Life after the Joplin tornado: Victim returns home to spot of injury

TULSA, Okla. - Friday marks two months since a deadly E-F5 tornado ripped through Joplin.

That night, some of the storm victims were brought to hospitals in Tulsa, people like Dustin DeMier.

"X-rays aren't indicating anything broken or fractured," DeMier said when he spoke to NewsChannel5 sister station KJRH just two days after the storm.

The 33-year-old suffered severe nerve damage when a staircase collapsed on him. He couldn't move from the waist down.

"I didn't know if anything was going to work, I didn't know if anything was going to come back. No feeling, no movement. Minus the left foot," he said.

DeMier stayed at Saint Francis Hospital for three weeks before getting to go home. His routine consisted of a daily rehabilitation session. We caught up with him for one of those appointments and on the day he would return home.

"We were having to hold on to the belt because his legs would just collapse," Corrie Feyen said.

She was part of a team of therapists at DeMier's side, and he's slowly starting to walk again.

"Since it's the peripheral nervous system it's going to grow back. The nerves will regenerate. It's just a slow process," she said.

"They tell me that nerves take longer to heal than broken bones," said Letha DeMier, Dustin's mom.

Letha has been driving back and forth almost everyday, and on this trip she's ecstatic. Her son is coming home.

"I wonder what his reaction is going to be as we drive through Joplin," said Letha. "It's been a while since, he hasn't watched it on television. So, I just wonder in daylight what his reaction is going to be."

There were lots of hugs and good-byes as he wheeled down the hall and out of the rehabilitation center he's called home for several weeks.

"We're going to miss you. Please let us know how you're doing, OK," one nurse said.

Dustin said he had mixed feelings.

"I don't want to go home to actually see all the destruction," he said.  "But, I am ready to go home to be with friends and family."

KJRH met up with Dustin again one week after his homecoming.

In the car, he talked about what the area looked like before the storm.

"Buildings everywhere, trees. This is my mom's old salon right over here," he pointed out.

Just a few blocks away we pulled into Dustin's apartment complex, and there wasn't much left.

As he looked up at where his unit was he said, "I'm all upstairs, which obviously there's nothing."

It's here that he saw Alex Bird for the first time since being rescued.

"I appreciate it. I remember you man," as he hugged Bird.

Moments after the storm, Bird was going from apartment to apartment helping save people when he came across his old friend.

"I was like 'Oh my gosh, I know him.' I'm just glad that he's OK. I didn't know where they took him. I was just glad that he was all right," he said.

There's also a reunion with the woman who drove Dustin to Freeman Hospital that night.

"How are you," Dustin said as he got out of the vehicle.  "Give me a big ol' hug. How ya' doing?"

Tiffany Johnson, a complete stranger with a medical background, made room in her van for a guy who needed help.

"The back of his head I used books. I used my diaper bag and took diapers out and used everything I could to keep him stable," she said while talking about that night.

Dustin lost pretty much everything he owned.

His car was destroyed, but some friends did manage to find his motorcycle a few days later. It suffered some body damage.

"My motorcycle fell on its right side and I saw it started skating down, it skated down the driveway there, the parking lot," he said.

While there, Dustin made a discovery of his own.

"Hey, there's my helmet! Lookie there, that's my motorcycle helmet," Dustin said with excitement in his voice.

He knows there's still a long road ahead when it comes to his recovery and the rebuilding of his life, but he remains optimistic about what life will be like after the tornado, especially when it comes to walking again.

"The results that I'm seeing, it's coming back," he said. "Everything's moving around so I'm pretty confident I'll get everything back, I'm confidant. At least enough to live a normal life."

Dustin said he's looking forward to getting back to work.

His auto-body shop was destroyed by the storm so Dustin said there's a good chance he'll be moving to Tulsa.

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