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Clarion County teen defying the odds a year after having arm reattached

Ben Schmitt
| Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, 5:15 p.m.
Seth Apel of Knox poses for a portrait at his home in Knox on Monday, December 7, 2015, just a month after he had his arm severed just beneath the shoulder when a piece of tractor equipment snared his coat sleeve and sliced through his skin and bones.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Seth Apel of Knox poses for a portrait at his home in Knox on Monday, December 7, 2015, just a month after he had his arm severed just beneath the shoulder when a piece of tractor equipment snared his coat sleeve and sliced through his skin and bones.
Seth Apel, 12, of Knox, gets a high five at Rimersburg Elementary School in Clarion County, May 3, 2016. Seth lost part of his right arm in November 2015 when his coat sleeve got caught in a piece of tractor equipment. He has developed a strong swing in spite of his injuries.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Seth Apel, 12, of Knox, gets a high five at Rimersburg Elementary School in Clarion County, May 3, 2016. Seth lost part of his right arm in November 2015 when his coat sleeve got caught in a piece of tractor equipment. He has developed a strong swing in spite of his injuries.
Seth Apel, 12, of Knox, Pennsylvania, catches a baseball thrown by his surprise guest, former MLB player Sean Casey, at Children's Hospital South in South Fayette on Wednesday, March 2, 2106.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Seth Apel, 12, of Knox, Pennsylvania, catches a baseball thrown by his surprise guest, former MLB player Sean Casey, at Children's Hospital South in South Fayette on Wednesday, March 2, 2106.

Positive attitude powers Seth Apel.

"If you really want to do something, go out and do it no matter what the odds are," he said.

A year ago, those odds were overwhelming.

Then 12 years old, Seth lost part of his right arm on Nov. 7, 2015, while unloading firewood at his Knox home in Clarion County.

His coat sleeve became entangled in a piece of tractor equipment. As it continued to rotate, the machinery tore off his arm just beneath the shoulder.

After quick response by rescue workers, a medical helicopter flew Seth to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where a pediatric plastic surgeon, Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt, and a trauma team reattached the arm in a six-hour surgery.

Seth's healing rapidly progressed after the surgery as he regained movement in his shoulder and elbow. Still, he can't yet move his wrist or fingers.

"As a plastic surgeon, I'm a perfectionist and I'd obviously like everything to be perfect right now," Grunwaldt told the Tribune-Review last week. "But when I think back to where we started, I'm thrilled with where Seth is and what he is doing. I keep reminding myself that there was a point that we were hoping the arm was going to live."

In reattaching the arm, she connected Seth's bones, arteries, veins and nerves.

"It's a very functional limb already and there's no pain in it," Grunwaldt said. "He's able to use it for a lot of things."

Seth, who is now 13, said the accident taught him a valuable lesson as he reflected on the past year.

He never gave up his dream to continue playing Little League baseball.

As he rehabilitated his arm, he worked on devising a unique way to swing a baseball bat. Seth, who is right-handed, also found a way to catch and throw with his left hand.

To grip a baseball bat, Seth learned to anchor his right hand around the bat grip and curl his left hand around the right for support. He displayed his baseball skills throughout the summer playing for a local team and a regional travel team.

He played first and second base, catcher, outfield and short stop. During a tournament in Erie, he was named Most Valuable Player.

An extra thrill came when he was invited in August to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Little League World Series game in Williamsport between Johnston, Iowa, and Bowling Green, Ky.

"I was a little bit nervous, but it was really fun," Seth said.

He also threw out the first pitch during a June Pirates game at PNC Park.

When the summer ended, his family took a cross-country road trip in a 24-foot camper with stops at Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Yosemite the Pacific coast and Grand Canyon. Seth has two brothers and three sisters.

"I think we went through 23 states," said Seth's mother, Angie Apel. "There were ups and downs but it was awesome to see everything. We were whipped most days — we'd drive somewhere and try to do as much as we could."

Seth, too, found the trip to be memorable.

"It was really cool to see places that are so different from Western Pennsylvania," he said. "It was my first time out west."

The seven-week trip sapped some of the strength in Seth's left arm and he has been working hard in therapy, three times a week, to get back on track.

"I was hoping to see more hand and finger movement by now," Angie Apel said. "But I'm sure the hand is a lot more complicated. He made so many advances early on, that I try and keep that in perspective."

Grunwaldt, who has grown close to the family, said she's optimistic that Seth will continue to regain additional movement and hand use over the next year.

"It's probably hard for him, but he's incredibly mature and reasonable for his age," she said. "If it's frustrating for me, I can only imagine what it's life for him. He's really an excellent patient and friend."

Even if Seth's recovery halted, his mother said she'd look at the bigger picture.

"Sure, it would be a disappointment but, in the end, when you think about what could have been, there's no way we could be disappointed in the big scheme of things," she said.

When he thinks back on the past year, Seth tries not to focus on the accident.

"I try to think about all of the great things I've done," he said. "I can't believe it's been a year. It really flew by."

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