Two days ago, I sat down with Harley Stutzman, an Ohio Amish furniture finisher (Holmes County settlement). I had heard that Harley had been through an ordeal since our last meeting. Harley shared his remarkable story as we sat on his front porch sipping ice cold Pepsis on a beautiful spring afternoon.
By way of background, Harley was one of the business owners I interviewed for my book. I’ve known Harley for five years, and we last spoke in September of 2007. Here’s a segment from Chapter 1 of Success Made Simple:
A bit uncommon for an Amishman, Harley worked on the railroad for a spell and drove a vehicle before being baptized in the Amish church, followed by a stint in a mobile home factory after rejoining the community.
About his chosen trade of furniture finishing: “I had no experience. I just jumped in. It was a little scary, I had two kids at the time, and I had a mortgage payment,” Harley explains. “I stayed at the factory when I first started…”
About six weeks after that interview, Harley was out in the woods five miles from his home, preparing some hunting stands for the upcoming deer season. Harley had scaled a tree to inspect a stand and clear away branches to create firing lines. Having checked the structure and finding it sturdy, he climbed up and planted his feet. And that’s when the platform, its weakened bolts hidden out of sight underneath, gave way.
Normally a climbing harness would keep one in place in this situation. But Harley had gotten hot, and removed both his jacket and harness. So he plummeted 23 feet to the forest floor.
As someone once quipped, it’s not the fall that bothers me, it’s the landing I’m afraid of. Harley’s landing could hardly have been worse.
The Amishman hit the ground with feet planted and knees locked, setting off an explosion inside his body. Harley heard bones crush and collapse. His pelvis shattered in three places. His hip socket split due to the sheer force of his femur shooting upward. And worst of all, Harley’s third lumbar vertebrae was pulverized.
Harley was spared excruciating agony, though at the time he probably wished he felt the pain. For in what must have been a terrifying experience, Harley’s body instantly went numb from the waist down.
Laying crumpled in a heap, he thought about his cell phone, and was gripped by fear on realizing his jacket, where he normally kept it, lay 30 feet away. But for reasons unbeknownst to him, he found he had actually placed it in his pocket that day. One wonders how—and if—he would have reached it otherwise.
Relieved, he was able to call an English friend who had dropped him off earlier. Not sure how long he would remain conscious, Harley gave him detailed instructions on where to find him, and waited for paramedics to arrive.
At the hospital, the news was poor. Harley arrived on a Saturday. The neurosurgeon who would attempt to repair his crushed body, and perhaps salvage his ability to walk, was on vacation for the weekend. This meant Harley waited until Tuesday for his operation, kept sane from the creeping pain by heavy doses of morphine.
The prognosis he received was far from good—downright demoralizing, in fact. Harley was told he should expect a wheelchair-bound life. He made up his mind to make the best of whatever would come.
After a grueling surgery which fused three vertebrae together, Harley began the rehab process, still lacking any feeling in his lower body. “Everyone needs a goal,” he was told by the person in charge of his rehab. Harley’s goal became getting home by Thanksgiving, about a month away. Well, you might as well shoot for the stars, he was told with some doubt.
Every day doctors would come in to check for movement in his lower body, of which there was none.
But then, a tingle. On one momentous day Harley was asked to move his toes. The amazed doctors detected motion which would have been imperceptible to most. Slowly Harley’s feeling and mobility returned.
Harley was home three and a half weeks after the accident—a week before Thanksgiving. And perhaps most amazingly, a week after the holiday, Harley was out hunting with buddies, planted in a rigged seat contraption on the ground. To make the story even sweeter, the Amishman bagged two deer that day, firing a light shotgun from his low perch.
Today, Harley carries a foot-long scar and more equipment than an Ace hardware store. He says he is functioning at 90%. While he knows he’ll never make it to full capacity, he walks without much of a limp, and is able to do numerous tasks around his business. He can lift light weight, and does paperwork when he gets tired. He still has improvement to make, he says.
But he has a newfound appreciation for what he does have. While we chatted, his excited children returned from school, where they had just had an egg drop competition. The day before, Harley had helped them practice, launching eggs out the second story window into the field for the kids to (try to) catch. They stopped after five misses.
Harley realizes he is lucky, and gives credit where it is due. He made mistakes that day—going alone to the woods, which he’d been warned against doing. Removing the safety harness. And he paid the price.
It’s the latest in a line of obstacles the Amishman has encountered in life. He wouldn’t want to go through it again. But the experience has left behind gifts.
Those gifts include an appreciation for what he does have. And a profound gratitude—to his caretakers for their expertise, to his community for its support, and to God for the second chance.
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