When Andrew Oberle gives speeches to groups, he always starts with an experiment: “Raise your hand if you’ve survived the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Invariably, all hands go up.
“Life’s not easy for any of us,” Oberle says. “Everybody has it in them to be resilient.”
The worst thing for Oberle happened five years ago when two chimpanzees attacked him while he was working at an animal sanctuary in South Africa. He was torn open from his scalp to his feet, losing his nose, ears, most of his fingers and both feet, plus muscle and tissue in his legs, arms and chest.
Some two dozen reconstructive surgeries later, Oberle, 31, has launched a trauma care program at St. Louis University where much of his recovery took place. The goal of the Oberle Institute is to heal trauma patients both physically and spiritually, with a team of surgeons, counselors and therapists helping people get back to lives that will be forever changed.
It only makes sense that a patient will be leading the institute, said Dr. Bruce Kraemer, plastic surgeon at St. Louis University Hospital.
“I can only do so much with the patients I touch,” Kraemer said.
Oberle, the surgeon said, is “one of these people that has a positive life energy. You feel better just by being around him. His resilience and his fierceness of wanting to succeed so he can help others is very inspirational.”
For Oberle, starting the institute answers the question of “why me?”
“It would be almost irresponsible not to take what happened to me and use it to help others,” he said. “I survived for a reason.”
Childhood dream realized
Oberle’s love for chimpanzees started in the second grade after a lesson on Jane Goodall’s work with the animals. By age 15 he was volunteering at the St. Louis Zoo. As part of his graduate work at the University of Texas at San Antonio, he went to work with chimps at Goodall’s Chimp Eden sanctuary in South Africa.
“I’m one of those lucky or crazy people who follows their childhood dream,” he said.
Chimpanzees at the sanctuary have been rescued from abusive situations, including illegal hunting. One had been tethered to a chain outside a nightclub and became addicted to alcohol and cigarettes. Others were beaten and trained to do circus tricks.
At the sanctuary, Oberle studied a group of chimpanzees to learn more about the social hierarchy of males and females, and how they differ in their use of tools. One of the chimps, Jessica, would watch Oberle take notes as he observed her. She mimicked him by taking a piece of bark and “writing” on it with a twig. Another liked a worker’s earrings, and fashioned her own out of blades of grass.
Oberle’s original goal was to finish his graduate work in anthropology and become a zoo director focusing on the conservation of animals. He misses the work and visits zoos as often as he can in St. Louis and when he travels.
“When I watch chimps at the zoo, my heart races a little bit, but I still feel they’re the coolest and most beautiful animals in the world,” Oberle said. “I don’t blame chimps at all. They’re wild animals. You can’t know what’s going to happen.”
Worst injuries ever
In June 2012, Oberle was leading a tour of the sanctuary when two male chimpanzees escaped their enclosure.
Oberle remembers screaming, the horror of recognizing his attackers and begging them to stop. He felt their hot breath on his face and heard the crunch of bone in their teeth. The chimps kept attacking until a manager scared them off by firing a gun in the air. Then there was the sensation of being lifted up, his vision obscured by blood.
Oberle woke up more than three weeks later in a Johannesburg hospital after an induced coma. His mom and dad stood near the bed. When he looked down, all he could see were bandages. He tried to talk but couldn’t because he was still on a ventilator. He tried to look around but couldn’t move.
Doctors worked to stabilize Oberle, keeping infections and pain under control so he could be transferred to SLU Hospital in August 2012. He spent another month in the hospital at SLU and then six weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis.
Kraemer, the plastic surgeon, said he’s treated patients who were mauled by bears and crocodiles but Oberle’s injuries were the worst he has ever seen caused by an animal. Chimpanzees are known for aggression and dominating their rivals in territorial battles. Chimps in the wild are commonly missing a hand or an eye from their brutal infighting.
Oberle says he has never had a nightmare about the attack. But he falls asleep to the TV to avoid reliving the experience when the nights get quiet and dark.
Smiling for the first time
It was two years before Oberle could look in the mirror and smile. That’s how long it took to complete the four surgeries to rebuild his nose. His first tears of joy came from picking up his ukelele and realizing he could still play a little bit.
Oberle wears prosthetics on his feet and has a bionic hand that can grip and pinch using muscle sensors. It’s helped with his confidence, since “it’s a lot different reaching out and shaking somebody’s hand when you don’t have fingers.”
He still has some paralysis on the right side of his face, causing a crooked smile and difficulty closing one eye. Oberle jokes that he never had a good sense of smell, “so maybe that’s why I was such a successful zookeeper.”
His sense of touch is most affected since he lost much of the feeling in his hands. He also lacks feeling in his scalp. But other places on his body are hypersensitive where nerves were damaged. The pain there now is fleeting, but once was constant.
The grueling process of changing bandages and recovering from multiple surgeries left Oberle addicted to the powerful painkiller Fentanyl. Weaning off of it was tough: cold sweats, shakes, lack of appetite and insomnia from withdrawal.
What helped was finishing his master’s thesis while living in his mother’s home in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood of St. Louis, his dog Angie a constant companion.
He was heartened by the strangers who sent well wishes from around the world and a strong support system of family and friends.
“I had so much help, it was hard to not want to succeed for them as well.”
A new baby
Two years ago, Oberle met Vanessa Cowart of Texas while visiting the Austin Zoo.
“She didn’t see my amputations and scars,” he said. “One of my biggest fears was I wouldn’t find anybody who would be able to look past all that.”
The couple are engaged and have a 3-month-old daughter, Lily. Oberle cut the cord and put Lily’s first diaper on. He’s thought about what he will tell her about the chimpanzee attack. He plans to introduce her to other trauma patients through the institute, so she grows up knowing that people who are disabled or disfigured are no different from anyone else.
Oberle is working on another master’s degree at SLU, this time in health administration. He also plans to pursue a doctorate in public health.
It’s bittersweet that his life has moved from caring for animals to people, although the goal of surviving and thriving after trauma remains the same, he said.
“I’ve just switched species.”