Woody Wethington doesn’t remember the accident. He does remember details leading up to it.
An electrician by trade, Wethington was working on location at a big-box store under construction in the summer of 2009 in Lebanon, Ind. The site wasn’t wired for electricity yet. A crew pouring concrete had been there earlier that day. They brought a generator to provide their own electricity. It was fed into a panel, which activated it, unbeknownst to Wethington and the other electricians. They were busy pulling wire when Wethington’s shoulder got too close to a bus bar connected to the panel, which had 10,000 amps and 480 volts coursing through it.
The bus bar sucked him in. Electricity went through his shoulder, up and out of the side of his face.
“I never felt a thing,” Wethington said.
He was unconscious for 42 straight days. Doctors initially thought Wethington wouldn’t live through the night. When he did, they upgraded his prognosis to about a 2% chance of survival for the next couple weeks.
The damage to Wethington’s skull was so bad doctors had to use parts from his ribs to reconstruct it. Muscle from his back was relocated to restore blood flow on the side of his face. Even after stabilizing him, doctors were unsure if Wethington would survive reconstructive surgery, which took 17 hours.
Somehow, he did. Wethington doesn’t remember the first week after regaining consciousness. He didn’t even recognize his family or know his name.
“I could tell you a few things from that time only because my family told me,” Wethington said.
Details slowly returned, but he had to ask lots of questions.
“It was kind of like rebooting a computer,” Wethington said. “Fortunately I didn’t have a traumatic brain injury. I had some amazing medical professionals helping me along the way. There were a lot of miracles involved.”
Unfortunately the pain was some of the worst he had ever endured. Unsurprising considering Wethington had 36 surgeries over three years. Prescription opioids lowered his discomfort enough that he could at least sleep and otherwise function.
The pain was almost non-existent by the time Wethington’s medical care was complete. Yet he still craved painkillers.
“I started to realize they had become a crutch,” Wethington said. “I remember telling my family, after having gone through so much, that I wouldn’t say I was in pain if I wasn’t.”
He was honest with his doctors – who began tapering his opioid prescriptions – but Wethington was scared to go cold turkey. He maintained a low dosage.
Wethington had never previously struggled with substance abuse. But he quickly noticed he’d frequently run out of pills before his next refill. He started looking for them on the street. Sometimes when he couldn’t find any, he’d suffer withdrawal.
By 2014, Wethington’s chase for opioids had become constant. Reaching his limit, he went to Florida for treatment but left after only five days.
“They were trying to help me, but I just don’t think I was ready,” Wethington said.
He returned to his vicious cycle once back home. Wethington sought rehabilitation again, this time at Fairbanks. He completed inpatient treatment and partial hospitalization. But the day he finished the program, he decided to reward himself by drinking.
“I didn’t have a sponsor and wasn’t doing everything Fairbanks told me to do,” Wethington said. “I quickly discovered I didn’t know how to live yet without any substances.”
He was supposed to start in Fairbanks’ Intensive Outpatient program the following week, but never went. Wethington was still able to get prescription opioids from various doctors because of his electrocution. His addiction reached the point where he began crushing pills and snorting them. Wethington couldn’t function when he ran out of painkillers and couldn’t find any to buy.
“I was hurting on the inside,” he said. “I couldn’t face anyone or even look at myself in the mirror.”
To make matters worse, his daughter Jasmine was having her own struggles with addiction. Both were in and out of treatment at Fairbanks over the next couple years.
By August of 2016, sobriety was sticking for Jasmine. She was now in Fairbanks’ Supportive Living Program. Wethington, conversely, was so depressed he couldn’t leave home. He never tried suicide, but had lost the will to live.
“I felt like if this is what my life has become, I no longer want it,” he said.
Wethington wanted to give treatment another opportunity at Fairbanks, but was afraid he’d be imposing on Jasmine if he returned. One morning, while thinking of her, Wethington walked into her bedroom and noticed a Bible on top of her dresser that was open to the Book of James. His eyes landed on scripture that talked about ridding your life of filth and evil.
“I felt like I couldn’t leave her alone,” Wethington said of that moment. “Ultimately you have to do recovery for you, but certain people can lead you in that direction. That is what I believe saved my life.”
He went to Dr. Tim Kelly – former CEO and medical director of Fairbanks who’s now affiliated with Community Hospital North – for detox, then returned to Fairbanks’ Intensive Outpatient program. This time, Wethington decided he’d do whatever he was told to in treatment.
“I still do that to this day,” he said.
Dr. Kelly connected him to someone who introduced Wethington to support group meetings, which he took advantage of on a daily basis. He also followed Jasmine into volunteering at Fairbanks as soon as he was eligible.
“Fairbanks gave me back that part of my life where I’m connected with people like me and I’m performing service work,” Wethington said.
That proved essential when Jasmine suddenly relapsed and died from overdose in the winter of 2017. Wethington had to rely on his recovery community and do what they told him to do to keep from being swallowed in grief. He called his sponsor and other sober friends while he was still at the hospital.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Wethington said. “I didn’t have answers. My recovery community did.”
He also relied on his spirituality.
“I’ve always believed in God, I just never did my part,” Wethington admitted. “I only wanted him when I needed him. Recovery has given me a relationship with God. It’s easy to have faith when things are going right, but not so much when they’re going wrong.”
People often asked him how hard was it not to drink or use drugs in the aftermath of Jasmine’s death. For Wethington, it wasn’t.
“I didn’t know anything except two things: Using was not an option and I needed to call my people. And my Fairbanks and AA families surrounded me and went through this with me.”
Indeed, he didn’t even have to drive himself to meetings because others in recovery kept showing up to take him. They dropped off food and offered to clean his house.
“The outpouring and support was amazing,” Wethington said. “I didn’t have to ask for anything, which is good because I didn’t know what to ask for, I was hurting so bad. Just allowing them to hold me up is the only way I made it through.”
If there’s a silver lining to Jasmine’s passing, it’s that it only intensified Wethington’s passion for recovery. Seeing how he responded to such an awful situation, Dr. Kelly encouraged Wethington to train to be a recovery coach. After getting certified, Dr. Kelly worked on creating such a position for him at Community North Hospital.
“It’s another gift of recovery,” Wethington said. “When you work the program, opportunities come your way that you never anticipated.”
And while he’ll never be OK with Jasmine’s passing, he believes everything happens for a reason.
“All my failures had to happen for me to learn,” Wethington said.
He doesn’t even lament the accident that took him down his path to addiction, admitting he was selfish and vain at the time.
“I think the accident humbled me and put me where I needed to be,” Wethington said. “I’m so grateful today. When I look at my past failures now, I think of how I can use them to help somebody else and how I can continue to learn.”