Farmer raises thousands for Air Ambulance after being impaled by forklift
18th November 2021
Forty-two-year-old farmer Jonathan Willis thanked the emergency services and Addenbrooke’s Hospital surgical teams who saved him last year, after he dodged death by mere millimetres when he was accidentally impaled by a forklift tine.
Jonathan was working on his farm near Wisbech in October 2020 when the accident happened. He had been unloading a trailer of straw bales when he got out of his forklift to untie some straps on the trailer. As he was standing between the forklift and the trailer, the forklift rolled forward and he became impaled on one of the tines, pinning him to the bale trailer.
Luckily, he was not working alone at the time and was able to quickly raise the alarm so his wife, Wendy, could call 999.
Seven minutes after the 999 call was made, the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA) made it to the farm to begin the task of saving Jonathan’s life.
The forklift tine had entered through his lower back and exited through his abdomen, posing severe risk to several major internal organs and blood vessels, making this a time-critical and life-threatening situation.
Jonathan was conscious and aware throughout the ordeal, and had to stay standing as still as possible for around an hour whilst emergency services worked to free him from his position pinned to the bales.
The EAAA team worked with the ambulance, police and fire and rescue teams to assess Jonathan’s injuries and coordinate the complex extrication process. Due to the nature of his injuries and fears over the location of the injury it was essential that both Jonathan and the tine remain as stationary as possible. Movement could have caused a catastrophic internal bleed.
The length, weight and position of the tine meant that Jonathan could not be safely transferred in the helicopter. EAAA doctors James Hale and Nathan Howes and critical care paramedic Andy Bates travelled with Jonathan in the ground ambulance for just over an hour to get him safely to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where an expert surgical team was ready and waiting. At one point over 30 surgeons were in the operating theatre with Jonathan as he under went the seven-hour surgery, led by expert surgeon Mr Emmanuel Huguet.
Mr Huguet, recalled the evening: “Upon hearing the description on Mr Willis’ injuries, I was completely taken aback and had to ask for the information to be repeated three times. It seemed near impossible for someone to have survived such injuries as that area of the abdomen is full of overlapping tightly-packed-together organs and very major blood vessels. […] We were astounded by the trajectory of the spike. It had transfixed parts of the intestine, but somehow found an incredibly improbable ‘eye of the needle’ line past all the major blood vessels, as well as missing the right kidney, liver, and pancreas.
“Mr Willis was simultaneously very unfortunate to have his injury, and also miraculously lucky that the spike didn’t cause any life-threatening damage to the numerous large blood vessels in its path.”
When first dispatched to the farm most of the first responders doubted that Jonathan would survive the ordeal. But the thick steel tine was safely removed, and just two weeks later, Jonathan was discharged to recover at home with his wife and five children, although it took almost five months for his wounds to heal fully.
As a well-used bit of farm kit the forklift tine also put Jonathan at a high risk of infection, especially as it had punctured his bowels, but he has made a remarkable recovery.
One year on from the accident, the Willis family has raised over £45,000 at a charity ball in aid of the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA), to thank them for the part they played in Jonathan’s rescue and to help keep the charity in the air for those who need it.
Wendy Willis, Jonathan’s wife, said: “We know that without the enhanced skills of the air ambulance team that day Jonathan wouldn’t have made it to hospital. They took control of the situation – which was like living my worst nightmare – and made all the right decisions which got him to the right hospital and to the right surgeon with a fighting chance.”
EAAA consultant Dr Nathan Howes said: “I have worked for East Anglian Air Ambulance since 2015, and frequently attend incidents involving trapped patients, but I had never been to an incident quite like this, or met a patient quite like Jonathan.
“I was so impressed by how stoic Jonathan and his wife, Wendy, were. This definitely helped while we devised a plan with the Fire and Rescue and Ambulance Services to support Jonathan, cut the tine and release him safely.
“And I’ll never forget the sense of humour he maintained until we reached the operating theatre. It felt like treating a friend. I have been amazed by his survival and recovery, and I am so grateful to Jonathan and Wendy for visiting us, a year later. These stories sustain us and help keep us ready for the next call.”
Farming remains one of the UK’s most dangerous professions, with the latest statistics from the Health and Safety Executive showing that agriculture is 20 times more dangerous than other professions.
Jonathan’s accident and remarkable recovery is a reminder to all farmers of the dangers of working with machinery and the importance of having people on hand who can call for help if the worst does happen.
For advice on keeping yourself and others safe on farm visit the Yellow Wellies website.
The East Anglian Air Ambulance team have made a short film showing the incident and Johnathan’s recovery;