Dec. 12, 2008, is a day that will forever etched in the mind of 35-year-old Carrie Peterman.
Just days after giving birth to her third child, the Edmore woman was tired and decided to lie down to catch up on sleep. Her 4-day-old son, Esten, had been up all night and so had she.
But a 24-hour-period that started out just like any other soon turned into a day that forever changed the lives of every member of the Peterman family.
It was the day Carrie’s husband, Branden, 34, owner of Montcalm Logging and a volunteer firefighter for Day Township, was crushed and immediately paralyzed from the waist down.
How it happened
“I don’t remember actually getting hit,” Branden said of the accident that occurred at about 10 a.m. that Friday. “But I remember laying there a few seconds after getting hit.
“I knew immediately that I was paralyzed,” he said. “I knew right then that I couldn’t feel my legs.”
Branden’s cousin and hired hand, Brian Lewis, 47, was helping him fell maple trees in a small grove between Remus and Barryton in Mecosta County that morning and saw the whole thing happen from about 30 yards away.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Lewis said. “It was just a panic mode where you’re hoping that he’s OK. I was scared, probably the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.”
Lewis ran up to where Branden had been crushed and was relieved to find him conscious and talking. The tree had struck Branden on the shoulder, driving him down backward. He was barely visible above a foot of snow on the ground.
“His legs were kind of back behind him,” Lewis said, his voice full of emotion. “He told me to get his hard hat off and to cut the tree off, cut it off.”
The 14-inch ironwood tree was slowly suffocating Branden, who besides a severely injured spinal cord also suffered two punctured lungs from the tree’s pressure. Yet he said he felt a peace wash over him despite the desperate situation.
“I was kind of at ease,” Branden said. “At no point was I ever mad about it. I had an ease come over me, knowing that the good Lord has a plan.”
He said his first thoughts were of little Esten, who was waiting at home for him.
“I wasn’t just going to lay in the snow and die,” Branden said.
He recalled that just the night before, he and Carrie had talked about what would happen if something ever happened to either of them.
“How ironic, huh?” Branden said with a slight chuckle.
But humor was the last thing on Lewis’ mind as he cut the tree off his cousin and ran to a nearby house to have the residents call 911.
“Boy, it seemed like forever,” Lewis said of the wait for rescuers to arrive at the scene.
Due to the rural nature of the Mecosta County accident site, it took a while for rescuers to get back to where the tree had fallen, a quarter of a mile off the roadway.
Medical personnel placed Branden on a backboard and hoisted him up on the tailgate of a pickup truck since the ambulance couldn’t drive back into the wooded area.
Branden was shivering intensely from the cold temperatures but doctors told him later that those frigid conditions might have saved his life by slowing down the organs traumatically injured inside his body.
Blog entry: Dec. 13, 2008
“They have determined that Branden has a major injury to the spinal cord. Other concerns are internal bleeding, possible damage to the aorta, a broken left femur, broken nose, five staples in the head, several stitches to close a gash on the forehead, gash on nose stitched, possible broken shoulder and many cuts and scrapes and bruises. By late afternoon Branden was taken to surgery in the spinal cord. It was then confirmed, medically, that Branden will never walk again due to several voids in the spinal cord.” — Carrie
“I got the first phone call at around 11 a.m.,” Carrie recalled. “I had just went to lay down because the baby had been up all night. I had left the cell (phone) in the other room.”
She didn’t realize she’d missed six calls until she heard a knock on the door of their home.
“Our cousin, Andrew, came to the door and just said, ‘Branden has been in a bad accident,’” Carrie said, her eyes growing soft as she recalled that vivid day. “He said, ‘a tree fell on him. It’s bad. We don’t know how bad.’”
Carrie said she immediately called an aunt to watch the children so she could hurry to Branden’s side.
Reports said that Branden was being transported by ambulance to Big Rapids where AeroMed had been called to airlift him to Spectrum Health System’s Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
“But AeroMed was grounded because a big storm was coming in,” Carried remembered. “So they had to drive him.”
She said she was flustered and didn’t know if she should head to Big Rapids to see her husband before he left for Grand Rapids or to go to Butterworth and meet him there, where he would hopefully still be alive.
Arrival at Butterworth
Carrie said she immediately called a friend from church to start a prayer chain and then waited as another friend employed with the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office in Stanton tried to track down Branden’s exact location.
“They told me they thought it was best to head down there to Grand Rapids,” Carrie recalled.
Once at Butterworth she waited anxiously for the ambulance to get there, praying that her husband would still be alive when he arrived.
“I got there about 11⁄2 hours before they arrived,” Carrie said while recalling the torture of waiting. “It was rough. They were late getting in and just waiting was rough.”
