HURON — There was no way to know, when he started the day, where Todd Paye would be when it ended. Likewise, there was no way to calculate the immense challenges he would face - and overcome - during the hours of December 5. But overcoming those challenges would ultimately make it possible for him to someday bounce granddaughter Kenna on his knee. Either knee.
“It was really a pretty nice day,” said the 55-year-old Paye, as he scratches behind the ears of his four-legged overseer, Chloe. “It was in the 50s and I was looking forward to finishing up with the corn harvest.”
Paye and his wife Connie live on a farm south and east of Huron that has been in his family for more than 100 years. Paye grew up on the farm and raised some livestock and small grain on the acreage, in addition to operating Exhaust Pros in town.
“It was a dumb thing, really,” he says now of the accident that nearly took his life that day. “I was in a hurry. I know better. People should take the time and be safe.”
In the blink of an eye, Paye was caught in the feed auger on his combine. He slipped while attempting to clear a clog and the auger caught his right leg, pulling him in and causing immense damage.
“The head had plugged up several times before,” Paye recalled. “It usually took me about 20 minutes to shut down the machine, remove the clog and get things restarted.”
This time; this one time, he climbed out on the platform above the corn head with a long bar he had found. It was about 10-feet long and he had used it to clear the auger before, with the machine stopped.
When he attempted to clear the clog this time, however, the auger grabbed the bar. A hook on the end he was holding caught on Paye’s glove and pulled him off balance. He fell onto the rotating auger, landing on his right foot, which was immediately grabbed and pulled in. Both his fibula and tibia were broken right away, as was his ankle. Beginning at the knee, the auger pulled skin and tissue down his leg toward his ankle - “degloving is what they call it,” he says. Pictures of Paye’s leg taken later that day show a shinbone that is exposed for much of his leg.
“The clutch on the auger stopped the rotation, but kept the pressure on my leg, and it kept trying to engage, to pull me in further,” he said. “I don’t know how long I was caught in there - it felt like hours. It was probably only a couple minutes.”
With no way to contact anyone to help him, Paye knew he was on his own. “I didn’t want Connie to come and find me there when I didn’t come home,” he said. “I managed to brace my left leg, and found places to push or pull with my arms,” he said. “Then I just gritted my teeth and pulled myself out.”
Paye slid down the corn head and while he was free from the threat of the combine, he was still lying in a cornfield, with a badly injured leg and had no way to contact anyone.
Solving one problem, then the next one.
“I knew my cell phone was in the cab of the combine,” Paye said. “It was in there on the charger.” But first he had to get there. Paye began the arduous task of dragging himself around to the side of the combine. When he got there, another realization struck him.
“When you combine corn, you fold up the ladder, so it doesn’t catch on the cornstalks and bang against the platform all the time,” he said. Since he had not gone down the ladder, it was still folded up. So he maneuvered around and managed to climb up the tire, using the treads as steps, until he got where he could drag himself onto the platform and then into the cab.
“I got in and grabbed my cell phone, but I didn’t have a signal,” Paye said. “I was down in a valley.”
He took a moment then that saved his leg and likely saved his life. While the auger had done massive damage to skin and tissue, and he had already lost a great deal of blood, the auger had missed his femoral artery by a mere half inch. “They told me later that if it had hit that artery, I would likely have bled out in a very short period of time,” he said.
Still, Paye knew he needed to do what he could to slow down the bleeding.
“I happened to be wearing a belt that day and I managed to get it off and wrapped around my leg as a tourniquet,” Paye said. Then, he was able to get the combine moving across the field, and headed out toward the road, the nearby hilltop and a cell signal. After he called to get an ambulance started his way, Paye continued driving the combine to their home place, where he waited for help.
“When they got there, they told me that they were going to remove the door and the platform to get the stretcher up to where I was,” he said. Paye told them to get out of the way. He managed to get out of the cab, and using his good leg, got down the ladder to the ground, where the EMTs placed him on the stretcher.
“I don’t remember a lot after that,” he said.
“I had just gotten back to work after lunch,” recalled Connie, Todd’s wife, a receptionist at Farmers and Merchants Bank. “I got a call and the man said he was the sheriff and that Todd had been involved in an accident,” she said. Connie imagined that something had happened with the truck Todd was using to haul corn, that perhaps he had run into someone.
“I asked if he was alive and remember that the sheriff just said that I should go to the emergency room right away,” she said.
Connie said she told her co-workers that something had happened with Todd and she needed to leave, but admits she doesn’t recall the short trip to the ER. “I was there quite awhile before the ambulance came in.”
She wasn’t able to see him much, as it was quickly determined that he should be airlifted to Sioux Falls. “I had no idea what was happening,” Connie said. A jet transported the Payes to Sioux Falls. “Twenty-two minutes to Sioux Falls in a jet,” Todd says. “That’s what I was told; I don’t remember any of it.”
