Grant didn’t want to miss out on anything, including building his own house

Our parents always told my sister and me that we could do whatever we wanted; you just have to work at it. Our taste for hard work began early when we would go with my parents to the farm. I loved the long days of harvest and open prairie landscapes that went for miles. I love the feeling of accomplishment when I’ve done a hard day’s work! With this desire to do well and be successful, I would sometimes cut corners and not see the dangers of a task. This would catch up to me on a chilly but sunny day; September 11, 1987.

In February, 1987 I got my first job at a local hydraulic shop and was able to start working in my chosen trade: machine shop. Finally, the long days of studying to cut threads, tapers and hit tolerances smaller than the hairs on your head, had paid off. I was moving up the ranks and feeling quite comfortable. My career as a machinist had begun, but there was one thing missing: training! There were no safe operating procedures for daily tasks and there was definitely no training on lifting and rigging, sling capacities, load ratings. All I knew from watching the others was, if it was heavy grab a big sling and carry on. In the early to mid-80s, jobs were scarce and you felt privileged to have a job. As a young apprentice you wanted to be accepted. You jumped at the chance to machine large parts for the local steel plant or get the forklift from down the street to load a truck. Well the day came for me to deliver a large hydraulic cylinder to the local steel mill.

So, without hesitation I connected the hook of the overhead hoist to the sling that was choked around the cylinder and started  to raise it. The sling was frayed and its lifting capacity was compromised. If you do some simple rigging math, the lifting capacity of that sling was around 2000 lbs, however if you choke a sling, its lifting capacity is cut in half, then if you factor in the fraying and damage to the sling, it should have been in the garbage! But, not knowing all of this and knowing I had a job to do, I continued to pull and before long the cylinder was about 48 inches off the floor.

I ran to jump in the truck, but my manager said that he would back it under and I should guide him in. I went around the back of the truck and tried to stabilize the now gently swinging cylinder, when my entire life changed forever!

I was leaning into the cylinder to stabilize it, when the sling broke. The load came crashing down, hitting my knees on its way to the floor. Seconds after, I’m lying on my back trying to comprehend what just happened. My attempt to stand up was unsuccessful because I was sitting on my feet. That’s when I realized that the cylinder had hit me, breaking both of my legs below the knee. My right leg sustained a compression fracture, my left leg a compound fracture with the bones sticking straight out. The pain was unbearable as it shot up both thighs, right to my hips. I started to scream. My foreman came to my side and comforted me until EMS could get there. I remember saying to my foreman “I want to be able to walk again”!

Finally, EMS arrived and I heard the ambulance driver say, “man look at this kid’s legs”! They cut off my pants and new boots and taped my feet together before loading me onto a stretcher. I thought it was strange that they weren’t tying up my right foot or taking off my boot, but they did, I just couldn’t feel it!

In the ER, nurses were asking me questions, the police were asking me who I was, where I worked. Then I heard it: the familiar twinkle of Dad’s keys on his belt and his one heel that lightly dragged as he walked. Dad came around the curtain to see me lying on the stretcher covered with a thin sheet. He asked if it hurt and I said not too bad, but I was still buzzing from the laughing gas in the ambulance.

Doctors took X-rays looking for vascular damage as well as bone trauma. This is where things get a little fuzzy. I remember a nurse asking me if I would like some morphine. I quickly said yes please! Mom talked to me before I went in for surgery. She told me they may have to amputate my right leg through the knee. I agreed, not knowing what I was agreeing to!

I woke up in ICU, both legs in casts and bandages. My right leg looked like a Meccano set, which I learnt later is a Hoffman’s apparatus. The long screws of this apparatus held all the bones in my right leg in place. My left leg was in a cast to my upper thigh with a plate holding it together. Due to the crushing injury of my right leg and the lack of blood flow to my foot, the doctors conducted a procedure called a fasciotomy to allow the outer tissue to swell without restricting blood flow. At one point the doctor stuck all of his fingers into the large 12-inch incision, hoping to find a pulse. Because there was too much vascular damage, a week later the decision was made that my right foot would have to be amputated. I got very emotional, even angry. I remember during a Demerol trip, saying to my mom that I didn’t want to get lung cancer, like Terry Fox. Mom said “you won’t get lung cancer”! I said “but Terry Fox did”! She explained he lost his leg because of cancer. I can remember a feeling of relief knowing that I wouldn’t get cancer and saying to mom and the doctor, “well if this thing is coming off, let’s get rid of it!”