When the ambulance arrived she hurried over to see her husband, expecting to be able to follow him into the trauma unit. But a swarm of doctors, nurses and hospital employees ushered Carrie to a private room to wait even longer.
“For the next hour I couldn’t tell what they were doing,” she said.
A hospital chaplain scurried back and forth between Carrie and the trauma unit, giving whatever updates she could as computerized tomography (CT) scans and evaluations were quickly performed on Branden.
An orthopedic specialist finally joined Carrie in the waiting room and sat next to the anxious wife.
“I told him flat out, ‘don’t sugarcoat it,’” she said. “I told him not to be gentle.”
She said the doctor hesitated but followed her orders.
“He said, ‘I can save his life but I can’t save his legs,” Carrie recalled.
Evaluations had shown that Branden wasn’t responding to pain-prick testing “from his nipple-line down” and that his spinal cord was severely damaged. The doctor told her that Branden also had suffered several other broken bones, internal bleeding and many other injuries that had to be treated immediately to save his life.
“I asked if I could go see him and he said, ‘I can give you one minute,’” Carrie said, holding back tears from the memory. “And he literally gave me about 30 seconds.”
“In a wheelchair”
Carrie still vividly remembers walking into the trauma unit and seeing her husband’s once strong body lying on a table.
Branden was shaking terribly.
“I leaned over to look into his eyes and I told him, ‘I’m here and there are lots of people praying,’” she said quietly. “I asked him why he was shaking so bad and he said, ‘I’m freezing… and I’m going to be in a wheelchair.’”
Carrie said she leaned over and kissed his battered forehead before the doctor told her, “That’s it. We’ve got to move.”
Blog entry: Dec. 13, 2008
“They have put rods and screws along the spine to keep it stable and straight. That took approximately five hours. Then they called the ortho bone specialist and, since the spine surgery went so well, they were given the green light to repair the femur. So another three hours were spent in surgery. The broken nose will not be fixed at this time. Branden’s face is very swollen and battered. He is on a vent to rest his bruised lungs. We are in ‘wait and see’ mode. Very good stats that encourage us. No word on the possible broken shoulder. Pray for God to give us a miracle.” — Carrie
“At first there was a lot of uncertainty,” Carrie remembered. “But it was always ‘how’ we are going to make it work, not ‘if’ we were going to make it work. Both Branden and I have always said you either let it get you down or you rise above it.”
Branden spent eight days in Butterworth’s intensive care unit before being transferred to Mary Free Bed Hospital & Rehabilitation Center in Grand Rapids.
“The first couple weeks I hurt so bad,” he recalled. “Everything just hurt so bad.”
But time and therapy plus the support of family and friends have given him strength to keep working hard.
“Just something as simple as rolling over in bed and having to flop your legs over is hard, little things you never think of before you’re hurt.”
Branden undergoes five hours of rehabilitative therapy seven days a week, helping him adjust to life without the use of his waist or legs.
“I’m learning how to get in vehicles,” Branden said while listing all the many different skills he has to relearn.
“They have a small room with a bathroom and bed,” he said. “They teach you how to cook again.”
Branden said Mary Free Bed employees are teaching him how to do everyday things like changing his new son’s diaper. With no feeling in his waist, Branden must learn to balance himself to even sit up straight.
“You have to relearn it all over again,” he said. “You don’t have the height advantage or even the stomach muscles to sit up.”
Blog entry: Jan. 1, 2009
“Never forget that no matter how bad you think you have it, someone always has it worse. Being here at Mary Free Bed has sure been an eye-opener. You meet so many people and hear so many stories that sometimes you walk away feeling guilty. Guilty we will go home and have an almost normal life. Branden knows who I am and didn’t have a brain injury. He doesn’t stare off into space (only when I am talking too much and he’s ignoring me), he doesn’t drool, he interacts with the kids, etc. Stuff like that is what we see other people dealing with. It’s amazing to think that God has a plan. I tend to be a control freak, but that is one job I wouldn’t want.” — Carrie
“My family has been absolutely wonderful,” Branden said. “They’ve been great all the way through. I think Carrie’s been home only about three days since the accident.”
He said his daughters, 7-year-old Addisen and 5-year-old Darby, still are trying to understand what happened to their father.
Addisen is staying with Carrie’s mother so she can continue attending school while Darby and Esten are always with Carrie.
“Darby is a little young but she’s been really helpful and wanting to get in the way,” Branden said with a smile. “Addisen was hesitant for a while. I think it was really tough on her for the first couple weeks, definitely off the bat.”
