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Swift care saved young farmer

MACKVILLE — As Justin Hatchett stood in the doorway preparing to leave for a day's work on the family farm on June 18, his mother asked what he was planning to do for the day.

He told her he would be hauling hay.

"Well, good," Jeannie Hatchett replied. "I don't worry about you as much."

Looking back less than 11 months since a tractor rolled over on Justin Hatchett, the conversation is tinged with irony.

Hatchett had graduated from Washington County High School just weeks earlier and expected to spend the summer working on the family's 950-acre farm before starting college in the fall.

As soon as college was finished, he planned to return home to follow in his father's footsteps, earning a living off the land.

Instead, he has spent the past 11 months recovering from a farming injury that medical professionals say could have killed him, especially if emergency workers hadn't gotten him to the right hospital as quickly as possible.

They say Hatchett's story is a good example of how a statewide system for handling severe trauma cases could improve patients' outcomes and save lives.

On that June day, he grabbed a Gatorade and two honey buns at the local store, and headed to work.

Hatchett pulled a hay wagon behind his tractor; family friends on two other tractors used hay forks to load it up.

"There was still dew on the grass that morning," he recalled.

With eight round bales on the wagon, Hatchett started down a hillside to unload.

"Every time I'd tap the brakes, it'd just slide," he said.

Before he knew it, the tractor was in a skid.

"I stood up 'cause I was ready to jump off."

But the hay trailer jackknifed.

"If I jumped off to the left, then the wagon would run over me," he said. "If I jumped off to the right, the tractor would. I just had to ride it out."

The tractor tipped, and then the 12,000-pound machine fell on him.

"I blinked and I hit the ground. Just as soon as I opened my eyes, it was right there."

Pinned and praying

He remembers the next 30 minutes.

The tractor lay with its four wheels straight up in the air. Its rear left fender pressed across Hatchett's abdomen, below his rib cage.

"The tractor was still running," he said.

His legs were wrapped around the seat.

While one of the men working with him raced to call for help at Hatchett's grandmother's house, the other worker, Justin Reynolds, turned off the tractor and reached into Hatchett's pants pocket to pull out a pocketknife. He cut into the other side of the pants and retrieved Hatchett's cell phone.

"I flipped it open," Hatchett said. "It wouldn't come on. The screen was busted."

The men prayed together, asking God to send help. But as the moments wore on, Hatchett said, "I couldn't hardly breathe, 'cause it was mashing me. I said, 'You've got to get it off of me.'"

Reynolds backed his tractor up to Hatchett, then stopped. "I can't do it! I can't do it!" Hatchett recalls him saying.

Hatchett persuaded him to use the hay fork to try to lift the tractor. It didn't work, but it did take some of the weight off.

"I could feel the relief," Hatchett said.

Back on the family's other property, his father, Marty Hatchett, was plowing tobacco when he got the call on his cell phone, telling him what had happened.

"I took off to the house," he recalled.

Jeannie Hatchett, who had been cleaning out the garage when she got a similar call, met him in the driveway.

The situation was all too familiar to the couple. Marty Hatchett's father had died two years and 11 months earlier when a tractor ran over him, killing him instantly.

'I thought he was already gone'

The Hatchetts passed the Mackville rescue squad on their way to the other farm, leading them to where their son lay.

About 20 minutes had passed, and it was getting harder for him to breathe.

"I prayed that he would just take me then," Hatchett said. "I was numb."

And then he heard the roar of his daddy's truck.

"I remember hearing Momma say, 'Is he still breathing?'" Hatchett said.

Jeannie Hatchett, a nurse, remembers her son's face; it was black.

"I thought he was already gone," she said. "He took my hand, and he said, 'Mom, I love you.'"

In the back of one of the trucks was Marty Hatchett's heavy-duty jack.

"We put it in a couple of places, and it didn't work," Marty Hatchett said.

Jeannie Hatchett tried to pull her son by the arms. "It was like he was in cement," she said.

Finally the tractor began to rise up.

Church members, family members and friends who had rushed to the scene were on their knees in the field, praying.

Rescue workers from Springfield, Mackville and Willisburg were there.

A helicopter from Campbellsville was on its way.

"I remember them pulling me out," Hatchett said. "The last thing I remember is hearing the helicopter coming in."

The Hatchetts were en route to Lexington on the Bluegrass Parkway, somewhere around the Lawrenceburg exit, when they got a call from University of Kentucky Hospital.

