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Grief and Guilt

Grief and Guilt

SGT. 1ST CLASS LLOYD SMITH
Headquarters and Headquarters Company
Army Cyber Command
Fort Belvoir, Virginia

Author’s note: What started off as a great day took a horrifying turn that will have a lifelong effect on my family. I hope sharing our story will help prevent others from ever having to deal with a similar heartbreaking accident.

It was a Monday in late June and I had been lucky enough to get released from duty a little early. I decided to surprise my family by picking up some burgers and hot dogs and grilling out for dinner. Due to the distance of my commute, along with the traffic around Washington, I normally got home about 7 p.m. By then, dinner was usually over and my 2-year-old son, Liam, would be winding down before his bath and bed. Today, however, I would be home and grilling by 5 p.m.

It was a beautiful evening, so we ate dinner on the back deck. We rarely got to do this on a weekday and were enjoying every minute of it. I even got a chance to play with Liam in his sandbox and throw the ball with the dogs.

It was still daylight when we finished playing, so I figured I should take advantage of the nice weather and mow my backyard. As I brought out my riding lawn mower, Liam ran to me and asked for a ride. I’d always let him sit on my leg and pretend to drive as I mowed. Sometimes, he’d even fall asleep on my lap before we’d finish.

(I know many of you are screaming, "No! You should never let a child ride on a lawnmower!" My wife and I, however, were both raised in areas where it was common for even a young child to ride along on a mower, tractor or all-terrain vehicle, so we didn't see anything wrong with it.)

I picked up Liam, put him on my lap and started mowing my half-acre backyard. While we were mowing, my wife grabbed the weed trimmer and started cleaning up the grass along the fence line. After two passes along the perimeter of the yard, Liam decided he wanted to get off the mower and go to his mother, so I disengaged the blade and put him down. He ran over toward my wife and got in his sandbox to play. Seeing he was now safely out of the way, I engaged the blades and went back to cutting. While I was making another pass along the perimeter, I watched Liam grab his bubble mower and start pushing it over some areas I’d mowed on the other side of the yard. We both continued mowing until my grass chute clogged.

I turned off the mower, cleared the clog, reconnected the chute to the bagger and started mowing again. I’d ridden about 10 feet when I looked back and noticed the grass was clumping as if the chute was still clogged. Knowing I had cleared the chute all the way to the bagger, I figured the cutting deck must have clumped grass stuck to it. I turned off the blades again and quickly raised and lowered the deck, almost slamming it on the ground, to break up the clumps. After I did this about five or six times, I engaged the blades again and put the mower in reverse. (My mower has a safety feature that disengages the blades when it is in reverse. While this is a great feature, it can be bypassed. I’d always done this because it made cutting my grass a little easier.)

As I rode backward, the mower stopped moving. This had happened before when I'd run over some wet grass clumps, so I didn’t think anything of it. When I pushed the gas pedal a little more, I heard a sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life — my beautiful boy was screaming like nothing I had ever heard. I looked back and saw his leg up to the knee was now under the cutting deck. I instantly disengaged the blades and got the mower off of him. My wife screamed as she ran to us. All the while, Liam was crying out, "Why daddy hurt Liam?"

My wife and I are both Soldiers with multiple deployments, so our hysteria lasted only seconds before we quickly transitioned to triage mode. We wrapped up Liam and moved him to an area that would be more easily accessible for paramedics. We then called 911 and tried to keep him calm. I'd like to say I was in complete control, but when the paramedics arrived, I broke down. My wife rode in the ambulance with Liam while I waited at home to hear which hospital Life Flight would transport him.

Over the next two weeks, Liam underwent six surgeries before we were faced with the unthinkable decision: have doctors attempt to reconstruct his severely damaged foot or amputate it at the ankle. The mower had severed tendons and broken both bones in his lower leg. Worse, he’d lost his heel, two toes and skin from his calf. By the grace of God, Liam’s pediatric orthopedic surgeon was one of the best in the country. We told him we wanted to do whatever would be best for his quality of life. In the end, we decided the best option was to amputate.

As I write this, nine weeks have passed since that terrible day. While Liam is physically healing, his psychological well-being is coming along a little more slowly. We are in the process of having him fitted with a prosthesis, but are still dealing with things no parent should have to endure. How do you even begin to explain to a 2-year-old why this accident happened? With a second child due in November, we are preparing to one day answer her questions about why her brother doesn’t have two feet or why he can take off one of his but she can’t. I never could have imagined we’d one day be dealing with something this awful.

I’m sure it’s no surprise I’m still dealing with the guilt and grief that resulted from this accident. One thing I knew I had to do, though, was share my story with others. I don’t want another parent to ever have to experience what we have. I bet most of you don't even think about lawn mower accidents and how often they occur. I can tell you they happen more frequently than you would imagine. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates about 17,000 children annually require emergency room care due to lawn mower accidents. Thousands of adults are also injured.

Lessons learned

Over the past couple of months, I have continually replayed the events of that day in mind, wishing I had done things differently. First, I would have insisted Liam stay inside the house with my wife while I cut the grass. Had he been inside, there’s no way this accident could have occurred.

Second, I shouldn’t have overridden my mower’s safety features. Manufacturers put these safeguards on equipment to help prevent accidents. Had I not bypassed the feature that disengages the blade when the mower is in reverse, Liam wouldn’t had been injured as badly, if at all.

Third, I should have held off cutting the grass until a time I didn’t feel so rushed. It had rained the previous few weekends, which had kept me from doing yard work. As a result, our grass had gotten really high. More rain was forecast for later in the week, so I wanted to get it cut while I still could. We were also scheduled to go out of town for the July Fourth weekend, which meant if I didn’t cut it before we left, it would be at least another eight to 10 days before I got another chance.

It’s difficult to say what else I could or should have done differently without getting into the self-blame game. I’ve already done that, and still do to an extent. I have flashbacks about the accident and wake up in a cold sweat every night. While writing this article was hard for me, I decided burying my head in the sand and avoiding talking about it was not the answer. Writing this was as much therapeutic for me as I hope it will be educational for all who read it.

Since the accident, Liam and I have grown extremely close. I’m no longer just the guy that is home for nights and weekends. I’m his rock — the person he looks to for love and support. He knows I would never hurt him intentionally and I hope one day he’ll understand how very sorry I am for what happened that day.

FYI

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following lawn mower injury prevention tips:

  • Only use a mower with a control that stops the mower blade from moving if the handle is let go. (Editor’s note: Never override you mower’s safety features.)
  • Children should be at least 12 years of age before operating a push lawn mower and 16 to operate a driving lawn mower.
  • Make sure sturdy shoes (not sandals or sneakers) are worn while mowing.
  • Prevent injuries from flying objects, such as stones or toys, by picking up objects from the lawn before mowing begins. Have anyone who uses a mower, or is in the vicinity, wear polycarbonate protective eyewear at all times.
  • Do not pull the mower backward or mow in reverse unless absolutely necessary; carefully look for children behind you when you mow in reverse.
  • Always turn off the mower and wait for the blades to stop completely before removing the grass catcher, unclogging the discharge chute, inspecting or repairing lawn mower equipment or crossing gravel paths, roads or other areas.
  • Use a stick or broom handle (not your hands or feet) to remove debris in lawn mowers.
  • Do not allow children to ride as passengers on riding mowers and keep them out of the yard while mowing.
  • Drive up and down slopes, not across, to prevent a mower rollover.
  • Keep lawn mowers in good working order. When using a lawn mower for the first time in a season, have it serviced to ensure it is working correctly.
  • 30 October 2015
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 10418
  • Comments: 0
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