Boy's will to recover, faith play role in fast healing from severed arm
A resounding crack of the baseball bat, a loud cheer from his teammates, and there was Seth Apel intently sprinting down the first-base line.
The mid-evening sun bounced off the dirt infield as Seth beat the throw to the base. He smiled, self-assured but not arrogant. His father, coaching first base, stood at his side and exhaled.
At 6:42 p.m. May 3, Seth smacked his first hit of the spring Little League season — an infield single to the shortstop — during an away game at Rimersburg Elementary School in Clarion County.
It was a routine ground ball, but it meant so much more.
“I was really excited,” he told the Tribune-Review afterward while chomping on a hot dog. “I felt good swinging the bat. And, hey, we won the game.”
Seth, 12, lost part of his right arm Nov. 7 in a freak accident at his Knox home. 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.
Joseph Schmader, an emergency medical technician, wondered if the severed arm could be saved when he spotted it on the ground. The boy was in shock. A small blood pool meant the arm's vessels had spasmed and prevented major blood loss.
Schmader washed the arm down with sterile water. He turned to Seth's grandfather, Tim Smith, the first person to find the boy, and made an urgent request.
“Can you bring me a garbage bag and fill it with ice?” he asked.
Smith didn't have any, so Schmader settled for two large bags of frozen mixed vegetables.
He bandaged Seth's wound, wrapped the arm in a towel, and placed it in a plastic bag with the vegetables.
Seth, who is right-handed, looked at Schmader and said: “I'm a baseball player. And I'm a pitcher.”
“You're going to be OK, buddy,” Schmader told him.
Within 15 minutes, a medical helicopter flew him to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, where a plastic surgeon and a trauma team reattached the arm in a six-hour surgery.
Baseball was probably out of the question for the next several years, everyone acknowledged. Recovery had to come first.
Seth had other plans.
Working his way back
“Keep your head down. Head down!”
“That's it. Good rip!”
“Nice one. That ball is gone!”
It's mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, and batting instructor Ed Kemmer feeds baseball after baseball into a pitching machine inside The Garage, an indoor hitting and pitching facility in Shippenville. Seth, bat in hand, crouches in front of a padded backstop and swings away with authority. Kemmer cranks the machine up to 47 mph and Seth steadily sends the balls into the netting.
“Need a break?” asks Kemmer.
Seth shakes his head no.
“That's always been a great thing about Seth — he has fun and keeps positive,” said his father, Josh Apel. “He's come a long way in six months.”
Seth swings at 300 pitches — hitting most — before the hour-long session concludes.
“I didn't know what to expect from him initially,” said Kemmer, whose 25-year-old son Jon is a minor league baseball player for the Houston Astros organization. “Some people suggested that I bat him left-handed, but I disagreed. I didn't want to put his damaged arm out there in front.”
There's no argument that Seth's reattached arm remains damaged. Still, doctors and his friends and family are astounded by his rapid recovery. His arm tingled when a doctor tapped on his elbow a month after the accident. Now Seth can fully move his right shoulder and elbow and has feeling down to his right wrist.
His right hand doesn't function, but Seth created his own way to hold a baseball bat: he anchors his right hand around the bat grip, and curls his left hand around the right for support.
Seth uses his left hand to catch and throw in innovative fashion: he catches a ball in his mitt, quickly flips off the mitt and, while the ball hovers in the air, catches it bare-handed before throwing it. Seth said he taught himself the catch-and-throw procedure in about six weeks. He's working on his throwing accuracy.
“There's just no quit in him,” Kemmer said. “I challenge him right to the max every week, and he never backs down.
“He makes my week, every week.”
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt, a Children's Hospital plastic surgeon, likened the medical process of reattaching Seth's arm to putting a jigsaw puzzle back together, connecting bones, arteries, veins and nerves. The operation marked her first such procedure.
“All kinds of things could have gone wrong,” Grunwaldt said. “They did not. The arm was clean in the sense where it was not contaminated, and the blood clotted off quickly.”
A key component to Seth's fast healing can be attributed to his avoiding an infection and other complications. Grunwaldt said Seth's will to recover also cannot be discounted. He exercises his arm in physical therapy sessions three times a week.
“When it comes to this type of recovery, the patient really has to be compliant with physical therapy. It's not easy,” she said. “I did not think he would have made this much progress so quickly. But he's working very hard.”
The doctor/patient relationship between Seth and Grunwaldt evolved into a friendship to the point that he and his family invited her to attend his first home baseball game in Knox.
Ten days after his initial road game, the doctor showed up at Knox Community Park along with about 400 supporters. Seth handed her a signed baseball on the field before the game.
“Walking on to the field, I really tried to hold it together, but I started crying a bit,” she said. “It's pretty special they invited me to go up there. Not a lot of patients express that degree of gratitude.”
Seth's attitude infects his teammates as well.
“He's definitely an encouragement to all the kids — they like to watch him,” said his coach, Josh Albright. “He put in a lot of work, and it's been amazing watching him learn how to throw with the opposite hand in a matter of months.”
Back to normal
During the season's first game in Rimersburg, Seth's family and friends watched in awe.
“Way to go,” they cheered as Seth crossed home plate, advancing after subsequent hits from his teammates.
“We never imagined we'd be here this year,” his mother, Angie Apel said. “It's been amazing.”
Faith plays a large role in the Apel household, and Seth's never wavered.
During Seth's hospitalization, after the accident, his mother asked if he was angry with God.
“I'll never forget his incredulous tone as he said, ‘No. Why would I be? Everything happens for a reason,'” she recalled.
Seth's grandfather, who called 911 after finding him and his severed arm, wiped his eyes after Seth's first hit.
“He's come through all that pain incredibly,” Smith said. “I gave him five years before he would have any control at all over his arm. I still can't believe he's come this far.”
Seth's team, named after a local funeral home, Rupert's, came out on top by a 6-5 score. Seth high-fived his teammates and coaches. His family, including his two brothers and three sisters, waited by the dugout.
“Really great job, Seth,” Smith told him. “How does it feel?”
Seth responded without hesitation.
“It feels pretty natural.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.