Six-year-old Kyle Daugherty could think of nothing else he’d rather do that Friday after Thanksgiving.
He didn’t have school and his favorite uncle, Scott Mast, didn’t have to work at the sheriff’s department. A day all to themselves, a little male bonding while they harvested corn at the family farm in Coshocton County, Ohio.
When those two got together, it was like they were both kids. Teasing each other, making jokes and always finding an excuse to work side-by-side.
“There’s a lot to get done,” Kyle impatiently told his parents that chilly morning in 2004. “When’s Uncle Scott going to get here?”
His uncle didn’t let him down. By 11 a.m., they were working hard at a rental farm a couple miles away, unloading grain carts of high-moisture corn.
With wet corn, it sometimes sticks inside the cart. A rapidly rotating auger beneath the wagon feeds the corn into a nearby grain truck or bin. But because the corn was sticking and not falling down into the auger, Scott climbed inside to push it down.
As sometimes happens, the corn formed what is called a “bridge” inside the cart. This means the top layer of corn formed a crusty shell, and when all the corn under it was sucked down into the auger, it left a hollow space.
When Kyle stepped on that shell, the corn gave way and before he could even breathe, he dropped into the auger. His tiny right foot fell between the safety bars and into the deadly spinning metal rod.
As Scott barreled down the road in his Explorer to meet the ambulance he’d called on his cell phone, he kept rubbing Kyle’s belly, telling his little buddy he’d be OK. He didn’t believe it, but he said it over and over anyway.
Kyle sat next to him, not even crying. His jeans were tied around his leg as a tourniquet, right above the loose tendons and hanging skin. Blood saturated everything.
While they flew down the dirt road, his uncle called a family friend and told her to go to the high school and get Kyle’s parents, Bill and Caroline, where they were coaching the girls’ basketball team.
Just get them to the hospital quick enough to see Kyle before he dies, he thought.
Bill and Caroline ran out of the gym in a panic. They didn’t know anything. Just that there was an accident and it was Kyle.
When they got to the hospital, a nurse asked them to follow her and wait for the doctor. She led them into the chapel. This means he’s dead, right? Caroline thought. Why else would they lead us into the chapel?
They dropped to their knees and began praying.
But then a doctor came in, told them to get up and said Kyle was stable but needed life-flighted to Akron Children’s Hospital.
Uncle Scott had thought to turn off the auger, in case the part of his leg that was ripped away could be reattached, but it could not.
That first night at the Akron hospital, Kyle lay in bed, his stump swaddled in bandages. He asked his mom if it would grow back. She hugged him. He still didn’t cry.
His mom told him he’d have a bionic leg and Kyle thought that was pretty cool.
He spent two months using a wheelchair, going up and down the new ramps at home and at school, but by his seventh birthday Jan. 20, he was ready to move on.
He was fitted for a prosthetic leg that attached to his knee, and by mid-February he was back to walking through the hallways at school.
Farm accidents alter a family’s life.
While the victim handles the physical limitations and emotions of a life forever changed, other people in the family also face profound struggles. There’s the guilt, blame, grief, pity, anger. Some people experience only some of them, others are tormented by all.
The only thing that is sure, is everyone copes differently.
It took awhile for Caroline to let herself actually comprehend what had happened.
Those first days she stayed with Kyle around-the-clock. And when he got home, she threw herself into helping him recover.
When he got his prosthesis, her family teased her about being Macho Mom. But she didn’t care. She challenged Kyle to use his leg, to push himself through the pain, to keep pedaling his bike even when his face turned red.
Being so tough probably hurt her more than him, but she knew he could lead a normal life if he persevered.
“I felt bad enough for him,” she said. “I didn’t want him feeling bad for himself, too.”
When she finally realized Kyle would be OK, she was hit by the enormity of what her family had gone through and how she’d almost lost her son. Months had gone by but the pain was as fresh as ever.
Over time she learned to rely more on God. He’d watched over them and taken care of Kyle so far, he’d continue to be there for them.
Maybe there’s a reason for this, she thinks today. Maybe God has a higher calling for Kyle.
On the way to the hospital that day, not knowing what had happened to his son, Bill’s biggest fear was he would never hold Kyle again.
He finds more time for stuff like that now, appreciates it a little more.
“Now it’s easy to walk out the door and put your arm around them and squeeze a little harder,” he said, nodding also at his three daughters, Andi, Kari and Kristin.
A fire this summer destroyed one of their barns, two combines and the hay. Bill fought the fire, trying to hold it back from the house and another barn, for 20 minutes before the fire department arrived.
The damage was devastating, but Bill brushes it off.
Everything is minor compared to what happened to Kyle. All of that was replaceable.
Bill and Caroline tell Scott they’re thankful he was the one with Kyle. Scott’s been a deputy sheriff for almost 13 years; he knows how to handle emergencies, they say.
But Scott doesn’t look at it that way. He thinks he should’ve watched Kyle closer, he should’ve done something differently, he should’ve protected him.
Kyle was 6. At some point, he will barely remember what life was like with two legs. And Scott blames himself. He remembers every detail about that day, and knows he always will, but he can’t talk about it much. No matter how supportive his family is, the guilt will never end.
It hasn’t hurt his relationship with his nephew, though.
Instead of being a reminder, spending time with Kyle is a comfort. To see him so vibrant and alive and sitting next to him as they haul corn to Gerber’s Feed and sneak a quick breakfast, reassures Uncle Scott.
“We’ve been to hell and back together,” he said. “Just that quick, he was almost lost forever.”
Kyle’s in second grade this year and he might be doing better than anyone.
He still feeds calves with his sister Andi and he’s learning to milk, too. He still runs — actually runs — out to the barn after school. He still wants to be a farmer when he grows up. And he’s more anxious than ever to spend the day with his Uncle Scott.
He wore shorts all summer, rarely bashful about showing off his bionic leg. He’s especially proud the prosthesis is covered in John Deere tractors, which happens to be the same print as Uncle Scott’s wallpaper.
Kids sometimes stare when they see it. He gets a little self-conscious then and wishes they’d just come ask him if they’re curious. He doesn’t mind talking about it. In fact, he’s planning to go talk with one of his grandma’s friends who is facing an amputation.
Sometimes he puts his foot on backward because he can kick the soccer ball farther that way. And once he and his Uncle Scott were at a restaurant throwing peanut shells at each other and when Kyle got up, he slipped. “Oww,” he yelled and unhitched his prosthetic quick to stop the pain … and it fell in front of the waitress who just about had a heart attack when she saw his “leg” fall off. He thinks that’s pretty funny.
Bill and Caroline talk a lot about farm safety to Kyle and his sisters.
They emphasize how important it is to work where an adult can see them. In case they have to shout for help.
And they talk about what a good idea it is for employees to have cell phones, like Uncle Scott did that day. They talk about recognizing limitations and they talk about making it clear what children can and cannot do.
But even with all these talks, accidents happen. Children still get too close to a bull, climb too high in the hayloft, turn the key in the tractor’s ignition … or climb over the edge of the grain cart.
You just have to be ready, Bill says. At every turn, you have to be on guard and ready to reach out and save a child. Just like Uncle Scott did with Kyle.