WAYNE, Neb. — John Dunning's first challenge came in the intensive-care unit, fighting hallucinations and making a conscious decision that he would keep breathing.
He took it a few painful minutes at a time. He kept breathing.
As he woke from a medically induced coma, Dunning made his next decision — to live.
Not just stay alive, but really live.
The chief information officer for Wayne State College was left broken by the EF-4 tornado that struck Wayne on Oct. 4. He was put back together with surgeries, rods and hard work.
He walks slowly with a cane now. He is splitting his time between his job and physical and occupational therapy appointments. Right now it's more therapy than work.
But he's back. He's laughing. He's grateful.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything,” Dunning said. “I had a phenomenally beautiful look at humanity, and I'm never going to forget that.”
Despite the pain and uncertainty, Dunning said the tornado left him a man changed for the better.
In a press conference Tuesday, he said the whole experience was both dark and beautiful. He thanked all the people who helped him, from the storm chasers who helped save his life to the friends who sent grocery bags full of get-well cards to the therapists who pushed him to stand and walk again.
The whole thing hasn't changed what he wants out of his life, Dunning said. He loves his work and singing and his wife just the way he did before. But it has changed his outlook.
“Some things simply aren't worth worrying about,” he said. “People are pretty important.”
Dunning and his colleague Michael Anderson were coming home from the airport after attending a conference in Chicago when they heard there was a tornado on the ground.
They were looking for it as they drove toward the Wayne campus. Neither of them recognized that they were driving right into it.
It was unlike any tornado they'd ever seen before, wrapped in rain. They pulled off into a ditch when they saw debris fly across the highway. Dunning doesn't remember much between the ditch and waking from a coma 12 days later to see injuries from his brain to his legs. There have been several surgeries since then and months of rehab. He is still struggling to regain the use of his left hand.
But he's home, and he's happy. He was greeted to a welcome home parade – “everyone should get a welcome home parade once in their life,” he said – and he was blown away by the support.
Dunning has always seen that sort of beauty in life, and his colleagues are not surprised to see how quickly he's recovering, said Jay Collier, spokesman for Wayne State.
“John's been that way ever since I've known him,” Collier said.
Dunning is still adjusting to the idea that he's an inspiration. He just feels like a guy trying to put his life back together, and he doesn't dwell on the things he now considers in the past. He also hasn't spent much time wondering why this happened to him in the first place. “What if” questions doesn't yield results, he said. The only question that matters is what he's going to do about it.
He's already answered that one, definitively.
He's going to live.