Doctors optimistic about recovery of Clarion County boy after arm severed
Seth Apel can't remember the unbearable pain. He doesn't want to.
When a piece of machinery snagged his jacket and refused to let go, Seth just closed his eyes.
“I didn't want to look at my arm, but I knew it was gone,” he said. “I looked at the gears, and I saw my jacket.”
Other details are fuzzy. Seth, 12, remembers his grandfather, Tim Smith, standing over him, screaming. He remembers the medics lifting him onto a stretcher.
“The last thing I remember is getting loaded into the helicopter,” he told the Tribune-Review in a recent interview at his Knox home in Clarion County.
Five weeks have passed since that mild, sunny Saturday afternoon, when Seth was unloading a pile of firewood from a family tractor. His father, Josh Apel, and two older brothers were chopping wood about 500 yards away atop a hill when Seth's green, down-lined jacket became entangled in a rotating piece of equipment known as a power take-off, or PTO.
His grandfather, who lives in a house on the family's property, heard his screams. The piercing sound of the cries led him to dial 911 before he located his grandson.
The accident took Seth's right arm, just beneath the shoulder. Fast-acting medics found the arm, inside the coat sleeve, and packed it in ice for preservation. The arm accompanied Seth and his father on a 30-minute medical helicopter flight to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt, a pediatric plastic surgeon at Children's, and a trauma team reattached the arm in a six-hour surgery.
“I am very optimistic about his capacity to heal and regain movement in his arm and in his hand,” Grunwaldt said. “He's had no signs of infection. And he's a really strong, motivated kid and has great spirit.”
A combination of dull and sharp pain reverberates constantly through his right arm. Part of that comes from healing and part of it comes from nerve growth.
“It's not so bad,” he said.
Mainly, Seth aches for the outdoors. Curled up in a fleece blanket on the living room couch, he spoke longingly of hunting, building forts in the woods with friends and helping out in his dad's cabinet-making shop.
During a doctor's visit last week, Seth pleaded for Grunwaldt to allow him to try hunting left-handed. She relented and asked him not to climb on to a tree stand. Seth and his dad went deer hunting Saturday from dawn until sunset.
“He was in heaven out there,” said Seth's father, who helped Seth hold a rifle steady. “He did not get a shot off, but we saw a few deer. He was just thrilled to get outside for a day.”
Grunwaldt, who sees Seth weekly at Children's, explained that nerves generally regenerate at a rate of one millimeter per day.
“He's already showing signs that the nerves are regenerating,” she said. “When I tapped on his elbow near one of his nerves, it sent tingling down his arm. That's a very positive sign. He is actually healing faster than I would have expected.”
When Seth woke up in the hospital after the accident, he recalls craving a milkshake.
“I think I was just, like, waking up and I heard somebody say ‘peach milkshake' and I couldn't stop thinking about it,” he said.
For several days, he couldn't move because of paralytic medicine infused to prevent involuntary movements during and after the surgery.
“He couldn't even really open his eyes. It was weird,” said Seth's mother, Angie Apel.
After three weeks in the hospital and recovery regimens of pain medication and physical therapy, Seth and his family returned home on Thanksgiving Day.
The Knox Volunteer Fire Department met them at the Clarion County line for a surprise escort.
“There were people outside with signs and cheering and everything,” said Angie Apel. “It was pretty cool that they came out on Thanksgiving to do that.”
Once he arrived home, Seth joined his sisters, Savannah, 10, Eva, 4, and Elyssa, 1, and brothers, Ian, 13 and Isaac, 15, for dinner.
“I'm really surprised we're even here right now,” Josh Apel said. “I was thinking he'd be hospitalized for two months.”
The Apels no longer use the machine that took Seth's arm. It's gone, although the family tractor remains on their 50-acre property.
There has been a steady stream of visitors, almost daily, including a man in his 30s who lost his right hand at age 18 in a wood chipper.
“He's a black belt in Jiu Jitsu. He's an amazing athlete,” Angie Apel said. “It was really encouraging to see there's nothing Seth couldn't do, should he not get full use back.
“Another woman called, and she wanted to bring her 90-year-old mother over to meet Seth. So many people that we don't know have sent cards and money and prayers.”
Seth's mother drifted back in thought to the day of the accident. She found out about his injury while attending a baby shower 40 miles away. Without knowing details, she drove home, staving off panic by praying he was alive.
She found him in an ambulance at a campground, near home, along Interstate 80. She pulled up alongside and saw her husband and Seth inside. She climbed in, and together they waited for the helicopter to transport him to Children's Hospital.
“I said, ‘Seth, I'm so glad you're alive,' ” she recalled. “Josh looked at me and said, ‘His arm's gone.' He was just in tears and in pretty bad shape, actually.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘But, he's alive. Anything else we can deal with.' ”
Late one morning, as she does every day, Angie Apel took her son's right arm, loosened the plastic splint, and cupped his hand. One by one she moved each finger — a required portion of daily therapy. Seth grimaced but knew the endgame was to learn to move them again on his own.
They sat on the couch, directly beneath a painted wooden plaque that read:
“Dream Big. Think More. Fly High. Sing Louder.”
Ben Schmitt is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.