How careful are you when driving that tractor? Reversing the trailer? Or picking up a bale?
Back a few years ago, I was giving a talk on farm safety to a group of twenty farmers. The talk went well and after the talk, we went out to the bar for tea and light refreshments. I walked around to talk to the farmers one to one, as I always find someone wants to talk to you face to face and not ask a question in front of others. That evening, I heard a lot of stories as I went around the room.
When I was in college, one of the lectures always would say, do not be afraid to ask questions: “The only stupid question is the question you do not ask”.
That evening, one farmer called Pat asked did I ever get flashbacks from my accident, I replied that I never got flashbacks. Flashbacks are when you are in a sound sleep and then you start to dream about the day of the accident or a near miss. It gets so bad the dream turns to a nightmare and you wake in a cold sweat. I was one of the lucky ones, I never get flashbacks and I can talk about my accident and it does not affect me. Pat explained that he gets flashbacks and this is his story:
Pat was working out in the yard, it was a fine day around the Christmas. Pat went to feed the cattle in the shed. He started his tractor. The bale handler was on the back of the tractor. He drove the tractor to where the bales were stored. He reversed the tractor to pick-up a bale and put it in the handler. The bale that Pat picked was one that was out of shape. Pat made a few attempts to get it on the handler put failed to get the handler under the bale. After four attempts at this he decided to make a drive for it. He buried the handler under the bale and then he turned around in the seat to go forward to feed his cattle. When Pat looked down between the front wheel and the rear wheel of the tractor, he saw his three-year-old grandson standing there with his hands up calling out: “Granddad pick me up”.
What happened was, Pat’s daughter had come to visit the farm, and as she was getting out of the car her son jumped out. She thought that he went into the house as the door of the home house was open, she preceded to take the baby out of the car seat and when she went inside, she discovered that her three-year-old was not there. She ran outside looking for him. The three-year-old heard the tractor when he got out of the car and ran down to the farmyard to get a lift in the tractor. The three-year-old saw Granddad at the bales and ran over to the tractor. Pat was looking around at the bales and did not see his Grandson coming over to him. Pat said what scared him the most was: “If I did not get the bale on the bale handler at that time and had to make another go to get the bale I would have drove over my grandson and he would be dead.” Pat was upset and had to go inside for a while that evening, Pat’s wife knew that something was wrong and waited until the daughter had left before she got the story.
This was a near-miss for Pat, but how many stories like this happen around the country and we never hear about them. The HSA do not want a person under the age of seven on a tractor, because once the young person gets a ride on a tractor, they will always want a lift when they hear a tractor. Another reason for young children avoiding riding the tractor is that a child’s brain is not fully protected and all the bouncing around is not good for the brain.
Tip of the week
Make it hard for children to have access to the farmyard. So what if it means putting up a gate or a fence. At least you will be able to sleep a night, knowing that you did everything that you could to prevent an accident. Try not to get into the habit of giving lifts to children on the tractor, as someday you could be like Pat and it might not be a near miss. I know it’s great to have kids out helping on the farm, but make sure they have a safe place to play and when they are with you, you should know where they are.
Last week, the farm safety conference was on in Carlow and the same week Senator Paul Daly launched a new bill looking for a Farm Safety programme. All farm safety needs to be pulled together. I was disillusioned after the conference because one person can control the way money is spent and can tell mistruths about work done by others. What I am referring to here is the Swedish model of farm safety, a mentoring programme which was called “safe farm common sense” has been successful, in that, it has reduced farm deaths by 45% in the first five years and in the last year, deaths dropped to zero. When I proposed to run a programme like this here in Ireland, I was told that the Swedish model did not include the under 16s or the over 65s in the evaluation. But, last week, Peter Lundquist said that he included everyone from zero to infinity in the evaluation. Yet our so-called experts were able to tell government officials that Lundquist did not include all age groups. So, who really cares about us Farmers? Talk is cheap.
