Thirty years later, tractor rollover survivor still thankful

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Nick Wagner and family
Nick Wagner, along with his daugther, Jeri, and granddaughter, Nollie.

ATTICA, Ohio — Walking across a pasture on his Seneca County beef farm, Nick Wagner can point to the things that define his legacy of the last 30 years.

There’s the herd of 60 registered Angus mother cows that he continues to breed and improve. And there’s the soil itself, which even in the worst places has a good 8 inches of topsoil, a result of rotational grazing and pasture management.

And, of course, nothing tops his family, which includes his wife, Darlene; a daughter, Jeri Starlin; a son, Casey Wagner; and a granddaughter, Nollie, who is only eight months old.

And yet all of this was on the line 30 years ago, when Nick experienced a tractor rollover accident that nearly took his life.

Looking back

It was a nice spring day in April of 1988 and a young Nick, just 22, had finished planting some sugar beets at his grandfather’s farm near Fremont, and was heading east to plant some corn on his father’s farm.

He was driving a Farmall 560, wide front, in road gear and wide open on U.S. Route 6, when he came upon a construction zone. He had a long string of cars behind him, and not wanting to hold them up, he kept moving, going around the construction signs and trying to stay in his lane.

But there was one more construction sign he needed to go around, and when he did, he saw that someone was trying to pass him on the left, so he swerved right, only to be faced with a steep ditch that caused him to swerve back left. The force sent the tractor and corn planter tumbling on the pavement, for three-quarters of a complete turn.

Road rash

Although the tractor and planter stayed on the road as it rolled — Nick’s body skid across the road.

He didn’t have time to think of his injuries, or even to be afraid.

“I laid on the ground, underneath the tractor, and I’m just literally soaked in diesel fuel. The tractor is running wide open above me and I’m scared to death that it’s going to catch on fire.”

Unable to feel his legs and unable to move them, he used his arms and elbows to drag himself to safety.

Nick had broken his pelvis in three places and had traumatized his spine, although none of his vertebrate were broken.

Luckily, the tractor never caught fire, even though bystanders were unable to figure out how to shut it off. And luckily, or maybe it was more than luck — Nick was kept alive and transported to a hospital, where the doctors told him it was a miracle he was still alive.

Regaining his senses

A few days in the hospital and he had regained the feeling in one leg enough to wiggle some toes. A few days later and he could wiggle toes on the other foot. It was a big relief to feel things start to come back, and to think that his paralysis might only be temporary.

“I pushed myself, and things slowly started coming back,” he said.

But his recovery was slow, and he spent most of the rest of planting season in the hospital, uncertain about his future.

“I laid in the hospital and all I could think of was I ought to be home planting corn — not stuck in this damned hospital bed,” he said.

Nick and topsoil
Nick with some of the topsoil he has built up over the years, by grazing.

Being laid up gave Nick time to think about what had happened. What if he had done this thing or that, what if he had ignored the traffic and went slower.

He also wondered if he had put the dual wheels on the tractor that spring, like he would have done most springs, whether that would have made a difference. But his grandpa, Nick Jr., cautioned him that having the duals on could have made the accident even worse.

“‘You lived through it.’” Nick remembered his grandfather saying. “‘Perhaps if you had the duals on it, you would have been thrown from the tractor and killed.’”

Lessons learned

The one thing Nick feels could have made a difference is if he had gone slower, and if he had ignored the traffic that was piling up behind him.

“Here I was trying to hurry up and get off of the road and, at least in this instance, none of those folks gained time,” he said. “It ruined a bunch of people’s days.”

Nick still struggles with hip pain, even 30 years later. He said he can pretty much do anything he wants to, but if he pushes himself too hard, he’ll pay for it the following day. He said his overall strength is about half of what it was before the accident.

After the accident, he spent one summer doing physical therapy, trying to reduce the swelling in his hip, and even though it decreased dramatically, the swelling and pain never completely went away.

He said the pain is noticeably worse each year, and he expects some day he’ll have to seek medical care again.

But his mental strength and determination have carried him far.

“A lot of people deal with pain,” he said. “A lot of people live with injuries and a lot of them with worse than mine. It’s just something I have to live with, that’s all.”

Second chance

Considering everything that happened, and what could have happened, Nick is just thankful he got a second chance 30 years ago. He said it caused him to live life with a greater sense of purpose, and to value his marriage and family.

The accident also caused him to value what he’s leaving behind, whether it’s the measurable buildup of organic matter in his soils — or something bigger — like seeing the family grow.

“I’m still getting used to being called a grandpa,” Nick said.

“It’s a legacy thing,” he said. “You try to leave things better than you found them.”

Farm safety advice:

Although Nick is not a farm safety expert, at least not in the academic sense, he does offer some practical advice for other farmers:

  • If you can, slow down and take your time. Injuries are more likely to happen when you rush, and if you get hurt, it will cost far more time and money than you might have saved.
  • Even when you’re young and healthy, remember that you’re not invincible. You might have good reflexes and a sharp mind — but mechanical parts still operate faster than you do, and faster than you can react.
  • If a project isn’t going well, like when you’re working with livestock, stop and give the animals and yourself a break. Nothing good happens when you get mad. Giving things a break and returning to the project later may be your best bet.
  • Install tractor rollover protection. Although Nick’s older tractors still do not have rollover protection, his newer one does, and he keeps the older ones off the road as much as possible.
  • Remember that on the farm, there are many ways to get hurt. Farm safety should always be on your mind. Think about what you’re doing, and make sure you’re doing it the safe way.

 

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