Surgery was set for September 18. After surgery I can remember looking down: yep it’s gone! Thank God, I thought! No more sleepless, never-ending nights waiting for that sweet, sharp prick of a needle and the soothing warm glow of Demerol to ease the pain of dying tissue. Wrong!! Now the nerve endings were dancing around like ropes in the wind; this excruciating pressure pushing down on my right knee. My foot felt like it was stuffed toes first into a tube and I couldn’t lift it or take it out. The only way to relieve the terrible discomfort was to flex the freshly severed muscles on the right side of my calf to keep the spasming nerves from crossing over to the left side. But, when they crossed to the other side, there was no coming back! The pain was so intense; I would grit my teeth and scream, squeezing my thigh just above my knee with everything I had.

After a few hours of this, the doctor ordered an anti-spasmodic drug along with some other concoction of pain meds. Almost instantly, the meds started to take effect. I wasn’t in the hospital, but in my head I was curled up in the living room chair at my Grandma Toni’s house. Now I’m hallucinating! Which I would find out is a side effect of the meds.

The hours turned into days. Things were feeling better and I looked forward to rehab. As an inpatient at Wascana Rehab I worked out every day, eating like a king. The prosthetics were fitting not too badly; I had to figure out these new changes my body was going through. My stump would shrink when I wore my leg and swell at night when I took it off. Wool socks and foam liners eased the pressure of the prosthetic and would be my new normal for the next 24 years, until I finally was introduced to something new and more exciting to walk on. This new technology was incredible! I could finally get rid of my knee brace and thigh lacer. The new leg is held on with suction. It felt like I was wearing a soft glove, no more pinching or sores. This new leg has been by my side since 2012. My willingness to accept change and being mentally ready to accept my new prosthetics would allow me to take on whatever new challenges it would bring. A positive mental attitude is a very powerful healer. If you stay focused on what you want, there’s nothing that will hold you back!

Now it’s been over 30 years since my accident. I have never ever felt that I was handed the dirty end of the stick that day or missed out on anything in the years that followed. I would push myself even harder when I was told that I should take a different path or you shouldn’t do that because of your leg. I’ve built garages, my house at the lake, helped several people with their building projects. I climb hills, ride bikes, drive my Camaro with a six-speed manual transmission. Have I missed out on things? Not at all! I don’t even consider myself disabled, just short on one side!

Unfortunately, my machining career did come to an end in February of 2007. I was breaking in a new leg and a sore started, which was nothing unusual. I knew that if I gave the liner a buff here or there with the die grinder it would eventually feel better. But this sore really got away from me. Infection set in and I couldn’t wear my leg due to swelling. I would spend the next several months undergoing numerous small surgeries to revise the folds and imperfections on my stump. Now my leg wouldn’t allow me to continue as a machinist. It sucked, but my left hip was hurting all the time from the constant standing and favouring of my right leg. I didn’t know what would happen next, 40 years old and no career. Well there’s a bit of stress! But I was able to re-open my file with WCB, so I could still pay my bills and feed my kids in that two-year window while I worked closely with WCB. I was enrolled in many classes and other programs, all the while looking for a new job or career. Finally, I was able to get back on my feet and landed a position with the Saskatchewan Apprenticeship and Trade Certification Commission as a field consultant.

Today, I’ve gone from a field consultant at the Apprenticeship Board to an occupational health & safety officer, my true calling!

Just recently I requested my old file from Occupational Health & Safety. When I looked at the pictures I was taken back immediately to the smells of the shop, the poor lighting and yes, there it was, the sling! All snarled up and ratty. I looked through the paperwork, hoping there would be something in those pages to indicate a prosecution charge or a fine, but there was nothing.

Unfortunately, today workers are still not being properly trained in their duties. For me the gap was hoisting and rigging, and even my three rights as a worker. This lack of training cost me my right foot, a 13-month stay in hospital and rehab, years of discomfort, both physical and emotional. The sad part of my story is the suffering that my family went through worrying about me. BUT I never gave up! A lot of these types of injuries can be eliminated once workers are educated and understand that training is a huge part of the job. It’s not just another day in the classroom, it’s the start of you being safe and coming home to your loved ones.

Grant W. Barnsley