Last week, I was requested to talk to farmers in the spinal injuries' unit of the rehab in Dun Laoghaire. This talk was open to all farmers in the hospital. About thirty people turned up on the day. As I approached the hospital, I got butterflies in my stomach. This was my first time back in the NRH since my accident nine years ago. Walking back up the ramp, memories came flooding back, then inside the door the smell of the hospital. At the reception, I asked for the person that was in charge, “Are you here for the farmers talk it’s down in the day room”, I was asked, so I walked to the elevator, hit the button for downstairs, and then it struck me that I did not remember where the dayroom was. Once out of the lift, I planned to ask for directions but as it happened, I met another farmer going down in the lift, so, I was ok and just followed him.
What a strange place, I thought as I stood there talking, just outside the lift in the hallway. I saw another person who had lost both legs go by in a wheelchair, he was not a farmer, but I had met him before in Portiuncula Hospital when I was in with my own infection in the good leg. He was in the bed next to me on that occasion, this was around the end of last September. At that stage, he had only lost one leg due to blood infection. Just after Christmas, I was back in the hospital and he was back in with the second leg amputated. Both were above the knee, and this will be very hard for him to get back up walking again.
As I walked down the hall, I started to remember the place, on my right was the canteen and next to it was the coffee shop. Across the hall was a big glass window looking out into a courtyard, I never walked around it. The room for the talk was straight ahead, to the right of the room was the ramp down to the prosthetic department.
As I entered the room, I met some of the farmers who were aged between twenty-three to seventy-five years of age. I was greeted with a big smile from one of the farmers. He was a young farmer, I was trying to think who he was, should I know him? So, he tells me that we met in Mount Bellew Agricultural College a few years ago. He is now wheelchair bound. What happened him? Last year driving home he fell asleep behind the wheel of a car and hit the only rock on the side of the road. The car crash broke his back and he will never walk again. What about farming?
More about my visit to the NRH next week...
I woke up in the morning and there was a different nurse there, as the shift had changed. At one stage there must have been about fifteen consultants around the foot of the bed, looking at the leeches and what they were doing. The leeches were being used to suck the blood that was coming from the flap. The young nurse was nervous with all the consultants around her, and you could see her hand shaking. As she picked up the leech she was shaking more, and another nurse who was talking to me at the time, seen the leech shake, screamed and ran out of the room. I had a great laugh at this. That afternoon, I went back for an operation to stop the bleeding. Every morning, the consultants would look at my leg and make comments. The flap started to decay, and I had to go for a second operation. The second piece of muscle had to be taken from the thigh and put over the flap at the shin. Thankfully this worked.
I got on very well with all the consultants and I looked forward to their visits every morning. One visit that sticks out happened the week after the second flap operation. A consultant came into the room and started sniffing the air, I asked if he had a cold and he replied: “I think the operation is a success as I can’t smell any decaying flesh.” I had not smelled anything, as I was living with it all the time. On the day I was to come home, I noticed a piece of steel in my leg and I asked one of the nurses to pull it out. A consultant arrived later with big pliers and pulled out the staple.
I lay on my back in the hospital from October until Christmas, if I had to sit out in the chair; I had to be lifted with a crane out of the bed and lifted with the crane from the chair to get back into the bed. I got home on the 23rd of December that year. All I could do was move from the bed; to the wheelchair; to the couch. I was warned when I got home not to go back into the farmyard where the accident happened, as it could trigger flashbacks, and depression could set in. The first day home, I went back into the farmyard. If I could have walked around the yard that evening I would have, but I was not able to put the weight on the right leg even with crutches. Thank God I do not get flashbacks, not even to this day. The evening of the accident I made peace with myself on route to the hospital, if that makes sense. I knew that if I started blaming myself or anyone else, that I could slip into a dark place. I wanted my family and anyone that came to see me, to know that I was still the same I wanted them to know my head was in the right place.
While at home, moving around the house on the wheelchair took some getting used to. I had to sleep downstairs and I was tired a lot, so, I would sleep in the middle of the day. The hardest thing I found was the phantom pain, suffering pain in a leg that was not there. This only lasted for a couple of mounts and now I do not get that pain, but it was awful.
