“I’M alive, I was one of the very lucky ones.”
Those are the words of Watergrasshill farmer, Ben Ryall, who is counting his blessings after surviving an accident on his farm.
He is now very vocal on the issue of farm safety, and the profound impact such accidents can have on both physical and mental health.
In 2006 Ben, 53, who operates a pedigree Angus suckler farm like his father before him, suffered a horrific accident when his coat got caught in a PTO shaft spreading slurry.
Ben remembers the day well when a split second changed his life, and he suffered horrific injuries to his hand and arm.
It was January 9, 2006. “A cold, blustery day,” recalls Ben.
“Back then, farmers could spread slurry whenever they felt conditions were right. Nowadays you have guidelines to follow going by the calendar when it’s viable to spread slurry.”
Ben was very familiar with the territory and with the farm machinery.
“The machine I was using was quite aged,” he says. “At least 20 years old; it is now obsolete. The PTO cover was in place but my coat became caught at the pump side of the vacuum tank, which was an old-fashioned cowl-type cover which left the underneath exposed. Nowadays there is no part of the vacuum pump exposed because the cover is a completely different design.”
The PTO transfers power from the tractor to the PTO-powered attachment. It takes less than one second to become entangled in a PTO shaft, revolving at 540 rpm.
“I got pulled in between the shaft and the drawbar. I could not fit in between them and the tractor stalled,” says Ben. “My arm was wound in like a rope into the machine.”
At least he could call for help.
“I always carry my phone in my top breast pocket of my shirt or jacket,” says Ben. “I would never consider wearing a shirt that doesn’t have a breast pocket. It’s no good having the phone in the Jeep or the tractor. The phone must be on your person. I was able to make a life-saving phone-call to my brother even though my left arm was dislocated. I managed to extricate myself from the shaft with my right hand.”
Ben, in shock, staggered across the farm yard carrying his injured arm and wasn’t aware of the extent of his injuries.
“The arteries were severed, there was a lot of blood loss. I was operating on adrenaline,” he says. “My brother Robert arrived within minutes with his son, Trevor. At that point I collapsed.”
More help arrived.
“I was the first call-out that the Rapid Response team responded to. They attended to me on the spot.”
Ben’s wife Elaine was at work in Musgraves when she got the call to say her husband was involved in a serious farm accident. “I’ll never forget that call,” she says.
“I rushed to CUH to be with Ben in the A&E where he waited to get scans and X-rays. He had lost a lot of blood and he needed blood transfusions.”
He needed immediate surgery.
“We had to wait until an operating theatre became available,” says Ben. “My shoulder had to be re-located and the arteries and veins had to be joined up. My injuries were of a large scale.
“I couldn’t have pain medication because I was getting an aesthetic for the operation,” says Ben.
“I was begging for sedation. The pain I was in was unbelievable.”
The operation took five hours, during which Ben underwent skin grafts from his groin area to his shoulder.
“It was an intricate operation,” says Ben. “Thanks be to God I was knocked out and knew no more until I woke up and saw Elaine.”
He was in good hands.
“My surgeon and the staff at CUH were fantastic. I couldn’t say enough about them.”
Ben felt lucky to survive. “I said; ‘cut off my arm and my hand if you have to’. I’m alive.”
He was admitted to a high dependency ward where he was monitored.
“The arm swelled up and the blood circulation hadn’t come back. I was on a morphine drip for four or five days.
“I got a dose of morphine every 15 minutes. I watched the clock and counted down the minutes.”
Then the hard work began.
“I worked with the physiotherapist to get the circulation going,” says Ben. “Between the jigs and the reels, I was seeing the physio for two years.
“I had occupational therapy, which was very beneficial. Whenever there was a cancelled appointment or a free slot, I got a call to attend. The hydro-pool was a great help in my rehabilitation. I was well looked after.”
It worked both ways.
“CUH put in a huge effort for me when they saw me putting in a massive effort,” says Ben.
At 39 at the time, in the prime of his life, he had a positive outlook on life.
“I’m a glass half full person. I was optimistic,” says Ben. “I survived the accident. I had a positive attitude.”
Ben had no use of his left arm for six months.
“I had to re-activate the muscles to get some movement range,” he says.
“My mind had to be trained to think the left arm was working. My arm was still limp. I was carrying it.”
Did he carry any worries in his mind?
“Not working on the farm again never came into it,” says Ben.
“Elaine was working full time. Our kids, Jacqui and Harry, were six and four.
“While injured, I got physical help on the farm, but I was still able to manage it. Our neighbours were great to row in behind us.”
And he had a farm manager.
“Elaine left paid work!” says Ben laughing. “And she worked by my side.”
The Gods were on their side too.
“I was very lucky because the main nerve, the brachial plexus, going down my arm was not severed in the accident,” says Ben. “It was stretched and badly damaged.
“For the first six months undergoing physiotherapy, my arm hung dead by my side, but very gradually the nervous system re-generated and I gained more movement in my arm and limited use of my hand.”
Ben’s main focus in 2006/2007 was on recovery, but he was still on a lot of medication to stimulate his nervous system.
“In December 2006 I began to feel unwell and I was unable to sleep,” says Ben. “I wondered what the hell was the matter? I was prescribed sleeping tablets from my GP, who told me this might happen, but the pills were a waste of time.”
Ben was depressed. The glass half full man was knocked for six.
“I hadn’t expected that,” he says. “Seemingly, the nerve pain medication was a contributory factor to my depression. The nerve pain was really severe on my body. The simplest of tasks got me, like opening a jar. Elaine had to hold a nail steady if I was using the hammer. She was my rock.”
Ben’s wiring system was hay-wire.
“The brain doesn’t define pain from stress. It doesn’t know the difference.
“I changed my outlook and re-evaluated my priorities. You can let the running of a family farm become 24/7. I prioritised family time. We had no more child- minders after school. I was here every afternoon. It was much better for the kids. The accident threw up loads of positives for us.”
Ben and Elaine have a new job.
“We used to show our cattle; now we judge prize cattle around the country.”
Ben advocates the necessity for farm safety round the country, speaking at IFA meetings and at the Embrace FARM stand at the Ploughing Championships.
“Having the family home in the yard is not a great set-up,” says Ben.
Complacency can set in.
“It is a common arrangement on farms in Ireland,” says Ben. “Separating the two is achievable and living in the yard is not necessary. Leaving for work every morning and coming home every evening is much better.”
Farming can be isolating.
“Back in the day, 2006, there was no service dedicated for farmers. Embrace FARM was set up in 2014. It raises awareness about farm safety.”
These days Ben is a 9 to 5 man.
“My accident was life-changing,” he says. “It made me thankful for what we have; for everything.”
He finds ways around things.
“I can’t use a flat-handled fork to eat. My fingers won’t twist. But I can use a round-shaped one!”
Ben has a healthy appetite for life.
“We are happy with our lot,” he says.
“We love our lifestyle here and we love promoting Irish agriculture. Our open farm tour here is very popular.”
And Ben likes the shade of grass on the other side.
“We take time now to smell the roses.”