"It was one of the nurses," Jeannie Hatchett said. "She said, 'I just wanted you to know that your son arrived safely, and he's in surgery.'"

His spine was fractured in three places; his pelvis crushed. His right shoulder blade was fractured. Even more serious was the internal damage. His small intestine had been cut in multiple places.

ICU nurse feared the worst

It was not a good day for Teri Kephart, the trauma nurse who cared for Hatchett in the intensive-care unit that day and for the month that followed.

"It was my dead brother's birthday," she said. "Justin is very similar in appearance. He was 18, and I thought he was going to die."

She said she immediately worried about how much time Hatchett had spent under the tractor and, unaware that he had been brought in by helicopter, she worried about the time it might have taken to get him to the hospital in an ambulance.

"A gut injury is like a septic system from your mouth to your bottom," she said. "A longer ride would have meant a long er exposure to a toxic injury."

As it turned out, Hatchett was at the hospital about as quickly as he could have been. The accident happened about 9:30 a.m., and he arrived at UK at 10:50.

The first time the Hatchetts saw him in the hospital, blood was being administered via both hands and both feet.

He received 28 units of blood products in the first hours after the accident and 78 units in all, the equivalent of 13 two-liter sodas, Kephart said.

At one point, Jeannie Hatchett said, a hospital employee told her it might be a good time to call family members to the hospital. Justin Hatchett might not have much time left.

"For weeks, I thought Justin was going to die," Kephart said.

He developed infections. He ran an unexplained fever. He battled pneumonia.

He returned to the operating room again and again, 15 surgeries in all. Several were to remove portions of his small intestines as tissue there continued to die.

Hatchett had an "open belly" for many weeks — his abdomen was not sewn shut after surgery, to allow room for internal swelling.

Hatchett had a tracheotomy and a tube hanging out of his mouth, but Kephart remembers reading his lips the first time he tried to speak: "He wanted Gator ade or sweet tea."

Jeannie Hatchett said she and Marty worried that their son would get "lost in the crowd" of patients.

"We had a terrible misconception about a big teaching hospital," she said.

Instead of anonymity, they said, they were welcomed like family. The kitchen baked their daughter a cake for her 22nd birthday, and the trauma nurses went out of their way to do little favors for Hatchett, even after he was moved off their unit.

Gradually, he improved.

Kephart said that despite his injuries and the setbacks, Hatchett had a lot going for him: He was compliant with what the doctors and nurses asked of him, and he had a strong social support system.

"He was healthy. Nice height. Nice weight. Young," she explained. "And he got here fast."

After two months, Hatchett was able to go home. The family pulled the furniture out of the living room and replaced it with the twin bed Hatchett would have taken to college in the fall.

After six months, he exchanged his wheelchair for a walker.

Back on the tractor

Nowadays, he walks just fine with no assistance from any devices.

While Hatchett is a much thinner, less muscular version of his former self, someone looking at him for the first time would have no reason to guess what he's been through.

He's still taking it easy, but he's back on the tractor, plowing the ground for this summer's tobacco crop, checking on the cattle and putting out hay.

Sometimes, Kephart gets text messages in which Hatchett tells her things he probably wouldn't tell his mom, like that he drove once without a seat belt.

"I don't know why," Kephart said with a grin. "I'm probably harder on him."

Occasionally, she finds a bag of her favorite candy at the front desk. No note.

"It's Bit-O-Honey, so I know Justin's been here," she said.

Hatchett hopes to begin classes at UK or Bluegrass Community and Technical College this fall. He still plans to get a degree in business management and then get back to what he loves, farming.

He has recurrent back pain but expects to live a pretty normal life.

On Friday he is scheduled to have what he hopes will be the final reconstructive surgery on his intestines.

Dr. Paul Kearney, one of the UK trauma surgeons who has treated Hatchett, said he could develop a hernia later on, and the portion of his intestines that he lost could make him vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies.

And then, he added, the emotional scars probably won't soon fade either: "This is not something you forget easily."

But, Kearney said, "He's lucky to be alive."

Jeannie Hatchett says it all goes back to the prayer she and her husband said as their son lay under the tractor.

They knew he might die, and they said they asked that God's will be done.

"We prayed that if that's not what he wants, would he send somebody to help us," Jeannie Hatchett said. "And he did."