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Cabarrus Magazine

Sampson Parker's Unthinkable Choice

Sep 01, 2014 04:30AM ● By Jason Huddle

Sampson Parker Stands in the Field where He Amputated His Own Arm

By: Pamilla S. Tolen

Losing a limb is akin to losing a loved one. After all, the same emotions kick in: grief, anger, depression. It’s a permanent physical change that, whether from disease or accident, can be difficult to accept.

The Amputee Coalition says that, in the U.S., roughly 2 million people are amputees. More than half of amputations are the result of diseases like diabetes and cancer, while about 15 percent are specifically from farm accidents. These fall into the category of traumatic amputation – about 30,000 annually in the U.S – which most often involve the arms, ears, feet, fingers, hands, legs and nose.

“Trauma is the second leading cause of amputation in the United States, says. “Four of every five traumatic amputation victims are male, and most of them are between the ages of 15 and 30. Farm and factory workers have greater-than-average risks of suffering injuries that result in traumatic amputation. Automobile and motorcycle accidents and the use of lawnmowers, saws and power tools are also common causes of traumatic amputation.”

The University of Georgia Extension serves as an advocate for disabled farmers through its Farm Again program. It reports that, “On-farm amputation accidents generally fall into four categories:

1. Entanglement. This is when clothes, shoestrings, gloves or long hair get caught in moving parts (such as PTO shafts, belts, pulleys, balers and combines).

2. Entrapment. Combine heads and augers would be an example because they are designed to trap and pull.

3. Crushing. Usually this occurs from post drivers or heavy equipment pinning certain body parts. This type of injury usually causes internal damage to the arm or leg and eventually ends in amputation.

4. Infection. This is usually due to a dirty wound. The limb may survive initial trauma, but amputation is eventually required following days or weeks of intensive therapy.”

So imagine being out in the field, working on your farm alone, when the unimaginable happens.

Sampson Parker is a true Southerner, born in Tennessee and growing up in Kentucky. He earned his certification in heavy equipment operation from Bell County Technical College, which led to a job with Blythe Construction and a relocation to Kershaw County, SC. That period in his life saw him marrying wife Lee Ann and becoming father to three children: Tiffany, Luke and Sampson Jr.

While living in South Carolina, Parker purchased a 50-acre farm where he grew deer corn as a hobby, selling it to local hunters. When his job with Blythe led to a move to Harrisburg, Parker kept the farm and continued working it each year. He had a passion for the work; it was a great pastime and one that gave him a significant amount of pleasure.

September 11, 2007, however, became Parker’s own personal 9/11. It was the day his life changed forever. The corn was ready for harvest and Parker was anxious to begin the process. He asked his boss for the afternoon off and left for his farm. As he drove south, he thought about September 11 and how that day had changed, not just the lives of the individuals who were directly caught up in that terrible tragedy, but also the lives of everyone in the United States. He asked himself, as many Americans have, how someone could make the choice to leap from a burning building 40 stories up, to certain death.

Parker arrived at his farm around noon, acreage about a mile off Highway 521. Since it was a weekday, there was no one around, but that didn’t matter. Parker liked working in solitude, especially on a balmy fall day. It was a perfect afternoon to get the corn harvested and bagged before the rain that was predicted came later that week.

With the picker hooked up to the tractor, Parker headed to the field. About an hour and a half into the job, though, things took a turn. First, a tire on the tractor went flat. Instead of going to get it repaired, he turned off the tractor and the picker and got to work pumping up the tire.

When he bent down he noticed a corn stalk lodged in the picker’s rollers, which could cause it to jam. Without even thinking about it, he reached underneath the machine and grabbed the stalk, but it wouldn’t budge. The tire was pumping up slowly, so he decided to walk behind the picker to try to pull the stalk from that vantage point. He figured turning the picker back on would allow the rollers to dislodge the stalk more easily; it was a pivotal decision.

Parker switched on the picker and reached down to pull on the stalk, but as quickly as it was ejected, the picker pulled his gloved hand into its rollers and further into the machine.

Parker didn’t panic, but he knew he could be in serious trouble if he wasn’t able to get his hand out of his glove. He took off his boot with his free hand and jammed it into the machine, but it didn’t stop it. Next he removed a four-inch pin from the picker but it was too short to stop the rollers. Finally, he detached an eight-inch pin and stuck it into the machine. It worked and the rollers stopped moving. Now he could work on removing his hand that was now even more tightly lodged because it was swelling.

Parker tried to remove the glove, thinking that would dislodge his hand, but he soon began to fathom the terrible reality that freeing himself would require more. It would mean cutting off his own fingers. He found himself pulling a small pocketknife from his pocket, a tool he always carried.

As he focused on freeing his hand, Parker saw that the pin stuck in the picker’s rollers was now causing the machine to overheat; some of the corn husks had caught fire and the flames were spreading. With mounting fear, he realized he had a very small window of opportunity before the fire engulfed the tires. Once that happened, not only would the tires fuel the blaze, they would eventually explode. He also ran the risk of his clothes catching on fire and burning him up before he could get his hand loose.

Parker had been imprisoned by the machine for more than an hour now and the torturous pain was so great, he was concerned he would pass out. As he watched his arm catch on fire from the burning corn husks, he knew his only option was to cut it off. It had to be done quickly, but it would take hours with a pocket life, if it could be done at all. He knew what he must do. He had to break the bone. Then the knife could slice through the skin.

With all of his strength, Parker threw himself to the ground, hoping his weight would break the bone. It worked. At exactly the same time, though, one of the picker’s tires exploded, propelling him backward five feet. It also freed him.

Traumatized and bleeding profusely, Parker still had the capacity to know that he had to get to the main road if he was going to find help. Walking was not an option. He would never make it. He would have to somehow drive the truck to the road. How long it took, he can’t remember, but he finally reached the road, still alert enough to get out of the truck and stand in the highway, waving at passing motorists for help. Unbelievably, the few cars that came toward him swerved and went around him, never stopping. After enduring all he had already, he was in danger of dying from lack of human compassion.

Finally, an off-duty medic named Dough Spinks, and Karen Baker, a nurse-analyst, came upon the scene and stopped. Through their efforts they were able to stabilize Parker enough to get him to a local hospital where he was airlifted to Columbia, SC, and then to the Augusta Burn Center in Georgia.

Sampson Parker’s story continues through many months of recovery and his adjustment to a new life. His determination to survive and the compassion of those who surrounded him through his ordeal has brought him to a renewal of his faith in God and a thankfulness for all the people he and Lee Ann have come to know through that process.

This quiet, unassuming family man survived and has subsequently taken his story to a wider audience through The Today Show; A&E Biography’s I Survived; Sunrise, Australia’s version of The Today Show; and in numerous articles. His message is one of hope, and a reminder that life is precious and sometimes one has to do the unimaginable in order to endure.

Parker celebrated 30 years with Blythe Construction in 2013 and continues his role as a highway project superintendent. He and his wife have also written a book – Unthinkable Choice – which details Parker’s ordeal through his recovery. It is being released this month; visit for more information.

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