Connie said when they arrived at Sanford Medical Center, a 30-person trauma team descended upon her husband. “What was amazing is that they all worked together. Nobody got in anyone’s way and everyone did his job.” She was finally able to see him and to see the extent of his injury, remembering that she felt ill, but maintained herself for Todd.
Confidence, funny bags and alternative care
Connie said that she was watching the staff treat her husband from across the hall and noticed that there were nurses leaving with small bags filled with something. “Bags like the size of those single-serve popcorn bags, you know?” she said. While she was watching, the surgeon who was handling Todd’s case introduced himself.
“He said his name was David Potter,” Connie said. “He took me aside and looked me in the eye, and said, ‘I guarantee he will leave here with all four of his limbs and that he will walk again.’”
Connie said she looked into his eyes and trusted him immediately. “He was right on-target. Every time he told us something the entire time we were there.”
Connie then remembered the strange bags and asked Dr. Potter what was taking place. “He said that they were bags of corn kernels that had been removed from Todd’s wounds. They removed three-and-a-half bags of corn that and been pressed into his leg.”
Todd, Connie and the care team settled into a schedule of surgeries on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with recovery time between. “But Dr. Potter quickly said that he wasn’t happy with the speed of the healing on the leg between surgeries, and asked Connie if she and Todd would be open to trying an alternative treatment, with roots in the past.
“What did you have in mind?” she remembers asking. “Leeches,” was the reply. Dr. Potter believed that introducing leeches to the treatment regiment to remove blood and other gunk from the wound would encourage quicker healing.
“I was a farm girl, and any farm kid who went wading in a dugout had come out with a leech on her leg,” Connie said. “I said sure, let’s go.” The leeches required a warmer environment, and Connie quickly became the resident expert on the warming cover and the leeches themselves. “That’s mostly because the nurses just didn’t want to touch them!”
It didn’t take long to see improvement. The leeches were deployed in groups of four. “When a leech would get ‘filled up’ it would drop off and would need to be replaced,” Connie said. “But healthy, pink tissue was left behind.”
“Yeah, but every now and then those leeches that fell off were falling into the bed with me,” Todd said. “That was a little bit unnerving, let me tell you!
The final stretch
During their time at Sanford, word of what Todd had gone through to get himself out of his predicament had made the round of staff and patients alike,” Connie said. “People would come by and want to talk to the survival guy.” The Payes were in Sioux Falls for three and a half weeks and Todd has thus far endured 11 operations, with the 11th - and hopefully final surgery - taking place on April 4. In addition, he’s had a total of nine skin grafts, which, according to Todd, “really suck.”
Needless to say, they have gotten to know the staff there pretty well.
“They basically shave a piece of skin that is about an inch-and-a-half or two inches by 10 inches from one place on your body - in my case my left leg - and put it on the injured area. It hurts like the worst sunburn you can imagine.”
Pictures taken at different stages of the healing process show the progress he’s made. His 11th surgery was to remove a piece of bone from his hip and graft it into his injured ankle, to replace some bone removed by the auger. Then it will be another stretch of healing, with some extensive physical therapy ahead of him yet.
“My goal is to be back in the shop (at Exhaust Pros) by early May,” he said. “And I want to walk in there, too.”
Connie said that while in Sioux Falls, Todd had asked her more than once if he had, in fact, turned the combine off. “‘Was the key straight up and down?’ he asked,” she said. “He also asked if he had driven out the gate to get to the road or if he had driven through the fence. I told him that I didn’t know the answer to that. I still haven’t been able to go down to the field where it happened.”
“I did go back down to the field,” Todd noted, “just so I would know.” And? “I had managed to get through that narrow gate.”
Todd said that he learned that his friends and neighbors had gotten together and completed his corn harvest the following day. And when they returned from the hospital on Dec. 28, the steps to their home’s back deck had been replaced by a ramp, supplied by a first cousin, to accommodate Todd’s wheelchair. Connie said that at every turn, someone has been there to lend them a hand. The steps are there, waiting to be put back into operation, when Todd can leave the wheelchair.
The benefit event on April 28 is being planned by Connie’s co-workers at the bank, who have also started a Gofundme page (www.gofundme.com/together-4-todd-paye-amp-family) or go to the gofundme.com home page and search for Todd Paye.
People with questions or who wish to donate are encouraged to contact Farmers and Merchants Bank at 353-6800 or Darla at 350-4121. Craig Slepikas with Modern Woodmen will match funds raised at the benefit.
Todd is reluctant to step into the light for the benefit. “He’s going to say that he doesn’t really deserve something like this,” Connie said. “But he would be the person at the front of the line if someone else needed help. There are so many people who he has fixed some part of their exhaust at the shop and refused to take payment. Maybe this is a way for him to see and understand that what he has done for people is being repaid.”
Connie said she is also looking forward to one more trip to Sioux Falls. “Dr. Potter has a bell in his waiting room for patients to ring when their treatment is completed. “I am so looking forward to seeing Todd walk up and ring that bell. That will be a great day.”
“A great day for the countless number of people who have helped in numerous ways,” Todd added. “I thank each and every one of them.”