GROVE CITY, Pa. – Tony Nicoletto tells people they don’t want to be like him. That’s because most people like him aren’t alive.
Just over seven years ago, Nicoletto was in an accident that broke his pelvis in four places, tore his ureter, bruised his kidneys, liver and intestines, ripped his diaphragm in two places and collapsed both of his lungs.
He doesn’t like to talk about it, but he wants people to know.
He wants them to know that’s what happens when you take shortcuts. That’s what happens when you don’t think about safety.
And that’s what happens when the back wheel of an 8-ton tractor rolls over your body.
* * *
Sept. 18, 1999, was a busy day at Nicoletto’s dairy and the farmer had been pushing hard since sunup. His 18-year-old son, Robert, had just returned from the service and offered to help out by chopping corn.
Robert headed out to the field on the farm’s John Deere 4230, a 110-horsepower tractor that had been on the farm since Nicoletto bought it nearly new in the early 1970s.
The machine had two safety switches – one on the clutch and one on the transmission. The switch on the transmission had gone bad five or six years before and Nicoletto decided to bypass it.
The switch itself was inexpensive, but the repair procedure was complicated and would’ve cost $3,000-4,000. The dairy farmer didn’t want to spare the time, labor or money to fix it.
Around 4 p.m., Robert told his dad the tractor was losing oil pressure.
Out in the field, Nicoletto crawled underneath the tractor to see if he could find a leak. Sure enough, he found one and started to pull himself out.
He had one hand on the battery box and one hand on the back tire when the tractor started to move.
“When my pelvis broke, it sounded like somebody getting an ice cream cone and crushing it,” Nicoletto said.
* * *
The farmer has a hard time remembering many details after that, but over the years he’s pieced together the rest of the story.
“The last thing I remember is yelling at my son to stop the tractor,” he said. “The next thing I remember is my wife asking me if I could move my legs.”
Nicoletto has heard he was conscious at the hospital, but he doesn’t remember it.
He doesn’t remember the Life Flight from the Grove City hospital to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center or the transfusion of nearly 40 units of blood into his body during the 24 hours following the accident.
A few moments from Nicoletto’s first month in the hospital have stuck in his mind, but nothing more than a few seconds here and there.
His most vivid memories aren’t even real. The medications, topped with fever, infection and pneumonia, made the dairy farmer hallucinate for weeks. He remembers thinking the hospital hallway was a granite cave and that the X-ray technicians were wearing bathing suits and standing in knee-deep water with power cords hanging from the ceiling.
He couldn’t talk, breathe, eat, swallow or use the bathroom without help. And he couldn’t walk at all.
* * *
After five and a half weeks in UPMC’s trauma unit, Nicoletto went home. He still required around-the-clock care, but he wanted to be back on the farm.
The farm was in good hands – friends and family took care of its day-to-day operations – but Nicoletto was tired of the hospital. He wanted to be in familiar surroundings, at the farm where he grew up.
During the first week of December, Nicoletto got the OK to walk. But it wasn’t as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.
“It doesn’t take your body long to waste away when you don’t use it,” Nicoletto said.
His legs were nothing more than bones with skin hanging on them.
But using a walker, he managed to take one step the first day before becoming too exhausted to continue.
Every day he was strong enough to take a few more steps.
By January, Nicoletto could walk with the help of crutches. He started working around the farm a bit and even figured out how to use the crutches to boost himself into his skid loader.
The dairy farmer eventually learned to walk again, but it’s not the same as it was before the accident. He loses his balance easily now and his stamina has taken a hit.
“Still, even now, I have to stop in the afternoon and sit a little bit,” he said. “I run into something every day that I used to be able to do that I can’t do now.”
Nicoletto spends a lot of time in doctors’ offices and hospitals. His back often hurts and his right leg is one-fourth of an inch shorter than his left leg because his pelvis was too damaged to heal properly.
When he lifts his shirt, Nicoletto reveals a deep, t-shaped surgical scar that runs the length and width of his torso.
And he thinks about the accident every day. He said it’s hard to forget something that changes nearly every aspect of your life.
* * *
Nicoletto has gone over the accident in his mind a million times, but he’ll never know for sure what caused the tractor to move.
He thinks about what he could’ve done differently, he thinks about how he’s changed since then, he thinks about everyone affected by the accident.
“It’s not just yourself you screw up when you do this,” he said. “It’s your whole family.”
Nicoletto also thinks about money.
The tractor’s $4,000 repair bill seems like nickels and dimes next to the $743,000 bill for his initial stay at UPMC.
At the time of the accident, Nicoletto’s farm was valued at $750,000.
“In about 10 seconds I blew the worth of my farm,” he said.
Nicoletto had health insurance that helped cover costs, but he thinks more conservatively about money now. He worries about taking on debt and how long he’ll be here to take care of it.
“I’m fairly certain this accident has shortened my life span to some degree,” he said.
The 58-year-old dairyman still works on his farm full time, milking 60 cows and growing about 360 acres of corn, oats and hay. But he sees the farm in a different light now.
He doesn’t take shortcuts and he tries to make sure all the equipment is safe and running properly. He even buckles up when he gets in a tractor.
He doesn’t want to give up any more than he already has.
* * *
Talking about the accident makes Nicoletto uncomfortable, but he does it anyway. He wants people to understand what happens when you don’t think about safety.
The farmer is a regular speaker at Mercer County Farm Safety Day and he’s spoken to FFA chapters and at UPMC.
He hopes talking about it might save someone else from making the same mistake.
“I figure I’m here for a reason,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be (here).”
He tells his audiences, “If you’ve got something that needs fixed, fix it.”
If you can’t fix it yourself, get help. If you can’t get help, get out of the business.
Some things, he said, are not worth the risk.
* * *
Nicoletto never doubted he would live through the ordeal, but he admits that’s because he can’t remember those first few weeks after the accident. In reality, no one knew whether he would live or die.
It was more than a year after the accident when Nicoletto realized how serious his condition had been.
The farmer was invited to a Christmas party at UPMC and when he walked in, he noticed the room was decorated with red and white lights.
During the party, the head doctor of UPMC’s trauma unit told the crowd there was one white light for every patient treated at the facility since it opened.
The 356 red lights represented patients who shouldn’t have lived, but did. And there was one red light for each person in the room.
One red light for Tony Nicoletto.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)