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When life gets hard; A memoir by the wife of a construction worker paralyzed from the chest down exposes the love, struggle, persistence and hope the couple share

There are people who never break step when dealing with a loved one's devastating injury. They face the public with a smile and are as strong as steel -- and they never let anyone see that steel melt down.

And then there is everybody else.

Melanie Winkler D'Andrea is not ashamed to say she is firmly among the melt-downers. The I-can't-go-on-anymores, the grimacers instead of the grinners.

There were times, after her husband Dan was injured, when she went weeks on end without a single "good" day.

She is a nurse, but there are chores she handled for her husband that she would never bring herself to "like."

And there was one point, a really bad point, when she contemplated ending her own life, just to escape.

"I just felt so hopeless," said Melanie, 57. "I was so sick in my head, so depressed."

The reality is, having your life turned upside down and torn apart is not easy, and it doesn't feel particularly noble, either.

But: Through it all, through all the pain and hardship, Melanie can say that she never broke a promise she made to herself: that she would never question God about why she and Dan were suffering.

Now, seven years later, as she grapples with her own health problems (she has a chronic condition), Melanie D'Andrea is opening her heart in a revealing memoir, "One Door at a Time." She pulls no punches about how difficult it can be to cope when a loved one suffers a debilitating injury, like the accident that happened to Dan.

"I had to pray and think," Melanie said, about when she was writing. "I thought, people are going to find out what I am really like. That was frightening.

"But this is a story that needed to be told."

Dan D'Andrea worked in construction, and he has a hard time thinking about the workplace accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. But he has no trouble voicing support for his wife and her effort to increase awareness about disability.

"Melanie is a genuine person," Dan said. "A real person."

The story of Melanie and Dan D'Andrea is many things. A story of struggle; a story of persistence. It is also, of course, a love story.

Next to that, the D'Andreas know, even pain and despair amount to nothing.

>A Dan-friendly home

Their sunny, spacious ranch house in Amherst is much changed from when the D'Andreas moved in nine years ago, after their wedding.

Originally a 900-square-foot starter home, the house was expanded and made handicapped-accessible after Dan's 2004 injury. They joke that the house is not just handicapped-friendly, it's "Dan-friendly," tailored to his frame, the size of the wheelchair he uses and his range of motion.

"Our goal was for me to be as independent as possible," Dan said. "I refuse to have people come to the house [as caregivers]. That was probably hard on my wife. I want to be independent -- as much as I possibly could be."

Ask the couple about painful moments they've encountered outside the sanctuary of that home, and they'll give you a litany. Of how Dan was pushed aside in the doorway of a restaurant, because his wheelchair made him slow. Or about the time their hotel, with so-called "accessible" rooms, had only a regular standing shower stall with a rim to climb over. Or about how few of Western New York's parks allow the nature-loving Dan the kind of outdoor access he craves.

"There's a gap out there," Dan said, of the way disability is viewed. "I would like to see inclusion. So anywhere you go, anyone with a disability can do anything anybody else can."

Dan and Melanie have plenty of people who would agree with them.

About 6 million people -- 1.9 percent of the U.S. population -- are living with paralysis of one form or another, according to the latest research by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, done in conjunction with universities, medical centers and the Centers for Disease Control. That number is more than 30 percent higher than was previously believed, the foundation reported. And nearly 1.3 million people in the country are living with a spinal-cord injury.

Melanie struggles when she sees the way the world treats her formerly strapping young husband -- the petty injustices, the casual lack of concern.

People who know the couple have noticed it as well.

"What I have learned from them is how badly people treat the disabled. I see [Melanie and Dan] out, and how disrespectful people are," said Donna Alessi, a family friend.

"They've been through a lot together."

>A good team

No one would have predicted this sort of road for Melanie and Dan D'Andrea.

From the time they met in May 1998, they have been inseparable. Melanie, a Dunkirk native, had lived in the Denver area for more than 20 years, but was recently divorced.

