CLARKS MILLS, Pa. — Living life with one hand is different, not harder.
That’s what Julie Prentice has learned after losing the lower part of her right arm in a farm accident 20 years ago when she was 13.
She can do almost anything a person with two hands does.
“I’ll probably never drive a stick shift,” she said. “I’m probably better off just leaving that one.”
Now, at 34, Prentice is a mother, a business owner, a public speaker and an enthusiastic volunteer. She can often be found shuttling her two younger children from activity to activity.
“Sometimes people get all wide-eyed. It’s not that fascinating. It’s just me,” she said.
The weather was strange Jan. 23, 1999, when the family was doing evening chores on the dairy farm in Mercer County, said Sherry Fritz, Prentice’s mother.
It had warmed up enough to turn everything into mud, and freezing rain was falling.
Usually her older brother would bring silage into the barn to feed the cows, but he was at a wrestling tournament, Fritz said. So that was Prentice’s job that night. Her parents were milking. Her younger brother was taking care of the calves.
Prentice would reach up from the ground between the tractor and the silage wagon to hit the lever, to turn on the power takeoff shaft that fed the silage out of the wagon to a waiting wheelbarrow.
When the wheelbarrow filled up, she hit the lever again to turn it off — something she’d done before, without issue.
The PTO shaft had a cover over it, but the cover had frozen in the rain and was spinning with the PTO.
“It had caught a hold of my shirt,” Prentice said. “The second I felt that tug, it had pulled me over and slammed me off the wagon tongue.”
When she came to rest on the other side of the wagon, her right hand and wrist below the elbow were gone, as were most of her clothes except one boot. The PTO had ripped them all off.
Her father was the first one to come out of the barn after Prentice started screaming.
“It should’ve never happened,” Fritz said. “But it did … You knew in your gut what happened the minute she screamed.”
Her dad took her in the house, while her mother called 911 from the landline in the barn. Her father washed out the wound and wrapped the stump tight with a towel to stem the bleeding.
They put the arm on ice in a garbage bag.
Prentice was flown by medical helicopter to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and immediately went into surgery to reattach the arm. Two days after the surgery, however, they realized the area had become infected.
Fritz recalled the impossible choice — they could take her daughter’s arm back off or leave it on and battle the infection that could possibly kill her. The choice was obvious. Doctors took the arm off again, this time for good.
Clearing up the infection and beginning physical therapy to learn how to use her left hand was the main focus of the next several weeks.
“It’s terrifying to see your kid go through that, but she’s that one in a million,” Fritz said. “She made me see that you can have a real tragedy, lose pieces and parts, and you can pick yourself up and still have a life. Don’t let that stop you.”
Prentice was right-handed, so she had to learn how to do everything with her left hand.
She suffered a setback after her left arm went numb during one of the last surgeries before she went home. The awkward position Prentice was put in during surgery pinched a nerve just below her collarbone.
Not only did she have to work to regain feeling in the arm, but also to learn how to use her left hand.
By the summer, Prentice was back to working on the farm. She even helped unload silage again, albeit with her on the tractor working the levers and one of her brothers on the ground near the PTO.
Life on the farm had not stopped while she was in the hospital.
“When you’re growing up on a farm, you’re taught that the work still needs to be done,” Prentice said. “But it does make you more careful. I take a lot of unnecessary precautions now, because I see things and think ‘this could happen.’”
Being a 13-year-old girl with a physical difference was tough.
“As if the awkward teenage years weren’t bad enough,” Prentice said, with a laugh.
She rarely uses one now, but having a prosthetic arm was important to her when she was younger.
“I was a teenager. I was not going anywhere without an arm,” she said.
Prentice started with a cable arm. It had a strap that ran around the back of her neck and around her other shoulder that used tension on the cable to control the prosthetic.
Then, she got a myoelectric prosthetic that fit snugly on her stump. It used sensors to detect movement from muscles on the residual limb. The sensors then directed a motor in the prosthetic to open or close the hand.
After a while, though, she began to feel comfortable enough to go without her prosthetic, thanks in part to friends who made her feel at ease, Prentice said.
The only time she’s used her prosthetic recently was when she worked as a waitress several years ago. Prentice used the prosthetic to help her balance heavy trays of food and drinks.
Otherwise, she found the prosthetic just gets in the way.
“I figured out how to do what everyone else does with just one hand,” she said.
Parenting with one hand presented some unique challenges.
Prentice and her husband, Michael, have two children together — Gina, 10, and Daniel, 8 — and Michael has a son from a previous relationship, Joe, 18.
The most difficult thing to do is put a diaper on a toddler, Prentice said. She likened it to calf roping.
Prentice helps out with Gina’s Girl Scout troop and Daniel’s Trail Life troop. She coached soccer when Gina’s team needed leaders.
She also volunteers at their church and in the community whenever it’s needed.
“I tell her ‘you’ve got one hand and it’s always in the air when they ask for volunteers,’” Fritz said.
Prentice went to vo-tech in high school to learn how to paint cars and do body work, and later worked in a friend’s body shop. That’s where she met her husband, Michael, who was also friends with the shop owner.
“We got along really well,” he said. “It was natural.”
At first, Michael was unsure about the age gap between them. He’s nine years older than Julie. But their mutual friend encouraged him to go for it.
Their first “date” was going to the demolition derby at the Stoneboro Fair with a group of friends. They got married in 2005.
His wife is caring, compassionate and hard-working, he said, but added that God is the glue that’s held them together through the years, especially in rough patches.
Michael didn’t grow up in farming like Julie did, but he had a dream of running a dairy farm. They worked other jobs and saved up to make his dream come true. They started milking cows in April 2012. Nine months later, they had to give it up. Financially, it wasn’t working.
“I’ve been through rough times losing the cows,” Michael said. “I could call her and ask her to pray for me, and I could feel the difference.”
Now, the couple operates M and J Disposal Co., a residential waste disposal business. They’ve had the business for four years. Michael drives the trucks and Julie handles the paperwork.
“She’s really a blessing,” he said. “The longer we’re married, the better it is.”
After the accident, dozens of people sent cards, letters and other well-wishes to Prentice. She organized them in two large scrapbooks that she still has in her house.
The notes came not only from friends and family, but from strangers who’d been in similar situations.
That’s why Prentice wants to share her story with others, as she has done many times throughout the years, to a variety of groups. Maybe she can help someone — just like others helped her after her accident.
“This is not the worst thing that can happen,” she said. “You can grow from this.”
Telling her story now that she is a parent bothers her a little more. She can see the incident through her mother’s eyes.
People often tell her that she’s an inspiration. But Prentice is just doing what she has to.
“People say ‘I could never do what you did,’” Prentice said. “But you could. If you had to, you could.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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