Lives changed forever by a split-second accident
When your workplace involves the hazards that day-to-day farm work provides, your life can be ended, or altered forever, in a split second.
For Susan and Larry Galbraith of Tara, former cow/calf farm operators, that split second occurred on July 22, 2008.
That day “marked the beginning of a nightmare that has basically represented no chance of us ever waking up from,” Susan told an audience attending the Beef Day at Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week in Elmwood in January.
“I went to work that day only to come home and find my spouse trapped on the tractor and critically injured, fighting for his life.”
In an emotional plea for farmers to work safely that moved some in the audience to tears, she recalled that Larry had been moving large round bales from the front field when one of them rolled down the arms of the loader and over him. He was crushed down into a nine-inch-wide spot between the steering column and the base of the seat.
Emergency crews extricated him and he was taken to Owen Sound hospital before being airlifted to London where the full extent of his injuries became known. The doctors catalogued the damage for the anxious family: second and third-degree burns to his chest; a fractured sternum; nine broken ribs; a punctured and collapsed right lung; lacerated spleen with internal bleeding; fractured T11-12 vertebrae; fractured C6-7 vertebrae; severe c-spine dislocation that would first have to be realigned before surgery could take place to stabilize his broken neck.
That latter injury would require a three-day wait with 35 pounds of weight attached to a halo screwed into his skull before surgery could be done. Then there was six hours of surgery to repair his neck.
The good news from doctors was that Larry was very lucky to be alive because most people with this kind of injuries don’t live more than a half-hour from the time of the accident.
The bad news was that he would never walk again.
“Accidents like Larry’s never have good outcomes,” Susan told the audience. “We have discovered there are only bad outcomes, and worst-case scenarios where the victim simply dies. This has simply opened a whole new world of misery for us to endure. The combination of events on that day have meant that we are in a world where we are now farm statistics and poster children for what farm accidents do to the victims and their families.
“The accident now consumes every part of our lives. All the things we took for granted before are gone.”
After his surgery Larry went to London’s Parkwood Rehabilitation Hospital for therapy. He entered the hospital with high hopes he would have some recovery of use in either his arms or his legs. As time went by that hope has slowly slipped away.
“We have given up hopes to retire any place exotic, to spend time with our grandchildren or take up hobbies,” Susan explained.
The side effects of the stress this kind of accident puts on people is that often couples can’t deal with it and many marriages end in divorce. Not the Galbraiths.
“Larry and I decided early on while still in the trauma unit at Victoria Hospital to renew our vows and accept whatever was coming,” Susan said. “His fragile condition is always at the forefront of any decisions we now make together. We know that because of his injury his lifespan has been shortened greatly. This has been something that has been hard for our kids and his mother to accept.”
There have been huge financial ramifications for the family. Before he could come home from Parkwood there was a long list of alterations that had to be made to the house, and equipment that had to be purchased. The house had to be made wheelchair accessible which required a ramp, wider doors and different flooring. They needed a ceiling lift, a hospital bed with a specialized air mattress. They needed an electric wheel chair and a disability van to allow that chair to go on board so Larry could be driven from place to place.
And he required 24-hour-a-day care, because he had no movement from his chest downward.
Susan describes the cost as astronomical. An electric wheel chair costs $21,000. Disability vans start at $75,000. The ceiling lift, $5,000; the bed and mattress, $6,000.
As she looked into buying this equipment necessary to get Larry home, Susan discovered there wasn’t much funding available because she was working.
The accident left Larry with lung problems and breathing issues due to recurrent pneumonia so he requires medications, some of which cost as much as $3,300 a month. In this case, working helped because her drug plan picked up the cost, but she wonders what happens for those who don’t have that coverage.
There were also no programs that helped pay for the required 24-hour care. Susan hired two people who come in to look after Larry while she’s not present. They’ve been trained to do all the procedures that need to be carried out: catheterizations five times a day, administering inhaled medications, and, more recently, suctioning via tracheostomy.
All of Susan’s paycheque from the South Bruce Grey Health Centre in Chesley goes to pay for this additional help. They end up living on Larry’s disability pension.
The accident devastated their farming operation and all the hard work they had plowed into the farm for years went down the drain.
“We reluctantly sold all the cattle and rented the farm land out to a neighbour,” Susan explained. “This broke both our hearts but logically it was going to be too much time away from the house (for me to do the chores) and Larry cannot be left alone. When the cattle left, I cried — but everything makes me cry now.”
Susan said she was willing to relive the horrors of what had happened to her family by speaking to the audience to remind farmers and their families they must be constantly vigilant when working around machinery. Even if they are normally safety-oriented it takes only seconds for disaster to strike — and then it’s too late.
“No one should have to stumble through this maze like I did, and the saddest part is that I can’t change anything, and I live with huge guilt all the time because I asked my husband to do one seemingly simple job that anyone who farms does anyway,” she said. “Believe me when I say it can happen to you, and when it does your whole world will never be the same.
“I know I will be a widow long before I need to be, but if I can stop it from happening to someone else, then it will be worth it to have stood here and told you my story.”◊
A reader remembers a narrow escape
As I read the story of the terrible tragedy that happened to the family of Susan and Larry Galbraith, on July 22, 2008 (Lives Changed Forever, March 2010 issue), I was reminded, once again, of how lucky I was with my first experience with big round bales.
Forty years ago, I was storing big round bales of straw on the threshing floor of our other barn. I was all alone, as Larry had been. Using a homemade, double-tined fork that was too big to spear the bales, I was lifting the bales by sliding the fork under the bale. As I was trying to place the last bale on the very top of the pile, I realized that the bale was teetering back and forth on top of the forks, 15 feet over my head, and I could hear it saying, “I’m going to get you, you dumb SOB.”
I very carefully lowered the bale to the ground and swore that I would never ever lift another big round bale that was not secured by two spears pushed into the bale. A couple hundred dollars for two spears is really cheap insurance to prevent the possibility of a bale rolling down the loader arms.◊
– Murray Johnson, RR 2, Kincardine, ON