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Published May 30, 2011, 05:40 AM

Friends help ‘farm kid’ recover from combine accident

BARNESVILLE, Minn. — Ryan Anderson could have gotten bogged down in self-pity. He is painfully aware that he was simply in too big a rush on Nov. 6, 2010, when a lapse in safety in a corn field cost him his lower right leg.

By: Mikkel Pates, Associated Press

BARNESVILLE, Minn. — Ryan Anderson could have gotten bogged down in self-pity. He is painfully aware that he was simply in too big a rush on Nov. 6, 2010, when a lapse in safety in a corn field cost him his lower right leg.

But 13 days after the accident, he was back at his day job originating grain from the Agassiz Valley Grain L.L.C. in Barnesville, Minn.

And six months later, he has both feet back on the ground — he is getting used to walking on a miraculous artificial leg. He took part May 20 in the Fargo (N.D.) Marathon’s 5K preliminary event, which he and about 30 friends and relatives walked together. Some of his biggest boosters are sponsoring a benefit supper, auction and raffle, set for 6 to 10 p.m. June 3 at the El Zagal Shrine in north Fargo.

“Facing life is what I had to do,” Ryan says of the ordeal. “I guess I just had to ask myself: ‘Do I just sit around and sulk? Or do I surround myself with people who can help me get back up?’”

A classic farm kid

At age 23, Ryan was no rookie in the farming world.

He’s operated equipment for more than a decade on the Anderson Farms, run by his father, Keith and his uncle, Steve, just north of Walcott. Ryan is the youngest of three brothers. His oldest brother, Brady, a sales agronomist for Dakota Ag Cooperative in Kindred, N.D. The middle brother, David, is a pharmacist at Sanford Health in Fargo.

Ryan always has loved farming. His first work was picking rock and pulling weeds in the sugar beets. He remembers starting to drive the tractor at ages 11 or 12 and has done every other kind of equipment on a farm that raises spring wheat, sugar beets, corn and soybeans.

In 2006, he graduated from Kindred High School and went on to North Dakota State University in Fargo, where he majored in agricultural economics. With his degree in 2010, he took a job as a grain originator at Agassiz Valley Grain L.L.C. The facility has 2.8 million bushels of storage capacity and has been running 110-car shuttle trains since 2007. Agassiz Valley is a four-way joint venture involving Kragnes, Minn., Rothsay, Minn., and Fergus Falls, Minn., co-ops, and with the final fourth owned by ADM-Benson Quinn.

“I’d done an internship with ADM-Benson Quinn, so that’s how I got my foot in the door,” he says.

It seemed an idyllic setup for a farm kid — merchandising during the weekdays, living in Fargo and helping out at home in the busy planting and harvesting seasons.

Muddy, lodged corn

The accident happened Nov. 6 — a Saturday afternoon. The crew was working in the middle of a quarter-section field that was muddy, torn up from the grain cart.

“The whole month of October had been great for everyone,” Anderson says of the conditions. “We had a lot of fall tillage done, a lot of the sugar beets done in a pretty timely fashion. At the end of October, we had a kind of a fall downpour — 60-mph winds — so we had some corn lodged over after a rain. We still a few hundred acres of corn left to combine.”

His father, Keith, had been combining corn on that sunny, mucky day, trying to finish. The stalks would pile over on the corn header, laying over and not feeding into the feeder house properly. Keith had to stop several times and clean them out.

“It had become routine for him, through the day, to clean out that pile of stalks,” Ryan says. “We were all aware of this, that it was a burden to get out and clean things out. I’m sure there were others dealing with it around the area at the same time.”

At about 2 p.m., Ryan took on the R75 Gleaner, so his dad, uncle, brother and a hired man all could attend a family friend’s wedding. Ryan, his cousin, Tyler Anderson, and another hired man took over in the field.

Almost every time

Ryan remembers how tricky it was to unload in the grain cart on-the-go and still keep an eye on the stalks. Occa-sionally, a big pile would accumulate. Every time he’d shut everything down, hop down and spread the stalks over the header so they’d feed through normally.

Well, not quite every time.

It was 4:30 p.m. Ryan had just finished dumping into the grain cart, and he looked down, and saw a pile of stalks starting to accumulate on the right side of the header.