Newly single, she decided to move back to Western New York and found an apartment in Amherst. Her next-door neighbor was a good-looking construction worker named Dan.

"Out comes Prince Charming," recalled Melanie, of how Dan came over to help her move in.

Dan was 15 years younger than Melanie. But that didn't seem to be an issue.

"He was rugged-looking," said Melanie. "I thought he was older than he was. When I found out [his true age], I thought, oh no. And then it just didn't matter."

The pair started attending church together -- Catholic Mass, where Melanie introduced Dan to a priest she admired. Dan felt himself becoming more spiritual through her influence. "I was pretty religious then," he said. "I still talk to God every day. It might not be what he wants to hear."

Before long the couple moved in together and then, in 2002, they married.

"Melanie had said she would never remarry -- so I was surprised she changed her mind about that," said Christine Woodbury of Clarence, Melanie's younger sister. "Dan must be special. I don't know that anyone else could have talked her into marriage."

As newlyweds, the D'Andreas were the kind of couple friends would exclaim over. They complemented each other well. They laughed easily together. Each worked at a demanding job -- Melanie as a nurse, Dan in construction -- and supported the other's ambitions.

"They made a good team," said Woodbury.

The D'Andreas were the kind of couple people envy -- until the day everything changed.

>Tragedy strikes

It was a normal weekday in December 2004. Melanie was in the middle of a typical day in her job, as a triage nurse who worked over the phone from home.

She had just gotten off a call when the phone rang. She didn't recognize the number on her caller ID. In her memoir, Melanie writes about what happened next:

"I knew immediately that something was off.

'Honey I'm hurt real bad.' Dan was crying. Now THAT was unheard of. I had seen him cry only once, at his mother's funeral five years earlier. "I can't move. I can't feel anything from my chest down. I can't move my legs. I can't feel my feet! I'm talking on somebody's cellphone. I can't get to mine because I'm hurt."

"Dan's panic, transferred to me through the phone line, hit me like an electric current."

Dan, then 35, had been working on a job site renovating Buffalo's old Holling Press building. He had been standing in an elevator shaft when a plank fell from a floor above, plummeted down the shaft and landed on the back of Dan's neck, crushing the top of his spine.

He crumpled to the ground, unable to feel anything below the middle of his chest.

He was taken to Erie County Medical Center and spent weeks in trauma care.

This was a dark time for the couple, Melanie writes in her memoir. Dan, who was usually unconscious, reacted badly to some of his medications; he would thrash around and try to pull out his IVs, and there was a chance of him hurting himself further.

"The doctor told us it was the reaction of an able-bodied young man who had the strength of an animal, being trapped inside his body," said Melanie. "They told me early on that he would probably never walk -- but that he would probably not die."

They were clearly in life-changing circumstances, said attorney Terrence M. Connors, who represented them from these early days after the accident.

"He was in rough shape. [Dan] was barely conscious when we first saw him," said Connors.

As for Melanie, Connors said, she was already focused on the reality before her.

"Right from the beginning, Melanie knew it was going to be a very difficult row to hoe for him," Connors said. "She said to us, 'I just want your candor. I just want you to be honest with me.' She knew how difficult it was going to be. And not just the physical, but the emotional side of it."

Melanie said she knew right away what she and Dan were up against.

"From the day it happened, I knew that he wasn't going to walk again," Melanie said. "I didn't go through a grieving process -- I went right to the reality."

>Hard to handle

After a week, Dan began to creep back to lucidity. He was in the hospital for weeks. In January 2005, the couple decided it was time to seek treatment that might give him a chance at movement.

Craig Hospital in Colorado is one of the country's premier resources for spinal-cord injury, according to experts at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

"If you go to the local hospital and they see two or three spinal-cord injuries a year, that's way different from going to a major center where they see hundreds of these cases a year," said Joe Canose, senior vice president for quality of life at the foundation, located in Short Hills, N.J.