Around the middle of February, I got into the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin. I spent sixteen-weeks learning how to walk again. The first prosthetic-leg was not great. I was not happy with the lack of comfort and by the next Christmas, I was on my second leg. This one was easier to walk around on. Now, it was not the prostatic leg that was slowing me down, it was the damage to the good leg. The right leg (the good leg), I could not stand on for more than a few minutes at a time. Long walks were out, and the rough ground was hard on the leg. The bones in the right ankle were fused together. One of the hardest things to do, even to this day, is to put on a pair of wellingtons. Walking down a slope can be a problem also. Stairs were not easy to come down as I was afraid, I thought I would fall forward.
While in the NRH I had to learn to drive again too, as I could not get insured until I could prove I could manage an automatic car. Thankfully, I could do this with relative ease. The insurance companies even asked if I needed an adaptation to drive the tractor, which I did not. The tractor I have has an electric shuttle and it allows me to change the gears without clutching the tractor. The hardest thing with the tractor is attaching an implement, as I do not have the inching ability to reverse into the implement. Once the implement is on, I can go about my work. It’s my sons that attach the implements for me now. Feeding the cattle became hard because I was afraid when the kids were helping, I was not in full control of the tractor and I was afraid that I would impale one of them. So, after that winter the loader was sold off and I bought a small teleporter which made the work safer and faster around the farm.
While I was in the hospital, I was lucky that the farm was taken care of by my very supportive neighbours. I did not get home from the HRH until the middle of June. That year I ploughed about ten acres of ground to reseed, I tilled and sowed the seed myself. The building contracting was finished for me as I did not have the balance. Even the case-digger I had, became dangerous to operate. When I would spin around in the seat to work the back actor, my leg would move the levers and I was afraid that someone would get hurt. The machine had to be sold, and I was sorry to see it go.
The evening of the accident, when my wife came into the farmyard, I asked how the leg looked and she replied: “It’s not that bad” and then I got an ear full straight away. She was thinking of who was going to pay the bills. No will made, what was going to happen? She was panicking.
I had just turned forty-two, six-weeks before the accident. I was still a young man. I had two bank accounts operating, one for the farm and the other for the building contracting. The bank that I had the farm account with told us that my personal accident insurance would cover some of the bills that were due, and the rest could wait until I came back fit. Jean, my wife, informed them that it could be a while and they were okay with that. However, when Jean told the other bank that I used for the building contracting, the story of what happened, the manager said I would have to lose two legs to collect on the personal accident insurance policy that I had with them. Make sure you read the fine print folks.
At home, I made calls to Social Welfare and to Revenue, looking for some form of incapacity benefit, only to be told that if I had a PAYE job for four-years, then I would have enough stamps up to get something. So, if you are self-employed, as farmers are, and if you get hurt, there is nothing there for you. I couldn’t work the farm to its full potential, so the income was not coming in the way it should have been. It was a tough time in every sense.
So, how has all this changed my life? Well, in 2014 I went back to college to get a degree in Health and Safety. I would like to thank all my lectures as I had a great time in college and I graduated in 2016. What I found best about this, was that no one could say that I did not have the qualifications to talk about farm safety. Not alone do I have the qualifications, I have the scars to show what I went through as well. Where I find this great, is when I am out on a site and catch someone taking a shortcut. When I pull them up on their infraction, they know that I not doing it just because it says so in a book.
In 2017, I was asked to give talks at the Ploughing Championships on the HSA stand. I wear a pair of shorts to show-off the legs. The prosthetic leg is not foamed out, it looks like a metal bar. The other leg swells as the day goes on. I get infections in the right leg from time-to-time, and this must be cured by intravenous antibiotics which is a hospital stay of four to fourteen days and in the last year, I have been admitted six different times for this reason. I get tired in the middle of the day now, and this is a direct result of the accident. I’m lucky I am alive and here to tell the tail. I have a newfound passion and appreciation for safety. I would not wish this on anyone so stay safe out there and don’t take any short-cuts where health and safety are concerned.
