An encounter with a pothole was all it took to shake the header off Peter McKay’s combine and send both machine and driver airborne.
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but it’s a fact that accidents occur much too frequently on the farm. That point was driven home recently to Peter McKay, an Oklahoma wheat grower who learned the truth firsthand.
McKay endured two serious on-farm accidents in the brief span of two weeks earlier this year. The second one nearly ended his life.
“If you don’t think an accident can happen to you, think again,” advises McKay, who farms in Kiowa County. Each year, 551 people die while doing agricultural work in the U.S., according to the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety. Another 88,000 suffer lost-time injuries. Most of these incidents are preventable.
McKay says his first accident, on June 5, was a fluke. He had finished combining one field and was headed to a second when he hit what he describes as the only pothole in the road.
The 24' wheat header snapped off the combine and fell to the ground. Before McKay could react, the 18,000-lb. machine had climbed up the header and was sailing through the air.
“I felt like a rocket-ship pilot without a harness,” he recalls. The steering wheel was the only thing that kept him from flying through the cab window.
The combine finally came to a stop in a ditch. Its tires survived the impact, but not much else did. The rear of the main frame was broken and the axle had folded up into the shaker shoe, leaving the back of the machine a scant inch or two off the ground.
“A lot of guys may not believe this, but I know that header was secured properly before I started,” he says. “I have the pictures to prove it.”
While the machine was destroyed, McKay thought he was fine. But his legs soon turned black-and-blue from his knees to his stomach. Still, McKay shrugged off the incident and went about his business, harvesting the remainder of his crop.
A fall in the dark. Two weeks later, he rolled into a recently harvested wheat field with a tractor and sprayer to apply a burndown treatment of glyphosate. It was 3 a.m. and pitch-dark.
“Glyphosate seems to work better when we apply it in the early-morning hours, when there’s a bit of moisture and it’s cooler,” he explains.
The last thing McKay remembers about that morning is deciding to retrieve his flashlight from his truck, which was parked nearby. He stepped out of the cab and onto the first step. That’s when everything went black.
When he awoke, he was on the ground, flat on his back. He had bitten his lip, and it was bleeding. The tractor engine was still on, idling overhead. Coyotes were howling nearby.
He tried to get up, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. His legs didn’t work and neither did his hands. He began to fret.
“We’re only 60 miles from the Texas line, and we have rattlesnakes,” he says. “I wondered if there were any around, or if the coyotes would come.”
McKay didn’t realize it, but he had slipped backwards off the tractor step and hit his head on a tire lug. The impact cracked his spinal cord.
Eventually, he was able to wiggle his fingers and reached into his pocket for his phone. He called his wife, Cara. “I told her to get Adam and come to me,” McKay says, referring to his 16-year-old son, who knew where he was.
By the time they reached him, McKay was on his feet. He proceeded to spray the 160 acres of stubble and then headed home. Two days later, excruciating pain forced him to see his doctor.
After dozens of X-rays and an MRI, McKay was referred to the Oklahoma Spine Hospital in Oklahoma City. There, he was told his neck was unstable and another fall could result in permanent paralysis. Surgeons put a titanium plate in his neck to stabilize it and hold his spinal cord in place.
Today, McKay has limited sensation from his knees to his toes and no feelings of hunger or fullness. Still, he considers himself fortunate.
“I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says. “I’m still here and able to tell my story. I hope someone out there benefits from it.”
- November 2010