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Quick action at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh saves boy's severed arm

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, 11:19 p.m.
Joshua Apel of Knox reads a stack of e-cards sent to his son at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Joshua Apel of Knox reads a stack of e-cards sent to his son at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
E-cards sent to Seth Apel, 12, of Knox in Clarion County, pile up in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
E-cards sent to Seth Apel, 12, of Knox in Clarion County, pile up in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt speaks to the media at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt speaks to the media at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Savannah Apel, 10, of Knox in Clarion County, peeks over a wall at her father, Joshua, as he speaks to the media in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Savannah's 12-year-old brother, Seth, had his arm reattached by doctors.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Savannah Apel, 10, of Knox in Clarion County, peeks over a wall at her father, Joshua, as he speaks to the media in Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Savannah's 12-year-old brother, Seth, had his arm reattached by doctors.
Joshua Apel addressed the media about the boy's recovery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Joshua Apel addressed the media about the boy's recovery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt speaks to the media at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt speaks to the media at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015.
Seth Apel, 12, of Knox, Clarion County, lost an arm in a firewood splitter accident Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. A surgical team at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC was able to reattach it.
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Seth Apel, 12, of Knox, Clarion County, lost an arm in a firewood splitter accident Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. A surgical team at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC was able to reattach it.

Writhing in pain, his right arm severed just beneath the shoulder, 12-year-old Seth Apel screamed the unthinkable to his parents.

“He wanted to die; he said he wanted to see Jesus,” Seth's dad, Joshua Apel, recalled in a quavering voice Wednesday. “And I told him, ‘No, you're not done. You've got a plan here.' ”

Seth lost his arm Saturday afternoon in Clarion County when a piece of tractor equipment snared his coat sleeve and sliced through his skin and bones.

Quick action by family members and medics, who packed the arm in ice, led to successful surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville. Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt, a pediatric plastic surgeon, reattached the arm with the help of a trauma team in a six-hour procedure just before midnight Saturday.

Grunwaldt and Seth's father retold the horrific story with a hopeful ending to reporters Wednesday. At the same time, Seth, who has two brothers and three sisters, continued to recover one floor away with his mother, Angela Apel, in a Children's intensive-care unit.

Seth, who lives in Knox, was unloading a pile of firewood from a tractor about 2 p.m. Saturday when his arm got caught in a rotating piece of equipment known as a power take-off, or PTO. His grandfather, who lives next door, heard his screams and called 911.

Joshua Apel, 39, and his two other sons, 15 and 13, had been chopping firewood atop a nearby hill. They also heard the screams and sprinted.

Apel immediately noticed his son did not lose a large amount of blood. He saw what looked to be about a cup of blood on the ground.

“There was so little blood, and you knew right then that it had sealed up quickly,” he said. “I did not know whether his arm could be reattached. That's not what I was thinking about at the moment. Things just happened so quickly.”

Soon, he sat next to his son in a medical helicopter, shouting words of encouragement.

Grunwaldt said Seth's blood vessels spasmed after the accident and kept him from bleeding out.

“His life definitely was threatened,” she said. “But he received excellent care in the field before he even got here. He was very stable from the time I entered the operating room.”

The arm reattachment worked like a jigsaw puzzle, Grunwaldt said.

“Once we reconnect the artery and get blood flow into the extremity and the vein and get blood flow out, then we hook the two ends of the nerve together,” she said. “And essentially, the body has to send a signal from the spinal cord down the piece of nerve that was left in his body and past where we sewed it together.”

The regeneration and recovery process could take years, she said. But she said she hopes Seth regains some movement in his arm in three to six months.

“It's a big surgery,” she said. “Luckily, Seth was a case from the outset that looked very promising. I trained for 16 years, and it's for these moments.”

Apel, a self-employed cabinetmaker, marveled at the stack of support letters Seth has received. He rattled off the faraway places they came from: Romania, England, South Africa and California. There's a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/PrayingforSeth where support constantly pours in.

Apel is beyond appreciative.

“It's amazing, so overwhelming,” he said, adding, while choking up. “I just want him.”

Tuesday night, Apel said, he had a dream in which Seth threw a pitch in a baseball all-star game. He couldn't tell whether the game was Major League Baseball or Little League.

“He loves baseball; he's a great pitcher, catcher, all of that,” Apel said. “Two years ago, we didn't win a single game. But his attitude and morale around the other kids just brings them up.

“He loves everything. He loves everybody. He wants to go out and build forts, work in the shop. Everything is hands-on for him.”

For those reasons, Seth, who is right-handed, already knows his life will change drastically.

“We're going to work through it. We're going to get it.”

And baseball?

“That's the hope, I don't know. He'll fight through it one way or the other. Whether he has 100 percent function, I don't know.”

Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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