Palmer preaches farm safety after losing leg in 2008
BY DENNY SCOTT
When it comes to telling people about farm safety, there are few stories as enlightening as those from people who survived dangerous farm incidents, like East Wawanosh farmer Chris Palmer.
In May, 2008, a fraction of a second changed Palmer’s life dramatically.
“Eleven years ago I was in a farm accident that mutilated my body,” Palmer said in an e-mail to The Citizen. “It took my off-farm job, my farming career and, what seemed at the time, our future.”
At the time of the incident, Palmer had a job in Guelph, requiring him to be up at 5 a.m. to feed livestock, then be on the road by 7 a.m. He would return home around 6:30 p.m., then, after dinner, go out and do more farm work so it wouldn’t pile up for the weekend.
That all changed one fateful May evening. Palmer was washing his sprayer and, as a result of taking some short cuts, he ended up losing his leg, suffering other severe injuries, and starting a years-long rehabilitation that would see him undergo multiple medical procedures.
Palmer wanted to wash out the sprayer on the farm to prepare for future work. Normally, someone in Palmer’s position would be in the cab, using switches to clean out the sprayer, however to save time, he was pressing solenoids, putting him dangerously close to the power take-off shaft.
Palmer had 34 years of farming experience at the time and knew the dangers involved with it as well as the safety measures to take.
“Whether we want to face it or not, all of us who live and work on the farm are a heartbeat away from becoming disabled or dying,” he said. “Why? Because we take chances. We take shortcuts and we work excessive hours.”
Palmer was doing his third rinse of the sprayer when he felt a tug on his pant leg, akin to a pet rubbing up against him. In an instant, however, it became apparent that wasn’t the case.
“You know the saying ‘life is held on by a thread’?” Palmer asked in his e-mail. “Well a couple of threads from my worn-out coveralls almost took my life.”
He remembers a “whoosh”, and the next thing he remembers is sitting on the ground, propped up against his tractor opposite the PTO shaft from where he was standing without his clothes.
He had done a half-revolution around the PTO shaft, a miracle in itself as those who get pulled for a full revolution don’t often live to tell the tale. Palmer said the incident occurred so quickly, if he had been killed, he likely wouldn’t have felt anything.
Palmer began taking stock of his situation, realizing that his left leg had been torn from his body and was still spinning on the PTO shaft.
Despite that, he recalls being able to evaluate his situation, realizing his right leg was broken (later to be determined to be broken in two spots) but also verifying his head and torso were still whole.
His right arm couldn’t move, and he had broken vertebrae in his back. He was also losing blood at an alarming rate, and would lose eighty per cent of it before transfusions would begin restoring his blood levels.
Palmer knew if he stayed where he was, he would have likely passed away as a result of the blood loss and injuries and started to move away from the tractor so his father, Len, would be able to see him and render aid.
Palmer prayed for strength, and, with one hand, pulled himself away from the tractor, keeping the stump that used to be his leg up and out of the dirt to prevent infection.
Once he moved as far as he could from the tractor, he started calling for help, eventually having to stop due to a lack of energy.
At that point, Palmer says he was at peace, knowing that if he did pass, he had done everything possible to try and save his life.
That wasn’t his fate, however, as his 79-year-old (at the time) father found him. Despite suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Len made for the house, telling Palmer’s wife Donna that emergency assistance was needed. He then called 911 as she came out to check on Palmer, then returned to the house. As a trained nurse, she knew she had to stop the bleeding and keep him warm.
At that point, the shock of the injury was wearing off Palmer said, and he was in incredible pain. Soon he was in an ambulance, with every bump of the road causing fresh pain on his way to Wingham hospital. From there, an air ambulance took him to London.
After multiple medical procedures, including numerous CT scans and the resetting of his broken bones, including ribs, wrist, back, femur and vertebrae in his back, it was time to start rehabilitation.
“It was a miracle that I survived,” he said.
After four months in the hospital, Palmer was on his way to recovery thanks to his friends and family.
“Returning home after four months in the hospital was a shock,” he said. “When you’re in the hospital, surrounded by other patients and amputees, you don’t feel you’re different, but upon returning home, it hit me. I am different. Set apart, so to speak.”
Palmer said his reality hit home when he was taking off his shoes after arriving home and remembered that his foot was carbon fibre and rubber. The realization brought on a wave of sorrow.
“The only recourse, however, was to either roll over and die or put my slipper on and enter the next phase of my life,” he said.
Rehabilitation is, according to Palmer, “a battle between the ears.”
“The key to rehab is support and the love of family, friends and neighbours,” he said. “Meeting your goals means becoming normal one step at a time.”
He said his experience was that the key to persistence is to celebrate small goals, realize disappointment will set you back, and having goals like being able to dance, bike, walk and paddle a canoe, all of which Palmer has, in the past decade, surpassed.
That wasn’t the end of the suffering caused by the incident, however, as shortly after, Palmer needed his hip replaced after it failed as a result of what had happened.
He also found himself in a difficult position as his off-farm job came to an end.
Palmer said that the former was likely the most painful thing he went through: being told he couldn’t do his job was devastating.
He also points out that, while he went through dark times during his recovery, it’s important to realize that he wasn’t the only victim in the situation.
“In fact, I left a wave of collateral damage in my wake,” he said. “My spouse went through hell, not to mention the rest of my family and friends.”
Palmer said that Donna, his wife, is the strongest person he knows, having been his rock, while his father was also a powerful presence through his recovery.
Family and neighbours also stepped up when Palmer was injured and in the hospital, planting and spraying corn and soybeans that year.
“There’s nothing like great neighbours,” he said. “When I left the hospital, it was time to harvest our soybeans. I could barely walk, but I told Donna if I can get into the combine, we’re going.”
Thanks to a step ladder, and Donna and a neighbour’s help, Palmer was able to completely harvest his fields the same year he was in the hospital.
The incident and all the aftermath left Palmer wanting to make sure that no one else runs into the same situation.
His amputation and medical procedures were over a decade ago and, since then, Palmer has made it his mission to make sure his mistake of taking shortcuts isn’t repeated. He has spoken to farming groups, youth groups and at his own church about his experience. Aside from wearing clothing that got caught in the PTO shaft, he also warns about the hours farmers seem to need to work to make things work.
He said that working a second job and running the farm left him exhausted, which undoubtedly played a part in what happened.
“The excuse of needing to pull an all-nighter because it might rain the next day isn’t worth it,” he said. “Fatigue kills. You will only get away with it so long.”
He goes on to say that being fatigued is similar to intoxication, noting that senses become dulled and accidents become far more prevalent.
He also says that having a plan is important on farms, not just for emergencies, but for what will happen if a partner is disabled or killed and how the farm business will keep operating.
While Palmer doesn’t do as much public speaking as he did in the years immediately following the incident, he still feels that there is a message to share from his experience. Others talk about farm accidents, but Palmer says that incidents like his are preventable, so calling them an accident is a bit of a misnomer.
“We often categorize life, but, honestly, there are only three options: we become old men and women; we become disabled old men and women or we are a premature memory,” he said. “I don’t want you to become an accident statistic like me. Accidents are preventable. Think safety and then you will live to see another day.”