Dan went to Craig by Lear jet. Once there, he was immersed in extensive rehab sessions, counseling, and medical treatments designed to make him as independent and mobile as possible. Some 23 percent of cases of paralysis are caused by spinal-cord injury, second only to stroke, the Reeve Foundation data shows.

Melanie, meanwhile, was facing her own troubles. As her husband progressed, she found herself having "meltdowns" in her new role as caregiver.

To take one example: in the book, she writes about how hard it was for her to handle Dan's toileting needs, since he could not control his bladder and bowels until he learned to follow a bowel "program." One night she bought them a takeout dinner; it passed immediately through Dan, and she spent the next several hours cleaning the bed, floor and bathroom of their apartment in Denver. As she writes:

"Imagine one minute you are having what you hope will be a romantic, cozy dinner with your husband. In the next moment, you are changing the pants of that same 200-pound man. He has just had the largest diarrhea stool of his life. Imagine having nothing available to you but your bare hands, a few towels, and a wash rag. Imagine wondering if this is the first day of the rest of your life."

It was in these early months that Melanie began to assemble voluminous scrapbooks about their experiences. She also began writing in a series of journals -- tattered memo notebooks -- that gave her room to chart Dan's progress, as well as vent her own emotions.

"There's pressure on [the patient] to progress. And pressure is on the caregiver, to put up or shut up," she said. "I felt that all the time -- yet I wasn't the one who was injured, so what did I have to complain about?"

>Writing it all down

It was about this time that Melanie also realized that, apart from actor Christopher Reeve's account of his paralysis, there were very few books that offered any insight into what being a caregiver and spouse of a spinal-cord-injured person was like.

"Seven years ago, I didn't see anything," she said.

Along the way, her thoughts grew into a plan: to write an honest account of what her journey was like. She drew from her journals, her scrapbooks and her memories.

"I felt compelled to write about it," Melanie said. "If just one person reads it and tells me that they loved it and it helped them, I've reached my goal."

At the Reeve Foundation, Canose said that people underestimate the broader impact of a paralyzing injury.

"A spinal-cord injury in a family affects the whole family," Canose said. "There's a lot of families that don't [make it]. Some can't handle it."

For caregivers, Canose said, the difficulty of the role lies in its never-endingness.

"It's 2 4/7 . That's the difference," he said. "You're on call all the time -- to handle issues you'd rather not deal with."

Melanie said she would like to use any proceeds she realizes from the memoir to fund equipment and programs that would help disabled people in Western New York.

Dan, too, has found a way to get past his injury and reach out a helping hand.

He has set up a charitable trust with some of the settlement he and Melanie received from his lawsuit over his injury. Dan was awarded $27 million from four insurance carriers in the settlement.

And Dan -- who has not regained any significant mobility in his lower body -- has taken steps to more publicly advocate on the local level about disability. He sits on an advisory board to the Amherst town government on disability issues. His trust has funded programs designed to train local governments about issues of handicapped access and sensitivity.

"My vision is more local. His is wider," Melanie said of her husband.

>A strong will

Today, the D'Andreas are coping with another difficult reality: Melanie's recent diagnosis with leukemia.

Melanie told Dan after hearing the news from doctors, despite knowing the toll it would take. The good news is, her illness appears to be a slow-moving, chronic variety. The bad news is, they had just felt they were getting their bearings after Dan's paralysis.

"I have a hard time keeping anything from him -- painfully so," said Melanie. "I broke it to him right away."

Dan said that her illness is difficult for him to understand.

"It was just another thing on the pile, you know?" he said. "It's just the kind of luck we seem to get. You don't know what to expect next."

As for Melanie, she figures she'll play this hand the same way she played the one she was dealt with Dan's accident.

With pragmatism -- and a strong will.

"I had made that promise, remember?" she said. "Not to question: why us?"

"I ask that a lot," interjects Dan, sitting by her side.

Melanie smiles at him.

"You didn't make the promise."

email: cvogel@buffnews.com