VanderHeide’s ordeal began the morning of Oct. 18 while Creekside Growers was in the midst of its fall harvest of dahlia tubers.
He was clearing debris from some moving parts of a bulb harvester when his boot got caught and the machine pulled him in, mangling his right leg up to the knee.
He quickly grabbed onto another part of the equipment, bracing himself until one of his employees could turn off the harvester. But the damage had been done.
“During that time the machine continued to turn and removed a very large section of my leg below my knee. Many nerves muscles, tendons and some bone were affected,” VanderHeide told The Spectator.
“Without the fast action of my employees, I would not have the lower part of that leg today. They deserve all the credit for me still having a leg to walk on.”
First responders rushed to the scene and an Ornge air ambulance soon airlifted VanderHeide to a hospital in London, where he underwent a pair of six-hour surgeries to put his leg back together.
“The reconstruction included reconnecting tendons and muscles, a nerve graft, and skin graft to close it all up,” he explained.
In the meantime, there was still a harvest to finish, a job that fell to VanderHeide’s wife, Hilary.
“Hilary took over the role of calling all the shots on the farm,” he said.
“Current and past employees came out to help, and an exceptionally selfless neighbour put the equipment back together — after they had taken it apart to get me out — and finished off the tractor work.”
The provincial labour ministry launched an investigation after the incident.
“The ministry cleared us of any wrongdoing by the end of that week and certified that the equipment was safe to operate and in good working condition,” VanderHeide said.
A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment for this story, saying the investigation was ongoing.
‘Overflow of love’
The harvest help was only the beginning of what VanderHeide called an “overflow of love” that left him “overwhelmed to the point of tears.”
Friends and neighbours dropped off groceries, gas cards and prepared meals, looked after the couple’s four children so Hilary could run the farm, and even mowed the lawn to give Nick peace of mind.
Fellow growers ensured Creekside’s greenhouses continued to produce while VanderHeide was laid up, while his customers sent encouraging words and pre-cooked meals to the family, and local church congregations prayed for his speedy recovery.
“All these blessings were showered on us while I laid helpless in a hospital bed,” VanderHeide said.
“We are still in awe of the number of people who reached out to help.”
VanderHeide gave a special mention to Hilary and their children, Elijah, Josiah, Asher and Lydia, who range in age from eight to 13.
“They are unflappable, resilient, strong, exceptionally helpful and often have more faith in me than I have in myself,” he said.
“The boys expect me to be snowboarding before the end of the season and surfing behind the boat as soon as the water is warm.”
VanderHeide may not make it onto a snowboard this winter, but he said his recovery is proceeding, albeit slowly.
“I have started to walk a bit without the use of assistance. It is painful and frustrating, with some days really good and others leaving me exhausted,” he said.
He expects a two-year recovery from his extensive injuries, with hopes that the nerve graft will show signs of healing at the six-month mark.
“There is no guarantee that the nerve graft will take and no idea what ‘full recovery’ will look like,” he said.
“But we are hopeful that the recovery will be complete, even if it does take a long time.”
Despite the challenges ahead, VanderHeide is keeping things in perspective.
“There are so many ways that this accident could have literally ended my life — if key employees hadn’t been there, if my leg had been pulled in three inches farther, if the first responders weren’t so amazing,” he said.
“As a family we are so thankful to have celebrated another Christmas together.”
By J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Jan 17, 2023