JETMORE – Scott and Alex Kreger walked shoulder-to-shoulder down the long hallway of Hodgeman County Health Center heading for the physical therapy department.
“I’m dreading this,” said Alex, 20, as they entered the room. Even the slightest stretching of his skin, which was burned over 60 percent of his body, is excruciating for the one-time physically fit football player.
Being fit undoubtedly helped on Oct. 12 when Alex and his dad, Scott, 51, were installing a hot water heater in his farmhouse about 16 miles southwest of Jetmore, and 16 miles from the local hospital and emergency crews.
As Scott, a local rancher, went to light the heater, there was an apparent propane gas explosion. In that second, their world came tumbling down around them.
Fast forward to today and there are many reasons father and son wear bright red T-shirts that proclaim, “Believe in Miracles.”
Back on that fall Sunday, ignited gas rushed through the crawl space where the two were working and critically burned them from the waist to their heads.
Despite the agony, many things seemed to turn in their favor.
At first, Scott couldn’t open the door to get out of the space. They were trapped. The explosion had caused rubble to build behind it.
“I hit the door as hard as I could with my shoulder and it wouldn’t budge,” Scott said. “I thought, “If we don’t get out, we’re going to die.’ “ Then he tried again and the door opened wide, enabling them to escape. Racing to their pickup, Scott drove to the nearest neighbor about a half-mile away.
“I knew we were in bad shape,” Scott said. He noticed the skin on his hand shredded from the explosion. “I looked at my hand and thought if I lived, the hand would be amputated.”
The neighbor took one look at the two men who, thanks to adrenalin, were able to stand and called 911.
“They are lucky to be alive,” said Dr. Alan Snodgrass, with the Hodgeman County Health Center.
They could have easily been killed by the explosion or trapped under the rubble. Snodgrass said it was fortunate an ambulance was coming back from delivering a patient in Dodge City and arrived on the scene quickly.
A medical crew, including Snodgrass, six nurses and two nurse practitioners, was waiting and worked with speed.
“They were cared for well and rapidly,” said Snodgrass.
Scott’s wife, Sally Kreger, also a nurse practitioner, was a spouse and mother at that moment.
Within 45 minutes, Scott and Alex were stabilized and their wounds were dressed. Two medical aircraft, one from Garden City and the other from Liberal, landed at the local airstrip and flew the men to Via Christi Regional Medical Center’s St. Francis campus in Wichita.
Both were placed on ventilators. Scott was unconscious for 23 days and Alex for 25.
“They almost lost me four times,” said Alex. They almost lost Scott twice.
While Scott was unconscious, skin grafts were done on his left arm from the middle of the bicep to his knuckles and to the fingertips on the right hand. Skin on half his back had to be grafted. Most of Alex’s grafts were on his arms and half his midsection.
Both their faces have third-degree burns, but a special cream was applied every two hours and saved their faces.
After 30 days, Scott was moved to rehabilitation. The next day, Alex followed. Thus began the grueling process of regaining their strength.
“I thought I would never walk again. It was too hard,” said Scott.
But the father and son pushed each other to see who could take the most steps.
“It helped a lot,” said Scott.
At first, they they were told they might make it home for Valentine’s Day.
“I wanted to be home for Christmas,” Scott said.
That became their goal and they pushed so hard they were in Jetmore on Dec. 3. Scott attributes that to the competition, but also because of family and lots of visitors and cards of support.
Through the ordeal, and now healing at home, husband and son have been Sally Kreger’s focus.
“There was so much support and prayers from home, that’s where my strength came from,” Sally said. “ If I had relied on my own strength, I couldn’t have done it.”
Both still have several surgeries ahead of them. They are keeping each other positive, and she marvels at their sense of adaptability. Because he can’t use his hands or fingers yet, Scott relies on a skewer to poke food and eat.
“They are truly amazing,” Sally said.
Slowly getting stronger
Alex is one of the couple’s six children. He graduated from high school in May and had just finished a summer semester at Dodge City Community College, where he is studying criminology. He hopes to return in about six months.
Right now, Scott depends on Alex and friends to take him to check cattle. While in the hospital, friends rounded up, sorted and got those calves that needed to be sold to market.
“They really stepped up and took care of stuff,” Scott said.
Because Alex has better use of his hands, he helps feed and dress his dad. Then he drives them to physical therapy.
Alex and Scott have been by each other’s side from the beginning.
“We came through together and we left the hospital together,” said Scott. “We were close before, but we are closer now.”
Despite months of rehabilitation still ahead, they achieved their goal of getting home for Christmas.
Just one of the many miracles.
“Everything worked so fast and slick,” Scott said. “If it wouldn’t have, we wouldn’t have lived. But it wasn’t our time. There were so many miracles. There were so many times that it should have been the end of us, but we were in shape and tough and pulled through.”