- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - Jack Williamson has always been a practical joker, so his family figures he was trying to sneak up on his grandpa the day of his accident.

His mom, Amanda Erk, remembers looking at Jack from the second-story window of her parents’ house while putting his little sister, Maggie, down for a nap.

Her father was moving the John Deere mower he uses to keep up the family’s seven acres. He was about to put the machine away, but noticed a spot that needed a quick touch up.

Amanda watched as her father looked around to find Jack playing on the swing set. The rule was Jack had to be inside when grandpa mowed. But Jack was far away, so he started up the machine. Amanda thought about yelling to Jack to come inside, but realized she would be calling him toward the lawn mower.

She turned away from the window to go downstairs. That’s when she heard her dad scream.

“To this day, my dad and I rack our brains as to how he got to where he was in time,” Amanda said. “But he did, somehow.”

Jack remembers going to see his grandpa, and slipping on a rock. Then he remembers his grandpa putting him on the grass, and being inside an ambulance. The rest is gone.

Jack had fallen and his grandfather, who didn’t realize Jack snuck across the yard, backed up.

Amanda remembers more. She remembers her mother grabbing a cold towel and robe strap while she called 9-1-1. She remembers searching for pieces, picking up toes from the grass while her mother made a tourniquet to try and stop the bleeding.

“I very distinctly remember holding a row of his toes,” she said. “That kind of haunts me still to this day.”

Lawn mowers are now required to have certain safety features because so many accidents had happened. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than 17,000 children and teens are treated for lawnmower injuries each year.

There are features that stop mowing when the machine is reversing, but owners are able to override them. Jack’s grandfather had turned it off, so the blades were still turning when he reversed.

Luckily, he hadn’t turned off the feature that stops the blade when the seat lifts. As soon as he stood up, it stopped, and Jack was saved from further damage.

That night Jack was airlifted to IU Health Methodist Hospital. He had lost almost half of his blood, and received two transfusions on the way. He went through six surgeries, but doctors could only salvage his heel.

It all happened too fast for Jack, who was four at the time, to understand. He didn’t really know why he was stuck in a hospital bed until the nurses had to change his bedding, and he saw what his foot looked like.

His right leg now comes straight down into a rounded end.

“Some of the times it had to be bandaged, which was the good times,” Jack said. “Then when they had to take it off it was all swollen and I didn’t like it. I had to close my eyes.”

That was April of 2010. Almost exactly six years later, Amanda and 10-year-old Jack sit on their couch, next to seven fake feet. Jack, now a fourth-grader at Sutton Elementary, is wearing the eighth. With them lined up you can see how he has grown.

After two weeks in the hospital, Jack started physical therapy. Then there was counseling.

At first, he played baseball; his team even won a championship. But his prosthetic was too painful, and he stopped. He had to miss team dinners or bonding activities to go to fittings, anyway, he said.

It’s hard for Jack to find the right fit because he still has his heel. Therefore, putting a prosthetic foot under his heel means his hips are uneven.

Doctors in Indiana wanted to amputate more, but there are positives to having the heel. Jack doesn’t have any of the “ghost limb” pain that amputees often experience, and he can put his weight on it to walk, although it isn’t comfortable for long periods of time. So Amanda fought for another option.

In December, she took Jack to Shriners Hospital for Children in Kentucky for his eighth surgery, this time on his growth plate. Now Jack should grow a few more inches without his right leg growing, so he can get a more comfortable prosthetic with a moving ankle.

These are things Amanda and Jack never expected to have to deal with, and it takes a toll on the family. Everyone feels guilt. Amanda and her parents feel responsible.

“The hardest thing I had to deal with was pain and guilt because I thought I was ruining my grandpa’s life,” Jack said.

It was little, rubber bugs that helped their family through it.

Jack is still a practical joker, and he quickly figured out that hospitals are the perfect place for his antics. He would have a toy bug resting on his arm for the nurse to find when she came to change his IV, or on the floor when the nurses try to quietly check on him at night.

People who sat on the edge of his hospital bed frequently fell into a whoopee cushion trap.

It kept him laughing when not much else was funny.

“Even if we are laughing through our tears, we still find a way to laugh about it,” Amanda said.

About a year after his accident, Jack saw another child who had been in a lawnmower accident on the news. His name was Jace, and he lost his entire foot.

Jack begged his mom to go visit Jace. Amanda didn’t know if they’d be allowed to see them, but she had to try for her son. They packed a gift bag full of all the fun things Jack loved while he was in the hospital, including fake snakes, bugs and slime. The goal was to make Jace smile.

Jace’s mom, Kelly Whittis, said the family was still in shock when Jack showed up. Even worse, people were saying hurtful things after seeing Jace on the news, like saying social services needed to take him away from the family.

“I was really apprehensive about talking to people about it because we got so much backlash,” Whittis said. “We hadn’t told Jace yet that he had lost his foot, we didn’t know how to tell him.”

Jack showed Jace his prosthetic and told him about playing baseball. After that, Whittis told her son about his foot, and explained he would be getting a “robot leg,” just like Jack.

“Just to know that this stranger wanted to reach out to us, and wanted us to know that we aren’t alone…it just meant the world.” Whittis said.

Jace and Jack are not alone. The two main causes of amputation for children are lawn mower and crash injuries.

When Jack and Amanda found that out, they started Jack’s Laughs. They buy fun supplies themselves and deliver bags to child amputees. They’ve delivered five so far this year and are trying to expand by accepting donations.

They also connected with 13 families from 10 states to create Limbs Matter, and make a public service announcement. They want people to know how common these accidents are, and the steps to keep children safe.

It’s taken their family six years to rebuild the trust and relationships that were lost in an instant that day. Jack will never get his foot back, but he still has his life, and he knows there’s a purpose for that.

Yesterday, a classmate asked Jack why he was still alive.

“I said, ‘Because of God,’” he said. “‘Because he wanted me to live on and continue helping other kids and teaching. parents a lesson about keeping their kids inside while mowing the lawn.’”

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Source: The (Muncie) Star-Press, http://tspne.ws/1R1CPgT

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com

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