Andrew's story of courage

rescue and recovery Andrew's mother said, "Without Erlanger, I wouldn't have Andrew." Thanks to you, Andrew is healing physically and emotionally and attending elementary school, riding his bike and playing with his friends.


When LIFE FORCE flight paramedic Glenn Susskind walked through what was left of Apison, TN, he was armed with a chainsaw and little hope of finding anyone alive.

The multiple tornados that ripped through Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama just over a year ago left devastation and heartache that most people have never seen nor will ever forget.

“By far, the destruction of Apison isn’t like anything I’ve seen before,” said Susskind, who has been flying with LIFE FORCE for 19 years. “I was there for Haiti and Katrina, and this is on par of the destruction.”

He was working as a medic with Chattanooga SWAT that day and was in Apison around the time the second tornado came rolling through. Suskin, along with other emergency workers from EMS, local fire departments and other groups, were trying to get residents out of their houses. That’s when a call came in that some people in the now nearly-leveled town were missing.

“We weren’t expecting to find anyone alive,” said Susskind.

A Miracle in the Field

The search led the teams to three fatalities. That was until one squad came across something remarkable. 

Pushed up next to a big tree underneath low-lying power lines was 8-year-old Andrew Ellis, and he was alive.

Andrew was severely hypothermic, semi-conscious and had several fractures. In the pouring rain, the first responders put him on a backboard and covered him up to keep him warm.

With no light in the town except from the flashlights the rescuers on land were holding, LIFE FORCE, Erlanger’s air ambulance that transports patients throughout the region, landed in the devastated area. The team then flew Andrew to Erlanger’s Level 1 Trauma Center – the highest level of trauma care.

A Day of Heartache and Hope

There was no way Wendy Ellis could have foreseen how her life would forever change on April 27, 2011. 

That day’s horrible storms knocked out the electricity in her Rossville, GA, home. Knowing her mom had power not too far away in Apison, Wendy drove her 17- and 8-year-old sons to their grandmother’s home.

Before Ellis even arrived back home, she received a call on her cell phone saying a tornado had touched down in Apison. She immediately turned the car around only to be blocked by debris and emergency vehicles.

This mom, like so many others, waited at a local elementary school for word about her family. Hours later, she learned her mother, grandmother, cousin and her 17-year-son were found dead.

However, Andrew, her 8-year-old, was found alive.

Long Road Ahead

When Andrew arrived by helicopter to Erlanger, he had a traumatic brain injury, third-degree burns, a broken femur, a crushed foot and many deep and severe lacerations.

However, his mom had faith.

“When he was lying flat on his back in the trauma unit, I encouraged him to hang on,” recalled Ellis. “I had such a strong sense that everything would be okay.”

After just learning her oldest son, mother, grandmother and cousin did not survive, Ellis was now fighting and praying for her youngest child’s life.

From the Trauma Center, Andrew was moved to a room in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, where he stayed a week. He was then moved to a regular room at Children’s Hospital, where he spent another week.

“He is a miracle,” said Andrew’s mom. “The care he received was phenomenal. This was a situation nobody has ever dealt with. It’s something our community or even our state has never seen. Erlanger never missed a step. Andrew is living proof of it.”

Dealing with More Than Just Injuries

After many surgeries, Andrew has pins and screws in his elbow, a steel rod in his left leg and reconstruction on his right elbow.

In addition to healing his body, Andrew has had to heal his mind and spirit. While in the hospital, Andrew often had nightmares, recalling the horrific events of that day.

“I remember my grandma telling me to get in the bathtub,” said Andrew. “She got on top of me and then it (the bathtub) took off like a rocket. She told me she loved me and then she flew off.”

Andrew, now 9, has also had to relearn things most kids his age take for granted, like walking and tying his shoes. But thanks to therapy and his own perseverance, Andrew is riding his bike, playing outside with his friends and enjoying being a third-grader at Cloud Springs Elementary School in Rossville. And when he was released from the hospital, LIFE FORCE landed the helicopter in his neighborhood to get the celebration started.

“We are doing a lot better,” said Wendy. “We’re so close to normal as we can be with what has been thrown at us. When you’re given this gift of life, there’s no giving up

Andrew said he hopes to be a therapist one day, so he can help kids like him.

“I would tell them to try hard and not give up,” said Andrew.

Although they have lost so much, Andrew and his mom choose to hang on to what they’ve been given – each other. They are also thankful to the numerous healthcare professionals who were with Andrew on that fateful day and all the way through his long road of recovery.

“Without Erlanger,” said Wendy, “I wouldn’t have Andrew.” 

Support more families like the Ellis's. 

Did You Know?

When multiple tornadoes swept through the Chattanooga area on April 27, 2011, Erlanger Health System employees became true heroes of the storms, immediately responding with emergency care for tornado victims. By 2 p.m. on the following day, Erlanger had treated 169 adults and children for weather-related injuries at its five area Emergency Departments. Of these, 169, 94 were treated at the Level One Trauma Center located on the main Baroness Campus; 20 at Erlanger Bledsoe; 6 at Erlanger North; 19 at Children’s Hospital and approximately 30 at Erlanger at Hutcheson in North Georgia.

Your Generosity in Action

T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital at Erlanger’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) is the only of its kind in the region. It’s where the most critically ill or injured children in a 150-mile radius of Chattanooga will come. But in addition to responding to traumas and medical emergencies, the PICU also allows the many specialists at Children’s Hospital to perform advanced procedures such as open heart surgery and major craniofacial surgery by serving as a recovery unit.

Thanks to generous donors, the PICU recently underwent an expansion to add six beds, making more room to treat kids like Andrew who desperately need the special care only a pediatric intensive care unit can provide, and a renovation to create a more healing and family-centered environment. Prior to the renovation, there were no private rooms in the PICU. However, the renovation enabled the creation of several private rooms for our sickest patients that allow their families to be with them in a time of acute crisis.

Impacting Even More Kids’ Lives

After a week in the PICU, Andrew was moved to a regular inpatient room in Children’s Hospital, where he spent another entire week. This is a long time for a child or teenager to be away from his home and his friends. However, the reality is that many sick and injured kids will spend days, weeks and even months at Children’s Hospital. To help make Children's Hospital feel more like home, Children's Hospital Foundation is seeking gifts to renovate all 49 inpatient rooms to provide a more comfortable healing environment for children and their families.