Slow down: Impatience nearly costs Jason McKee his life
By Lisa B. Pot
“The day started out like any other day.” This is how Kristy McKee starts the story that would end with two frightened children, her husband airlifted to London and herself sidelined from an accident that severely damaged Jason (Chunk) McKee’s right shin and forced him to give up dairy farming.
It was a busy year, busy month, busy day when the accident happened on September 29, 2012. Chunk was working long hours trying to finish the harvest, his dad was due for surgery the next week, and Kristy was swamped helping in the barn, feeding the men, and keeping three children under the age of five happy.
“Being a farmer, the boys hadn’t seen Chunk a lot. He came into the house and the boys wanted to hang out with their dad,” remembers Kristy. “He was happy to take them so I kept the one-year-old and he took the three and five-year-old into the tractor. I headed out to Owen Sound to get coffee and donuts.”
While driving to town, she saw fire trucks flying by. Her cell phone rang. No one answered. Then an ambulance whipped by. Her phone rang again. It was the farm hand. “There’s been an accident”, he said.
Kristy thought it was one of the boys but the farm hand said, “No, it’s Chunk. He’s caught in the harvestor.”
Thinking fast, Kristy told him she’d meet them at the Owen Sound hospital but the farm hand said: “He won’t be going to Owen Sound, he’ll be flying somewhere.”
Kristy wheeled her vehicle around and followed another fire truck back to their dairy farm near Keady. She found a safe place for her one-year-old then attempted to walk to the field. A volunteer tried to hold her back.
“To hell with that,” she told the volunteer. However, reason set in and she accepted the advice of multiple volunteers who advised her not to view the scene.
“I never saw the accident. But my three and five year old sons heard and saw what went on.”
At this point in their presentation to farmers at the Grey-Bruce Farmer’s Week, Chunk took over the story to share his experience getting caught in a corn harvestor.
“There was a lot of down corn in the field and I was stressed out trying to get everything done in a short period of time,” remembers Chunk.
The harvestor kept plugging up and the reverse option on it was broken. Leaving his boys in the tractor, Chunk jumped out and decided to physically loosen the plug by kicking the corn into the head.
The machine was still running.
“I kicked at it once. That didn’t work, so I kicked it in again,” says Chunk. “This time the gathering chains pulled my boot in and the feed rolls chewed a good chunk of my shin out.”
He wasn’t far from the knives when his other leg got pulled into the gathering chains. Any further and Chunk wouldn’t be alive to tell his story. Thankfully, the slip-clutch blew, stopping the head.
It all happened in less than 10 seconds but in that time, Chunk said his thoughts were as clear as day.
“I thought this is it.” He believed he was going right through the machine. “What will happen to the kids? What will happen to the farm? My thoughts were as clear as if I was sitting down and writing them all out.”
His boys saw it all. Chunk remembered thinking he didn’t want them to see the pieces of flesh from his leg on the feed rollers. He scooped them up with his hand and tossed them into the field.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling of having my own flesh in my hand.”
Luckily, both Chunk’s father and a farm hand were in the field with wagons and heard him screaming and hollering. They immediately called 911 and waited, unsure how to get Chunk out of the corn head.
The firefighters didn’t know either.
“They were excellent but they didn’t have a lot of experience pulling farmers out of corn heads,” chuckles Chunk. He remained in the machine for 45 minutes while they tried using the Jaws of Life and exhausted all ideas how to get him out.
Finally, someone suggested putting a pipe wrench on the shaft and reversing the rollers to free his leg.
“They did that except they didn’t know which way to turn. They turned the wrong way. There was another yell!”
Once they turned the right way, Chuck’s leg came loose and that’s when the pain hit.
“It was pain like I have never felt in my life. It felt like my leg was going to fall off.”
Chunk says he remembers every bump on the road in the ambulance, which was rushing him to Owen Sound to meet the helicopter that would take him to London.
Once safely strapped in the helicopter, Chunk was finally injected with painkillers. Once the medication kicked in, that’s when he really started to “lose my shit”, recalls Chunk.
“It just hit so hard, what had all happened.”
He tried to gather himself but Chunk says until he arrived at the hospital and saw Kristy, he was terrified.
“When I finally saw her, I started to feel better. When I saw her I realized it didn’t matter if I lost my legs. At least I had my family.”
In the hospital, he underwent several surgeries over a week’s time to repair extensive damage to the muscles, ligaments and tendons on his right shin. Doctor’s weren’t convinced the leg could be saved because farm accidents are also dirty accidents, infecting the injury with soil and dirt. Fortunately, the surgeries were successful and while Chunk’s leg is weak, thin and severely scarred, he can walk, two years later, without a limp.
However, there have been repercussions.
Due to the lack of tendons, Chunk falls a lot. The leg just isn’t strong enough to bear his weight for long periods of time. There is only one millimetre of skin covering his shin bone so he has chronic pain, expecially in colder weather. And his leg is so thin, socks won’t stay up.
A bump to his shin will elicit an involuntary yell but strangely, his present pain centres on his foot. The nerves are so jumbled he’s had to relearn where to scratch.
“The tendon and nerve damage is so severe that I’d have an itch on the top of my foot but when I scratched there, the itch didn’t go away.” says Chunk. “It took me a few days to figure out that the itch isn’t there. It’s on my leg but I feel it on my foot. I had to learn where to scratch, essentially.”
The long recovery time, chronic pain and leg weakness forced the couple to make the decision to sell the cows and quota.
“He would never be able to do the milking with all that standing on cement,” says Kristy. They have accepted this life change although Chunk says he really misses the milk cheque! Adaptation has been easier since Chunk still raises Holstein heifers, calving them out and selling the dams fresh.
Kristy explains this wasn’t just Chunk’s accident because it affected the whole family. The little boys who witnessed their dad getting stuck in the machine needed professional counselling.
It’s a frightening subject for them still.
“They don’t want to remember it or talk about it,” says Kristy. They do, however, look at the leg a lot.
She has lingering issues about the accident as well. “I was so frustrated because nobody would give me any information. I really wanted to see him,” she says.
Later, Chunk told her he had asked the firefighters and volunteers to keep her away because he didn’t want that to be the last sight, or memory, she had of him.
It’s something none of them will ever forget. Chunk immortalized the memory on his arm, getting a tattoo of a corn harvester on his left forearm with the words ‘Not Today’, across it.
The accident changed their approach to work and family. They treasure time together more and work? Well, if something doesn’t get done today, there is always tomorrow.
“I don’t try to cram three days of work into one anymore,” says Chunk. “It used to really stress me out, not getting stuff done. Not anymore.”
Kristy is thankful her husband is alive to be a father to their three sons. “It could have been so much worse,” she sighs.
Still, it changed their life and if there’s one thing she wants other farmers to think about, it’s this: “the quickest way is not always the best way.”
Slow down. Pause. Think. “It may take longer but you will be safe and not have to deal with something like this down the road.” ◊