On defense, the natural right-hander catches the ball with the glove in his right hand, removes the glove and throws the ball back to the infield.

“I’ve been working on a system where I flip the glove off and throw the ball in one motion, but it’s still a work in progress,” he said. “No one has gotten an extra base on me this year (because I have to take the glove off).”

Michels plans his winter schedule around senior softball. He plans to finish the season in April, then return to his roofing business in Wisconsin.

“I go out of my way to avoid calling attention to myself,” Michels said. “Everybody has problems, and they do the best the can with what they’ve got.

“That’s what I’m doing.”

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