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Local Communities Come Out to Support the Wessel Family

East Norwich Fire Department Organizes Fundraiser for Firefighter’s Recovery

East Norwich firefighters came to the aid of one of their own on Sunday, Aug. 2. “It’s just ‘Doing what we do best;’ it’s on our logo said Firefighter Tom Bradke, co-chair of the fundraiser for East Norwich firefighter Gary Wessel, who is now recovering at Mt. Sinai rehabilitation center from the effects of a brain aneurism suffered on June 11, 2009. Brian McEvoy was the other event co-chair.

A poster at the entrance to the firehouse told the story of what has happened to Gary Wessel. “Gary was initially taken to New York Hospital in Queens [formerly Booth Memorial Hospital] where they worked to stabilize him before rushing him to the Neurological Intensive Care Unit at New York Presbyterian Hospital at Cornell. Looking back Roseann [Gary’s wife] told East Norwich Fire Company Assistant Engineer and event co-chair Tom Bradke, ‘There were angels watching over us on the highway that day.’ Mr. Bradke responded ‘Gary was lucky you acted quickly to get help and that the paramedics stopped to assist. Ninety percent of cases like these do not survive. The road to recovery will be long.’ Roseann said, ‘We just want to be on that road with Gary.’

“In addition to his firefighting family, Gary Wessel is husband to Roseann and father to Kevin, 22; Kelly, 21; and Steven, 17. Roseann Wessel is an active volunteer with the Oyster Bay High School Performing Arts Center. Kevin Wessel joined the fire company just like his dad and is a Class-A fireman as well as a registered NYS EMT. He’s also studying psychology at Binghamton University. Kelly Wessel is majoring in film at Emerson College in Boston, MA, and has recently begun documenting their family’s plight as a catastrophic event that could unexpectedly happen to anyone. Their youngest son, Steven, is a senior at Oyster Bay High School and is very active in the theater department. You may recognize him from last year’s performance as Seymour in The Little Shop of Horrors or this year as Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun.

“Gary is self-employed and the primary bread-winner for the Wessel family. The medical expenses on this road to recovery will be extensive. One hundred percent of your donation will go to the Wessel family for medical and living expenses.”

The poster ended with, “Thank you for giving back to a famiy that has done so much for our community.”

“The event planning was all done very quickly,” said Tom Bradke, event co-chair. ‘The posters and signs were made by a member of the Wessel family, their nephew Mike Gentile. The community really came together to help with the event. All the food was donated by Stop & Shop; the coffee was donated by Dunkin’ Donuts; and the flowers on the tables are from English Country Flowers – everybody came together to help,” said Mr. Bradke.

By noon, 468 people had stopped by for breakfast. “All morning people came in and donated money. Even in these tough times, people want to help,” said Stacy Valentine, wife of ENFD President Tim Valentine. Their daughter Corrine, a member of the East Norwich Juniors, was also there helping.

Mr. Bradke said they were at the firehouse at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, “But the work started three weeks ago,” he said. “Everything came together very nicely. The community responded terrifically and you could feel the love for the man in the room. We are here to help the community. One of our members needed help and a lot of people came together to help. Oyster Bay-East Norwich is lucky to have such wonderful residents. We are fortunate to have good neighbors.”

Surviving and Thriving

Mr. Wessel is surviving and thriving despite doctors’ initial warnings that came again and again, advising the family of the poor odds of Gary living with an injury as severe as he sustained after having an aneurism around his brain stem.

“He will never work again,” said his son Kevin who shared the story of Mr. Wessel’s struggles with red-rimmed eyes but no tears. The SUNY Binghamton psychology major showed great emotional strength. Kevin was home for the summer when he received the phone call from his mother, Roseann Wessel, to come to Booth Hospital on June 11.

Mrs. Wessel was not at the fundraiser, but was at the Mt. Sinai Rehabilitation Center with her husband.

“He’s doing really well. Dad’s still here. His recovery is amazing. It is great. He has passed every expectation,” said Kevin.

That great recovery is in part due to the fast reactions of Mrs. Wessel. “She reacted so quickly. It happened on the highway,” he said. “I met them at Booth Hospital. They didn’t even think he would make the transfer to Cornell, but he did. They said that night at Cornell that he was doing very poorly. The doctors said my father was in a very deep coma and they didn’t expect him to come out of it. The next morning they operated on his left vertebral artery because it had exploded. Then after the surgery, the doctors came back and said they didn’t expect him to live. Again they said he was in a very deep coma. They said at the hospital that they are used to fighting uphill battles.”

An hour after his second surgery, he opened up his eyes. “Since then he’s had a lot of operations. He fell back into a coma. But now he’s doing really well. The doctors never expected that,” added Kevin.

At the firehouse, there was a tape of Gary in the hospital, alive and talking. “He doesn’t talk very well because he has a trach. But his progress is great. [According to the statistics,] he shouldn’t be here.”

Gary Wessel was 49 and completely healthy, in good shape and had no medical problems when the hemorrhaging occurred. Kevin explained, “The major damage occurred around the brain stem which is where our life support system is located and caused massive bleeding. For a while there was no brain activity. He went into the hospital in the worst condition he could have been in.

“They work on a scale to evaluate the patients and he was on the bottom of the scale and doing poorly, but he defied the statistics,” said Kevin.

Gary has been at the Mt. Sinai Rehabilitation Center in the city for a month. They are one of the best in the nation, said Kevin. “He is already able to take steps. He talks, but in a whisper because of the trach and he is being tube fed, and he is doing very well.

“It’s a very long road to recovery. Nothing will happen overnight. It will takes months and months and he will never be able to work again because of the nature of the injury - he doesn’t have eye-hand coordination.”

As he talked, his grandmother, Nancy McHale came over and gave Kevin a big hug. The family is close and warm and supportive of each other.

Kevin said, “We couldn’t have done this without the firehouse. The love and support they gave us is unparalleled. They stepped up to help us, supported us, and were a shoulder to cry on – they have been everything. Our whole family will never forget what they have done for us.”

Raz Tafuro, former Muttontown Village Highway commissioner whose job kept him in touch with the East Norwich Fire Department, added to the scope of the efforts made by the firefighters. “They worked at the intersection of Route 25A and 106. They had signs telling what they were there for. I donated $100, and I was happy to do so. These fellows worked so hard to help. I never saw guys work so hard and work together. They stayed there at the intersection for a long time. These fellows cooperate and the residents cooperated. People threw money into the cans they held out. They do that upstate New York, too. This is a department that cares about its members.”

East Norwich resident, Mason Warren Obes, said, “It’s a great cause. We wish we didn’t have to have it. We are keeping our fingers crossed for a speedy and great recovery for Gary and the Wessels to get back to enjoying life.”

Jeff Bradke, a student at Fairfield University in Connecticut studying accounting, was there helping out at the firehouse. “It’s nice to see everyone in the community coming out to help Gary and his family. We thank them all for their support.”