By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Seeing Ron Otto sitting comfortably in his big easy chair at his home in Winsted last week, made it difficult to believe the kind of injuries he suffered from an accident Jan. 20 which sent him to Hennepin County Medical Center by helicopter.
The accident happened while Ron was trying to find leaks in a 15,000-gallon tank that had been filled with approximately one pound of air. The tank was at Ron’s son, Greg’s place in Lester Prairie. When the tank was finished, it was to be used for storing diesel fuel.
“We knew we couldn’t put much air into it. One pound of air in that big of a tank is a tremendous force,” Ron said.
Ron’s brother, Bob, was working with him that Thursday, about 4:30 p.m., but Ron was the one who had started soaping the tank, looking for air bubbles indicating leaks which he was marking for Greg to weld later. The very same routine had been followed earlier in the week without incident.
“I don’t remember that day,” Ron said. “That day is gone. I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. What I am thinking is we had put a little air in the tank. We didn’t think it was much, but apparently it was too much for the situation. I went up on the ladder to find the leaks and that is when it (the tank) tore loose.”
“It hit me in the face and leg and threw me across the floor about 15 feet. I hit the door and it tore the top of my head off,” Ron stated as matter-of-fact. In addition, he said the ladder had possibly been what broke four of his ribs when he was thrown across the floor. He also tore his rotator cuff, and, until a few days ago, was unable to hear out of his right ear.
Bob, who was not injured in the blast, called McLeod County dispatch immediately. He knew Ron's injuries were severe, so he told dispatch to send an ambulance and a helicopter, as well.
Bob’s next call was to Ron’s wife, Darlene, who was at home in Winsted taking care of their grandchildren.
She was able to make it to Ron’s side before the helicopter airlifted him to the hospital.
“I was actually comforted that I went out there because I told Ron the helicopter was coming in and that was what they want, and I do, too,” Darlene said. “He squeezed my hand really tight like he did, too. He wasn’t able to speak words I could understand, but the way he squeezed my hand I knew he understood and to me, that was more comforting than for me to not be there.”
From the time Bob’s call was placed until the helicopter arrived took 8 minutes. It took another 8 minutes for the helicopter to get him to Hennepin County Medical Center.
Darlene, who was a paramedic, attributes the quick response of Ridgeview Ambulance and Life Link helicopter for saving Ron’s life.
“Between getting fluids immediately and getting transported that fast that’s what made the difference,” Darlene said.
Ron was in surgery until Friday at 3 a.m. His first surgery was to stop the bleeding in his face and reattach the top of his head a total of 60 staples to the top of his head and many more underneath, according to Ron.
The doctors kept him sedated until Saturday, when they performed a second surgery to put plates in his face through incisions made across his eyebrows and inside his mouth. From the outside, the only incision visible is between his eyebrows and it’s not even noticeable until Ron points it out.
“Any place his facial bones would come together, they were just stretched apart,” Darlene said. “They put plates and screws in there to tighten it back up.”
Sunday, Ron gained consciousness, not knowing where he was or why he was there. His son, Jeremy, was at his side, taking over for his mother who had not been feeling well.
“I knew I was tied down and Jeremy was trying to talk to me telling me, ‘remember what happened?’ but I had no clue,” Ron said.
Ron was in the hospital a total of seven days, at the end of which he was able to walk out on his own.
Ron might have been able to go home sooner, but headaches plagued him from the time he woke up from his second surgery.
“When I was in the hospital, the headaches killed me. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty miserable,” Ron said.
Ron discovered on his own that getting up and walking helped the headaches go away. He also learned that the recliner the hospital staff had provided for Darlene’s comfort, allowed him to remain upright throughout the night, which also kept his headaches away.
“So I kicked her out of the recliner and gave her my bed and I sat in the recliner,” Ron said.
Now at home, Ron continues to sleep in his easy chair.
“If I lay down, I do get headaches, but it’s getting better. In fact, I can already lay down in bed for an hour or two without getting a headache,” Ron said.
His doctors, family, and friends are calling his recovery amazing.
“The day after I walked out of the hospital, we made it up to the local Pantry,” Ron said, “for a bowl of oatmeal and coffee. My diet has to be soft for four months because I have a lot of teeth that were knocked loose and have to heal.”
There is a lot of pain, Ron admits, and he is experiencing some vertigo.
“He has some balance issues,” Darlene said. “But the doctors tell us it will go away with therapy.”
The vertigo does make walking difficult for Ron, so Darlene is never far away.
“Darlene is my nurse. I give her a rough time,” Ron said. “I tell her, ‘you raised four kids and I bet you never thought you would have to take care of another one.’ She takes good care of me.”
About two weeks after Ron returned home, he was taken by ambulance to Ridgeview Hospital in Waconia because he had developed a double blood clot in his lung.
“They think it came from my leg,” Ron said.
He was put on blood thinners and was sent home after a four-day hospital stay. Just a few days later, Darlene took Ron to the hospital again because he felt like he was going to pass out.
“Ron is kind of on a little bit of a roller coaster right now,” Darlene said. “One day he acts like nothing is wrong, the next day he goes down quick.”
Not one to complain about his situation, Ron’s only comment about returning to the hospital was the food was great at both hospitals.
“Once I can get where I am not going to the hospital by the ambulance every week,” Ron said jokingly, “my goal is to get out and do something every day.”
For now, the Ottos agree it’s a full-time job just making doctor appointments and getting Ron therapy as needed.
Another situation that made things a little more stressful during the Ottos’ ordeal, was their daughter, Melanie, and her husband, Daryn Hoof, were at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester two days before Ron’s accident. Melanie donated part of her liver to Daryn who underwent a liver transplant.
Ron and Darlene were caregivers for Melanie’s children, but when the accident happened, they needed to call in reinforcements.
“That was probably the hardest part of this, knowing that we were supposed to be their backup and then this happened,” Darlene said. “It worked out though, but it wasn’t just the immediate family helping.”
“Neighbors and friends have been there to help us out with different things. Plowing the snow, food, helping,” Ron said.
Ron and Darlene are also grateful for the support of their four children over the past few weeks.
Their son, Greg is married to Heidi and they live in Lester Prairie. Son Ryan is married to Shellie and they live in Winsted. Son Jeremy is married to Mary and they live in Silver Lake, and daughter Melanie is married to Daryn Hoof and they live in Lester Prairie.
The Ottos have 10 grandchildren.
“The grandkids have really been concerned,” Ron said. “They are quite the bunch of kids. They spent a lot of time down at the hospital with me.”