October 18, 2007
Delta farmer returns to fields with help of high-tech limb
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
LELAND, Miss.—As Matt Azlin begins a play-by-play of his Nov. 13 farm accident, his wife Katherine gently hustles their two kids out of earshot.
Hayes, 5, and Josie, 18 months, don’t need to hear the gruesome details. They already know how Daddy lost his lower right leg. And if the truth be known, they handled the news better than most adults. “When we first told Hayes about the amputation, he said: ‘Cool, Daddy is going to be a pirate,’ ” Katherine said. “He even wanted to take my artificial leg to school for share day,” Matt said.
Hayes’ classmates might have preferred a peek at an authentic peg leg, but Matt’s prosthesis still proved worthy of show-and-tell. The high-tech titanium limb sports an innovative vacuum system, built-in shock absorbers and an energy-storing foot.
The 31-year-old Leland farmer needs the rugged limb to handle his active lifestyle. He often has 100 acres of crops in production, and a simple Sunday-go-to-meeting prosthesis wasn’t likely to hold up to all his hard labor, said Jennifer Long, clinical manager of Methodist Orthotics & Prosthetics, which has clinics in Monroe, La. and Flowood, Meridian and Hattiesburg, Miss.
“We recommended Otto Bock’s Harmony model because the vacuum system provides enhanced suction and a more reliable fit,” she said. “This leg stays on when Matt climbs onto a tractor or tromps across a field. And the energy-storing foot also puts some spring in his step.”
Both of Matt’s legs were maimed by farm machinery, a fate hardly unheard of in the agriculture community. In one study, more than a third of disabled farmers served by the National AgrAbility Project said their lower extremity amputation was caused by a tractor or machinery incident.
Matt was almost done in by a “do-all,” a machine that features rotating blades similar to those on an old-timey push mower. Matt said he was behind a tractor unhitching the equipment when the tractor operator inexplicably shifted into drive. Suddenly, the do-all begin rolling up Matt’s legs, slicing skin and breaking bones in 6-inch intervals.
By the time Matt finally got free of the machine, blood from a severed artery was staining his blue jeans red. “I told the tractor driver to get some rags and we tied my legs off above the knee. I never looked down after that. I knew it wasn’t good.”
The two set off to meet an ambulance with Matt shouting directions to a 911 operator over his cell phone. Meanwhile, Katherine was at a Delta birthday party, mercifully oblivious to the unfolding drama.
“My cell phone was in the car, and no one wanted to tell me until my daddy came and got me,” she said. “I can remember that people seemed to be on their cell phones a lot and everybody was a little standoffish. When I got up to leave, a friend had to catch me and tell me. I left the kids at the birthday party and that was the last I saw of them for a long time.”
Katherine’s dad drove her to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where Matt was headed via helicopter. “I’ve never flown before in my life, and I don’t remember any of it,” he said.
The next five days were a blur, as well, but Matt can’t forget Dec. 1. That’s the day he agreed to an amputation. “I said if my leg isn’t functional, I don’t want it. I knew it would be better gone.”
After 27 days in the hospital and more than a half-dozen surgeries, Matt finally made it home on December 10. And from that moment on, he was impatient to put his wheelchair days behind him. In fact, he went to Methodist Rehab for his prosthetic leg because the staff could promise a one-day turnaround. “He has been very antsy about getting up and going,” Long said. “But he had a lot of hurdles to overcome.”
Matt had more problems than most because his left leg had been pieced together with rods and pins and was extremely painful. “For a long time he was putting more weight on his prosthesis than his sound leg, which is just the opposite of what people usually do,” Long said. “If his left side had been healthy…
“I could probably be running right now,” Matt said. “It was an ordeal for awhile. But I finally had to say I’m putting this prosthesis on and I’m not taking if off.”
To stay motivated, Matt focused on a number of goals. First, he wanted to get back to hunting, and he killed a deer from the seat of his wheelchair on Jan. 20. He has since climbed into a tree stand wearing his prosthetic leg and bagged another buck.
Now he’s a few weeks away from another important milestone – proving he can take his crops from planting to harvest. “If he can do it this year, he can do it any year,” Katherine said.
Matt said he has managed it all with the support of family and friends. And he and Katherine are more appreciative than ever of the way people look out for each other in a small town. While Matt was in the hospital, more than 60 people answered a call for blood donations -- three times the number expected by blood drive organizers. “Matt would go to Wal-Mart and people we didn’t even know would say we’re praying for you,” Katherine said.
As he anticipates more surgeries ahead, Matt is pushing hard to get proficient with his prosthesis. He knows it will be his “good” leg while his left heals from surgery.
It’s the proverbial hard row to hoe. And Matt admits: “I do get frustrated at times.” But now, at least, he’s like a farmer at the end of a field, looking back at all he’s already accomplished. “I need to shut up and appreciate what I do have,” he said. “I’m thankful to be alive.”
Matt Azlin of Leland enjoys some cuddle time with Josie, 18 months, and Hayes, 5. After a Nov. 13 farm accident, Azlin was forced to spend almost a month away from his young family while he recuperated in a Jackson hospital.
Thanks to gritty determination and the help of a high-tech prosthetic limb, Matt Azlin is back in the driver's seat at his Leland farm.
Matt Azlin's high-tech artificial limb is made of titanium and features an innovative vacuum system, built-in shock absorbers and an energy-storing foot.