Nearly nine months after she and her husband, Frank, barely survived the EF5 tornado that ravaged the Oklahoma City area last year, Char Kozak of Schaumburg entered surgery for the fourth and final time last February.
Though the procedure was intended only to remove some remaining scars, Char asked the surgeon to look at a lump that had grown increasingly irritating near her left thumb.
What the doctor found was not the scar tissue expected, but an approximately inch-long sliver of wood left over from an open gash she'd suffered during the May 20, 2013 tornado.
"I had a big hole in my hand," Char said of the injury. "I thought I wasn't going to have a hand. I thought I was going to lose it."
The tornado -- nicknamed "the train" by Frank and Char because of its sound and impact -- had torn away not only the house in which they were staying, but the entire neighborhood where Char's brother and his family had lived. The Schaumburg couple were visiting when "the train" struck, killing 29 people in the Oklahoma City area, leveling more than 1,100 homes and leaving behind an estimated $2 billion in damage.
The Kozaks' new SUV -- moved into the garage just before the storm hit to avoid hail -- was found upside down in a dead tree a few blocks away.
Perhaps the only reason the Kozaks weren't a part of the final death toll was a hot water tank that fell on Frank's back and pinned him to the floor of a closet where he and his wife sought refuge.
That tank was among the first things Char became aware of as she briefly regained consciousness between the passing of the storm and the arrival of civilian rescuers.
"There was a tree above my head," she recalls. "There was the hot water tank, shooting water everywhere."
Though not as badly injured as Char, Frank -- a Schaumburg village trustee -- was bloodied and bruised, suffering from soreness that made him initially suspect he had a broken rib.
He climbed out of the home's rubble and yelled and waved to attract the attention of rescuers who had begun the search for survivors within minutes.
Paramedics arrived shortly afterward, by which time civilians had helped get Char out of the debris. She was on the very first ambulance to leave -- arriving at the hospital about 35 to 40 minutes after the tornado struck.
The destroyed house had been home to Char's brother, Steve Gastineau, mother and sister-in-law, who all were safely elsewhere when the storm hit.
The property included a storm shelter outside the house itself, but the visiting Kozaks didn't have time to look for it before the tornado arrived. That shelter afterward was left so compacted by debris that even a mouse couldn't have survived in it, Char's brother later said.
The Kozaks say they are relieved they weren't tempted to try to flee the area in their SUV.
"If we had gotten into the car, we probably would have driven right into (the tornado)," Frank said.
While even hindsight isn't always perfect, it's hard to argue with an outcome that left everyone alive, he added. The Kozaks will celebrate their 50th anniversary in August.
The family has spent the past year recovering from the damage -- Frank and Char from their physical and psychological wounds, and the Gastineaus from their total property loss.
Even Frank and Char's son, Steve Kozak, is haunted by his memories of driving all the way from Illinois to Oklahoma to be with his parents the night after the storm.
After seeing footage of this month's tornado damage in Arkansas, Steve Kozak said it's "very surreal" how similar it is to what occurred in Oklahoma.
But perhaps amazingly, the strongest association the family now makes to the tornado is the generosity and resilience of the human spirit which it revealed.
From the first responders who put concern for others over their own property losses, to the kindness of health care workers and the generosity of their Schaumburg neighbors, the Kozaks say they have proof of something stronger than the force of nature.
"There are so many ways people are reaching out to people in need," Frank said.
"You just notice it more with big disasters, but it happens all the time," Steve Kozak added. "They didn't have to cook a meal here for themselves for two months."
A year later, Char's brother and his family are in the final weeks of building a larger house on the same site. They currently are renting a house about 15 miles away, where Char's mother just celebrated her 94th birthday.
"We're getting along pretty good," Steve Gastineau said. "It's looking better all the time. We're getting excited about getting back into the house."
While it took Steve Gastineau a few weeks to make up his mind about rebuilding, the neighbor who swore he was leaving the day after the storm was the first to break ground again, Frank laughs.
What won't be recovered are the several race cars the Gastineaus kept as a hobby. Steve Kozak said vehicles intended to whip around a racetrack at a high rate of speed are simply uninsurable.
Frank and Char say their planned visit to the Gastineaus later this year will be the last milestone in their recovery -- something he's looking forward to, and she's somewhat anxious about.
"It certainly makes me think twice," Char said. "But I'm not going to let it show because they've got to live there. I will do my best to behave."
Char saw a psychiatrist for a while after the storm because a friend thought talking to someone would help end the nightmares she was experiencing.
"Overall, I'm very proud of her!" Frank said of his wife's recovery. "She's been through a lot. My therapy is that I've been very open with everyone, talking about things."
If there's one thing the Kozaks think they've lost forever, it's the innocence of believing being caught in a tornado is something that will never happen to them. But their faith in people has never been stronger.
"The ultimate thing is you have to respect Mother Nature because she's a mean lady," Frank said.