What happened, I believe, was that when I stood in beside the PTO shaft that had no cover on it, it sucked the loose piece of the overalls and wrapped it around the shaft. Now, the experts will tell you that nine feet of rope will wrap around the power shaft in one second. The evening of my accident my clothes wrapped around the shaft in less than a second. It made a rope effect of my overalls and as they were being pulled off me (this is what took my leg off) it also pulled off the skin and muscle from the shin down to the toes. Because I was thrown over the PTO, my left arm hit a bar with force and I broke the two bones just above the wrist. The bar was just over the power shaft, supporting the hydraulic lines and keeping them up-off the power shaft.
When my wife Jean saw me on the ground, she started to put coats over me and stopped some of the bleeding. I was complaining of the cold on the ground and I wanted a coat to be put under me, she refused to let me turn over as she was afraid, she thought I had a spinal injury. She kept putting coats over me to keep me warm. I kept my eyes closed, thinking if I did not see it, I would not have pain, I could think of something else. Luckily, I was not in pain. A lot of people came to the yard that evening, as some were on the way to a funeral in the next town. To these people who came to help, I will be forever grateful.
The paramedics fought hard to have two ambulances on cover in Portiuncula hospital that week, one of the Ambulances was away out in Roscommon. If I was dependent on this ambulance to come, it would have taken up to two hours to get to me, I was lucky the second ambulance was there in less than thirty minutes. One of the consultants said: “What was I complaining about, sure you could have been put in the back of jeep and brought in to the hospital.” Looking back, how was I going to get into a jeep. I had one arm broken, one leg gone and the other leg I could not put weight on. There was not enough of people in the yard to lift me into the jeep, how many would be brave enough to lift me, in the condition I was in?
As we drove out of the yard, the driver said he was going to turn left and go back through the local town, I said: “No way, turn right and we will get out onto the main road.” As we travelled along the road to Ballinasloe, the paramedic kept telling me where we were, but I could have told him as I knew the road so well. I was not feeling any pain. What was racing through my mind was that I would get the leg reattached and if that did not work that I would get a prosthetic leg.
Once the doors of the ambulance opened, outside the emergency department, I remember thinking that I would be here all night with the crowd outside the entrance. It was not until I was out of the ambulance that I realised that these were all the doctors and nurses waiting to save my life. I never felt pain until two doctors held my shoulders down and two more lifted my right leg and started to put the bones back together in the right ankle. This was pain! That evening I could be heard roaring with pain, all over the hospital, each time that the doctors moved the ankle, which took three attempts. I was lucky there was a good team on that evening who prepped me before I went to Galway.
I was loaded back into the ambulance and transferred to UHG. That evening I had to get a Garda escort out of Ballinasloe because of the heavy traffic, there was no motorway open at the time. I had an operation that night in Galway, my left knee was amputated as there was not enough muscle or skin below the knee to do a flap over the stump. I woke a few days later in ICU with tube and wires coming out of me. Jean was by my side but I could not talk to her because of the tubes. There still was nothing done with my right leg. Out in the ward, after about ten days, the doctor told me that I could lose the right leg due to all the dirt in around the muscle and bones. He assured me that everything would be done to try save the leg, three years after the accident, a little blister came on the side of the leg and when it broke a small piece of straw came out. I was lucky they cleaned it well that evening, and I still have my right leg today.
The next operation did not go so well, this was to take muscle from my thigh and plant it down around my shin to cover the exposed bone on the right leg. The evening of the accident I lost skin and mussel down to the bone, it started just below the knee and finished just above my toes. The flap started to fill with blood, it was decided not to bring me back for an operation that evening, instead the consultants decided to put leaches on the leg. A young nurse was to put a leach on and take it off twenty-minutes later, and another one put in its place for another twenty-minutes. This was repeated throughout the night. I just fell asleep as I could not feel anything.