- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2001

MILNOR, N.D. — Parker Sebens plays as if he has always played this way, as if he has always lived a life without arms.
The 4-year-old moves his feet among the Legos, toy cars and plastic dinosaurs littering the family room floor around him. He squeezes Chewbacca and Darth Maul between his feet, then holds the Star Wars figures in a midair wrestling match.
A land speeder gets a push. A horned dinosaur is grasped and dropped.
Later, sitting on the kitchen floor, he picks up a tipped monster with his feet and stands it up.
"I know how to set this guy there now. Let me show you," he says, positioning the creature again. "Is that cool, Mom?"
Rene Sebens laughs at the question. Parker's face spreads into a wide, dimpled smile.
A thin white sleeve covers what's left of Parker's left arm, which ends inches below the elbow. His bare right arm — only a stump — hides inside the sleeve of his blue T-shirt.
His mother says Parker doesn't remember the accident last harvest, when a grain auger ripped his arms from his body, tearing the right into two pieces and mangling the left.
His easy play belies the life ahead of him. His independence will depend on the elbow his surgeon saved from the rampant infection that forced her to amputate the rest of his once-reattached arms.
How far he has to go is clear from what Mitch Sebens says are his son's goals for the next year: "to feed himself and go to the bathroom by himself by kindergarten."
Parker's surgeon, Dr. Jennifer Harrington, says she has heard people who suffered terrible injuries say that they were better off — not because of what happened, but because of what they were forced to learn about who they are, and what's important in their lives.
She struggles to find similar meaning in what happened to the young patient she calls an inspiration.
"With Parker it's so hard," she says. "I do know that Parker has touched a lot of people, and I do know that Parker will help a lot of people. And maybe that's what he's supposed to do."
Like boys who grow up on a farm, Parker wanted to be with his father when he worked. On Sept. 18 last year, he was playing with toy trucks in the bed of his father's pickup as Mitch Sebens ran an auger, loading wheat from bins onto a grain truck.
Mr. Sebens had warned Parker to stay away from the auger. He thought his son was safe in the pickup bed: The back gate was closed, and Parker had never climbed out on his own.
Mr. Sebens was moving away from the machine when a "funny noise" turned him around.
Parker was trapped in the auger. His father bolted to his shop and called for help. He grabbed clean rags, sprinted back, turned off the machine and ran for his son.
"He was lying on his back, 10 to 12 feet from the auger, screaming for me," he says. Parker's arms were gone, pulled through the machine's pipe by its rotating, spiraled blade.
Mr. Sebens used his shirt and the rags to stanch his son's wounds. He wrapped his arms around his boy, squeezing hard across his shoulders.
"Right away I noticed he had a bunch of wheat in his mouth, and he spit that out for me," Mr. Sebens says. "And he knew it was his arms because he said, 'Daddy, my arms.'"
The surgeon waited in the emergency room of North Memorial Medical Center. She had reattached limbs before and was confident she could handle this case.
Dr. Harrington didn't know what a grain auger was. She thought of the little boy who would soon be under her care and pictured two arms cleaved cleanly from a body.
The doors opened and a dark-haired 3-year-old was rushed in on an ambulance gurney.
"Parker, I'm Dr. Harrington, and you're going to be OK," she said. Parker looked at her, aware.
Rene Sebens, who accompanied her son on the flight to Minneapolis, approached Dr. Harrington.
"Treat him like he was your own little boy," she told the surgeon. "You don't know how special he is."
One team prepared Parker for surgery. Dr. Harrington took the Playmate cooler with the boy's arms to the operating room to ready them.
The arms were mangled, ripped. "They were so contaminated with grain, you could hardly tell they were arms," she says.
Dr. Allen Van Beek, a veteran of five double reattachments, joined Dr. Harrington in the operating room. She worked on Parker's left side, Dr. Van Beek the right. Blood vessels from his leg were grafted into the limbs. The doctors reattached both arms, repairing what they could. Dr. Van Beek told Dr. Harrington they would be lucky to save one elbow.
In the end that was all Dr. Harrington did save, after rampant infection forced her to pare Parker's limbs to keep ahead of dying tissue.
Dr. Harrington says the elbow will be everything for Parker: With it, he will have a prosthetic lower arm, which will allow him to feed, clean and groom himself.
The hope of that makes the repeated surgeries worth the pain they caused, Dr. Harrington says.
"I was just sick, because I felt like, did I do him any good?" she says. "And now I can say, yes, we did, because I saved him an elbow."
As he got stronger, Parker rode in a red wagon as Dr. Harrington made her rounds, passing her bandages with his feet as she changed patients' dressings.
"The wagon meant, we get to go and take care of other people, rather than me taking care of him," Dr. Harrington says.
In one room, Parker looked at a man's ugly wound and smiled.
"Oh, it will be OK," he said.
"There isn't a single injury out there worse than Parker's, and he's the one with the big smile," Dr. Harrington says. "I think he has a huge amount of inner strength."
Mitch and Rene Sebens divorced the month before the accident, but were together at the hospital for Parker and his three siblings.
The family was bolstered by their neighbors in Milnor, dozens of whom turned out to finish harvesting Mitch Sebens' corn and soybeans. Green ribbons appeared on doors, signs and cars throughout the small country town, symbols of hope that Parker would live to come home from the hospital.
The ribbons still adorn almost every streetlight on Main Street.
Dr. Harrington says the support of Parker's neighbors will help as he grows more aware of what sets him apart.
But Parker knows he is different. His mother says he warms to strangers slowly and he is sometimes self-conscious. And at age 4, he is contemplating his future with an innocence that only Parker can.
"When I turn 6," he asked his father, "will I have real arms?"


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