“I radioed the grain cart and said, ‘We should stop here and I should get out and clear these stalks.’ The yield was good and I needed to empty my hopper at least one more time to get to the other side of the field. I had the cart-drive stay there because we were combining on half-mile rounds.”

As the cart stopped, Ryan got out.

“I can’t exactly explain why, but I’d idled the combine down and left it running,” he says.

It was a near-fatal mistake.

Ryan stepped in front of the chopping corn header to spread out the stalks as he’d done before, but this time, the moving parts were running.

“But I couldn’t see the gathering chains on the corn header,” he says. “It didn’t register on my mind how close I was standing. When the gathering chains came in to pull the corn stalks, it either caught my pant leg or my entire leg. I couldn’t register what was going on until my entire body had been pulled into the corn header.”

The mechanism miraculously stopped when his kneecap hit a metal plate. Somehow, he was able to brace himself with his arms and push himself away. He rolled onto the ground, his leg mostly gone. An artery was pinched, so there was little or no bleeding.

Ryan was screaming, flailing his arms, but the grain cart driver wasn’t able to see or hear him, at first. He says he never lost consciousness, although there are times he wishes he would have.

“It was pretty gruesome,” he says.

Ryan thought about hoisting himself to the combine cab to find his cell phone on the “buddy seat,” but couldn’t do it.

Finally, the hired man saw him.

Response and recover

There were urgent phone calls to Tyler Anderson, back at the farm. A 911 call brought emergency responders from the North Dakota towns of Walcott, Kindred and Colfax within 10 minutes.

Sanford Health’s LifeFlight helicopter from Fargo was at the scene within 20 minutes. Because of the mud, the helicopter pilot hovered just off the soil surface to prevent getting stuck. After an eight-minute flight, Ryan was in the emergency room at 5:30 p.m. Surgeons would amputate the leg just above the knee. He was out of surgery by 7:30 p.m.

He was out of the hospital by the following Wednesday, Nov. 10.

Truthfully, Ryan says recovery has seemed quick.

He wore a “shrinker sock” for about two months, to keep the swelling down and shape the end of his limb. He got the first prostheses in mid-January and a then a “C-leg” in March.

“A ‘C-Leg’ is a model name for a computerized leg made Otto Bock. It runs a hydraulic cylinder in the knee joint — amazing technology,” Ryan says. “It kind of adapts to your style of walking. Once you kind of know how to control the general movements of your leg, how your body reacts to the movements, there are a whole series of sensors from the foot to the processing unit inside of it, transmitting and relaying information and the pressure body is putting on the unit. It reacts accordingly, the way a normal leg should.”

Bluetooth technology

The leg is equipped with Bluetooth, a wireless technology, to connect the prostheses to the technician’s computer, who programs it to fit the particular patient — how fast the person might sit down or walk.

His doctors have advocated for Blue Cross and Blue Shield to help with the cost, but he’ll be responsible for some part of the $53,000 total. Hence, the benefit. Among the organizers are his first cousin, his godparents, his uncle and family friends.

“I’m told this leg will need new parts — possibly a new leg — within three to five years,” he says. “To continue utilizing a leg like this, they estimate I’ll probably pay $500,000 or more over a lifetime. Time will tell what that’ll amount to, but the leg has a warranty for only two years. After that, you have to pay out-of-pocket to replace parts, or whatever that might be.”

While friends credit his recovery to an outstanding, positive attitude, Ryan acknowledges it’s at times been hard to fight the emotional agony of regret.

“There were long weekends this winter, where it was hard to get out and be as positive and active as I’d wanted,” he admits. “I kind of had to stop beating myself up over it, otherwise it would drive me mad.”

There is a message that seems to be more important than his particular injury, he says. It’s about not rushing during the heat of the busy agricultural schedule.

“I was in a hurry. I don’t know if I wasn’t thinking clearly, or why I just didn’t take the time to check my surroundings. I’m sure, in the back of my mind, I could hear all of those moving parts,”

After six months, Ryan says he’s ready to move forward.

On June 2, he’s been invited to speak at the Progressive Agriculture Foundation farm safety event at Central Cass School in Casselton, N.D. It’s for kids ages 5 to 11. Ryan plans to be there, delivering a message of safety.

“There’s just safety to think about, around moving equipment — PTOs, harvesters,” he says. “There’s just so much force behind farm equipment. I probably just took it for granted, being around that combine so many times before.”

Follow Ryan’s progress at