“She kept asking, ‘If I pray hard enough will God make my dad be unparalyzed?’” Carrie said. “And we told her she may not get a miracle when she wants it. If it’s meant to be then it will be, when it’s the right time for him (God).”
Addisen said she’s still praying for that miracle.
Blog entry: Last Tuesday
“Darby has been quite the helper. She is also an honest dose of reality. Here’s the story. She would do anything for her daddy. She knows that itching his arms makes him feel better. So she is always asking if he wants her to itch, or comb his hair, or tickle, etc. She decides she is going to rub lotion on his legs. In the process, she looks up at him and says, ‘Does that feel good, Daddy?’ It broke her heart and mine to see the look on his face when he said, ‘I don’t know, Darby, Dad can’t feel it.’ She understands, but forgets.” — Carrie
Firefighting and hunting
Branden has been a volunteer fireman with the Day Township Fire Department for 20 years — since he was 14.
The thought of never being a firefighter again is the thing that bothers Branden most.
“I was always the first one,” he said. “I always had to be the first one in the building or to cut the person out.”
Branden said he hopes there’s some way he still will be able to help fight fires, despite his disabilities.
Also an avid hunter, Branden and his friends already are cooking up ways to go hunting with his wheelchair next fall.
“Those were his two biggest concerns,” Carrie said with a smile. “How will he get back to the woods hunting and how will he fight fires?”
Benefit on March 28
The Day Township Fire Department and a few other local community fire departments are planning a benefit hog roast March 28 at the Edmore Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to help raise funds for Branden’s medical costs.
His church — the First Baptist Church in Stanton — is raising money to help pay for his specially fitted wheelchair.
“He is absolutely humbled by the outpouring of support from the community, church, friends, firefighters and total strangers,” Carrie said with a big smile. “People we haven’t even heard of have stopped by to visit him.”
She said she knows Branden wishes he could somehow repay all the favors he and his family have received from the community.
“The support has touched his life on a different level,” she stated. “Thanks just isn’t enough.”
Blog entry: Jan. 9, 2009
“Therapies went very well again. Easy for me to say when it’s Branden doing all the work. Today he held and fed Esten for the first time since the accident. That was a big payday for him. Nearly three weeks ago I realized how lucky I was to have that moment. A moment that was taken for granted the four days we had Esten. I call that our ‘timber’ outcry. I imagine God and any of those we have loved and lost before us were standing at the pearly gates and yelling, “Timber!” that split second (that I’m sure on a subconscious level Branden heard) saved his life. I think everyone should have a few timber moments in their life. I wish them on no one but I am grateful God spared us the grief so we could show our gratitude for sparing Branden’s life.” — Carrie
Faith in God
Carrie said she knows the family will make it just fine with the help of friends, relatives, church, community and most importantly their faith in God.
“We both believe it happened for a reason,” Carrie said with calm assurance. “We don’t look at the bad side, we look at the good. He has full use of his arms, full motor skills and his head isn’t hurt.”
Tears start to well in her eyes as she thinks of all the things her family is so thankful for.
“He can have his kids come visit him at the hospital instead of in the cemetery,” Carrie said tearfully.
But a smile spreads across her face as she thinks of her husband’s strength.
“He’s adamant he’s going to watch his kids grow up,” Carrie said. “He doesn’t care if he ever walks again. If God wants him to he will. We prayed so hard for God to save his life and he did. It’s selfish to ask for more than that. What’s meant to be will be.”
Branden said many have wondered how he and Carrie can keep such a positive attitude after all they’ve been through.
“I guess as long as you’ve got faith,” he said while admitting that he can’t imagine life without his faith in God. “I imagine there are several people down here (at Mary Free Bed) that have the ‘why me?’ attitude. But as long as you have faith you know everything happens for a reason.”
At this point it looks like Branden might be able to return home in February.
“We’re looking at probably the week after Valentine’s Day,” he said excitedly.
The Petermans’ insurance doesn’t cover rehabilitation costs so a fund has been established at Chemical Bank in Branden’s name. However, he and Carrie say they know God will provide for them. After all, they say, he already has.
“It could be worse,” Branden said. “I’ve got it pretty good compared to a lot of people. I just lost my legs — not my arms or my head. It’s just a wheelchair.”
He paused before adding quietly, “I still get to hold my kids as they grow up.”
Blog entry: Jan. 27, 2009
“Through all of this, it is hard to remember not to forget. It is not that life is that different, just changed. Some roles stay the same and some will make us who we were meant to be. Yesterday shaped us for who we are today and what challenges we will face tomorrow. There are no regrets. There is a sense of wonder and curiosity for what the future holds. Life is good and God is great. Remember not to forget.” — Carrie