CUMBERLAND — A Cumberland-area farmer is raring to get back to the farm after an all-too close brush with death last month.
Justin Birch, 30, lost half of his right arm in a hay baler accident on Sept. 20 east of Ottawa. He was prepping the baler and had it hooked up to the PTO on the tractor when he slipped from the baler and fell. He reached out his arm and got his hand caught in the machinery.
His right hand and wrist were amputated at an Ottawa hospital.
“It happens fast,” he told Farmers Forum on Sept. 30, the day after his sixth surgery. He had at least two more to go. When asked if there was anything farmers should know about how it happened, he repeated, “It just happens fast.”
His fingers were the first thing to get caught. He tried but couldn’t pull them back. “I pulled as hard as I could,” he recalled. “They just kept pulling in farther. By the time my hand popped through the two rollers, I was screaming. Then I thought, ‘that’s not going to do anything.’”
He fumbled his cell phone out of a pocket with his left hand and called a neighbour back that he’d just been speaking with. No answer. He called another neighbour, who’s usually home during the day. No answer. So Birch tried one more, Jon Lowe, who was supposed to be in town. He was home. Lowe raced over and shut down the power take-off. Birch was still trapped but was no longer being dragged to his death.
Lowe called 911 and soon a small fleet of paramedics and firefighters were on scene. They disassembled the machine to get Birch out. Weak as he was, he insisted on climbing out himself. “I’m getting the —- off this baler,” he insisted.
Family friend Renee Armstrong organized a GoFundMe online fundraiser to help with the costs of recovery. With a goal of $100,000, it had raised $107,000 in a week.
After just a few days in hospital he replied on the GoFundMe page. “One day you can be taking pictures with your girlfriend for family photos,” he said. “In the blink of an eye you can be taking a photo in a recovery room missing half your arm. I just want to say how thankful I am for everyone giving their support to myself, my family and the farm. I am trying to reach out to as many people as possible but with the drugs they make me pretty drowsy.”
Facing down at least a few more weeks in hospital, Birch at least didn’t have to worry about the farm. His younger brother had taken over operations, with plenty of help from the Birch’s volunteer firefighter colleagues, his family and many others in the community
Despite the shocking loss of his dominant hand and arm, Birch was determined to return to farming. “I’m gonna try my best. I want to keep farming,” he said. “You can always count on a farmer to rig up something to work.”