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Andrea Vellinga one of the Patients of the Year April 26th, 2012

Vellinga honored by rehab hospital

Updated: Thursday, 26 Apr 2012, 2:16 PM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 25 Apr 2012, 11:07 PM EDT

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – The award goes to: Andrea Vellinga.

The survivor of the stage collapse at last summer’s State Fair was among 27 honored by Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana as patient of the year. RHI is the acute care rehabilitation hospital where Andrea spent the early phase of her recovery after the stage rigging collapse Aug. 13 that killed seven and injured dozens.

“Just being honored as patient of the year, it is such a genuine, wonderful thing for me to earn that,” Vellinga said.

In September, she was on a stretcher when she was first admitted to the Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana. But this time around, she walked in and left with a big honor.

“It seems every few years we have a patient who essentially becomes what I call the sweetheart of RHI,” said RHI’s Executive Director Jim Graham. “Behind that smile was what one of her therapists called the most incredible spirit of determination she’s seen in 26 years of professional work. Having already defied the odds by surviving, Andrea came to RHI unable to talk and having lost most of her function.”

In Vellinga’s honor, a brick bearing her name will be placed on the pathway to independence in the garden of the facility where her rehab started

During Wednesday’s award ceremony, Andrea wiped away tears as she reflected on her journey.

“It has been life-changing, not just for me but my family as well,” Vellinga said. “If I would have given up, it would have never gotten as good for me as it has.”

She said “it’s amazing” to see home videos documenting her early stages of recovery. She was in a coma for six weeks.

She’s still missing a portion of her skull, so she has to wear a helmet for protection. Fittingly, the 30-year-old on Wednesday wore a T-shirt with the message: “Life is tough. I recommend getting a manicure and cute helmet.” Vellinga and her mom snagged the shirt from a store in Michigan, where she is finishing up her final weeks of rehab.

Vellinga is home for good in two weeks. Back just in time for her birthday. On that day – May 19 – she plans to walk in a 5k in her hometown of Pendleton.

But before that, she has a list of things to do when she returns home.

“I have 6,000 AOL and 7,000 Gmail messages I need to check,” she said. “I need to get on Facebook and make friends with all my therapists.”

For more information on Vellinga’s birthday celebration visit fortheloveofandrea.com.

The oldest receiving an award Wednesday was an 80-year-old everyone called Mighty Mable. The youngest was a 17-year-old from Franklin. RHI treated about 5,000 patients in 2011 but only 27 were nominated for the honor.