Father/Son Producers Overcome Injuries to Continue to Farm

Tim and Blane Sturgeon, successful father-son dairy producers from Lawrence County, PA, understand the challenges of farming with serious health conditions.
Father/Son Producers Overcome Injuries to Continue to Farm - Articles

Tim's son Blane was only 18 on December 18, 2000, when a skid steer incident nearly killed him. Technically, he did die - twice that day - but today his mischievous eyes and warm smile attest to a full and rewarding life.

"It was a cold and miserable December day," relates Tim. "Blane was feeding cows when he realized the foot pedals on the 18-day-old skid loader were frozen with silage and ice from an overnight rain and ice storm. Blane raised the bucket and engaged the safety switch, then climbed out of the machine and tried to free the pedals. The bucket suddenly released, crushing him across the chest and shoulders. Blane sounded the horn and I came running; I also yelled to his brothers Thad and Wade to quit milking and to come help. As I sat holding Blane's head, I saw the life seeping from him as he gasped for air."

Talking with Tim, it's obvious that those horrible moments remain indelibly imprinted in his mind. When they were finally able to get the bucket to move by pouring hot water on the pedals to melt the debris, Blane had already been without air for several minutes. Blane's older brother Thad administered CPR thru instructions provided over the phone with the 911 center. When EMT professionals arrived, they took over until a second group of emergency personnel came who were specially trained to care for entrapment and trauma injuries. This was fortunate, as Blane's heart stopped while they waited in the ambulance for a helicopter to arrive. He stopped breathing again while in the air, where it was necessary to bring him back to life for the second time.

"I was in a coma for 3 ½ days," explains Blane, "and I remember little of the accident or the first days in the hospital. One lung was fully collapsed, the other partially collapsed, and my heart was bruised. My chest cavity was completely crushed, and I sustained injuries to my shoulder. Today, I still can't put my hands above my head for any length of time, and it's affected my fine motor dexterity. There's a bulging disk in my back that bothers me quite a bit; and I also don't have the lung capacity I once had. I was in the best shape of my life that fall, since I had played football for our high school team. I weighed 220 pounds, and was pretty fast and lean. When I left the hospital, my weight had dropped to 165 pounds. I've come a long way in my healing, but there is still a ways to go."

Tim has faced his own physical challenges, though not quite as dramatically as his son. In November of 2003, Tim was hit hard on his left leg by a cow. His knee was swollen and painful, and an MRI one month later revealed a growth the size of a grain of rice. When the pain wasn't resolved, he underwent surgery in March.

"By then, the growth had grown considerably," explains Tim. "Unfortunately, removing it wasn't the end of the problem. I was allergic to the stitches used, and the incision became infected. It's still difficult for me to walk, especially over uneven ground. And getting on and off the tractors can be a real trial."

The Sturgeon's first became aware of AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians, a program that assists farmers and farm family members who are coping with an injury or long term health condition, when County Extension Educator Bill Chess suggested that they learn how the project might help. Staff members from project partners Penn State Extension and Easter Seals Central Pennsylvania visited the men at their farm to learn what tasks had become most difficult, and/or posed the most risk for secondary injury.

"We were confident that there were a number of modifications that could make a big difference for Tim and Blane," explains Linda Fetzer, PA's Project Assistant. "After completing a prioritized list of proposed modifications, and identifying the most appropriate adaptations and suppliers for those changes, the information was provided to PA Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Sturgeons were already working with OVR and this state agency has been invaluable when working with individuals involved in production agriculture. OVR is part of the state's Department of Labor and Industry and receives both state and federal funds."

Today, improved steps have been added to three of the farm's tractors, allowing Tim to access the cabs with greater ease and less stress on the knee as he works the nearly 500 acres farmed by the father and sons. Additionally, automatic hitching systems made all the difference this fall. Responsible for 95% of the corn chopping on the farm, Tim figures he is on and off the tractor at least 80 times in one day. With the hitches, that number was reduced to single digits.

Comfort mats have been added to the milking parlor, where the Sturgeons milk 100 Holsteins with a herd average of nearly 25,000 pounds. Outside, a Kubota RTV-900 utility vehicle helps Tim traverse the farm without fear of tripping on uneven ground. Air suspension seats have been placed on two of the farm tractors, so Blane's back no longer takes the beating it once did during a day in the fields. He is also looking forward to the feed bin and conveyor system that is being installed - shoveling 3000 pounds of feed a day has placed significant strain on his already damaged shoulders and back.

"I really feel the difference at night," notes Tim. "While I'm often still tired, I'm no longer exhausted from the pain and stress on my leg. And I know the modifications have made a big difference for Blane, as well. I love farming with my boys, and we work well together and enjoy what we do because we've each found our niche within the farm. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else, and I'm grateful to AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians and OVR for making it possible for me to remain working for many years to come."

AgrAbility for Pennsylvanians helps individuals who are coping with many different kinds of physical challenges, including arthritis, stroke, knee and back problems, amputations, vision and hearing disabilities, and many others.