An ATV accident changed this family farm forever.
How they learned to adapt.
By Betsy Freese; Photos by Caroline Freese
The Sawyer family includes (from left) Lorna, Norman, Ruben (4 days old in this picture), Neal, and Lucie.
On April 19, 2012, Neal Sawyer and his father, Norman, were checking cows and installing portable electric fence in a pasture on their farm near Princeton, Iowa. They were both riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), also known as four-wheelers. On their way back to the house, there was a stretch of high-tensile fence to go through. Instead of driving to the gate, both Neal and Norman used sticks they always carried with them to lift the thick wire and then to duck under. Neal went first – lift, duck, drive. Norman was next.
“I had done it before many times,” says Norman. This time, the wire popped off his stick and caught on the throttle of the ATV, causing the machine to go wide open, full throttle. The wire then snapped back and hit Norman in the chest, pulling him backwards off the vehicle.
The ATV went roaring ahead with no rider, startling Neal. “I saw the four-wheeler fly down the hill and tip over,” he says. He raced back and saw his father on the ground. When he asked, “Are you all right?” Norman said, “I can’t feel my legs.” Neal called 911.
An ambulance couldn’t maneuver the pasture, so a medevac helicopter was summoned, landing in the field. Norman’s breathing was unsteady. He was flown to the hospital in Rockford, Illinois.
“I could feel them cutting my clothes off, but I couldn’t move,” says Norman. “I don’t remember much after that.”
No going back
Many surgeries followed; Norman was in an induced coma on life support for almost a month. His wife of 40 years, Lorna, visited every day. With the help of friends, she commuted the two hours each way from the farm.
Neal had to run the 160-cow operation on his own.
“Through that spring and summer, I managed to feed and move the cattle, but the little projects didn’t get done,” he says. Neal’s wife, Lucie, and other family members pitched in, but the future was uncertain.
“The worst thing was knowing he wasn’t going to come buzzing over the hill on his four-wheeler ever again,” says Neal.
Norman’s recovery moved slowly. After six months, he was moved to a Veterans Affairs (VA) rehabilitation unit in Minneapolis. He was defined as quadriplegic, paralyzed from the stomach down with some use of his hands.
It was in the VA unit that Norman hit his “lowest times,” he says. He knew his life would never be the same.
A computer speech therapist helped pull him out of depression by training him to use a voice-activated speech program called Dragon. It allowed him to write emails. “That has been a real salvation for him,” says Lorna.
Back home, the family was converting the house for a wheelchair, adding a ramp and an elevator. A special bed was installed with a mattress that moves at night to relieve bedsores.
Finally on March 22, 2013, almost a year after his accident, Norman moved back to the farm where he has lived since 1950. “It’s a blessing to be home,” he says, “but the low times still come. I look out the windows and can’t be out there. I’m still trying to adjust to life in a wheelchair.”
The sweetest day of spring came on June 19, 2013, when Neal and Lucie’s first child, son Ruben, was born.
By that summer, Norman had taken a spin on the zero-turn lawn mower, mowing for 20 minutes. His next goal is to drive a utility vehicle. Twice a week he goes to outpatient rehabilitation.
Norman uses the voice-activated computer program to keep track of cows on the farm. He also uses Dragon to work on QuickBooks for farm bookkeeping.
“I do all the chores and Dad keeps track of all the data,” says Neal. “He analyzes how much hay we are buying and how fast we are moving cattle.”
When Neal sees a cow in the pasture with a new calf, he sends an email to Norman, who records it.
“Every time the cows go in a new paddock, I send that to Dad,” says Neal. “I know how long of a rest the pastures are getting.”
Both Norman and Neal say they have no hard feeling toward ATVs because of what happened.
“It was just an accident,” says Neal. “When we went to a grazing system, we bought brand-new four-wheelers. We had to have them.”
Neal has put 9,000 miles on his ATV in four years. “I use it all the time. I still go under poly wire because they will break, but I don’t go under high-tensile wire now.”
Norman agrees. “It was no different than getting bucked off a horse,” he says. “It would have taken me another minute and a half to go round through the gate. I should have gone around through the gate.
“I told Neal that’s the number one change we will make for sure,” Norman says. “Nobody will ever again sneak under high-tensile wire.”
Norman Sawyer: email@example.com
Neal Sawyer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read about Sawyer Beef at livingthecountrylife.com/SawyerBeef.
The Dragon voice-activated speech program helps Norman Sawyer write emails.
Neal shows a high-tensile fence similar to the one involved in Norman’s accident (which only had one wire, not three).