Father-son duo hope story of serious chainsaw injury will promote safety

·5 min read
Nathan Sullivan
Nathan Sullivan

The changing of the leaves and the cooling temperatures mark the start of autumn, and for Ron and Nathan Sullivan, that means it's time to cut some wood ahead of the winter chill.

That's just what the father and son were doing in the woods outside Grand Falls-Windsor earlier this month when they had a serious accident with a chainsaw.

"We were talking about a certain tree that we were gonna get and we were sizing it up, and I went in to make a cut and it just so happened that my father was stood right behind me and I didn't realize it," says Nathan Sullivan.

"And when I went to make the cut with the chainsaw — and people who use chainsaws often will know when I say it kicked back … when you go in to cut into a tree and instead of going into the wood, it kind of spins off the tree, and it's enough motion to take your whole body around, and it went right into my father's leg, cutting him."

In the years the two have been cutting wood together, nothing like that had ever happened. Both men were momentarily stunned.

"When it first happened I just stood there like a deer in headlights," said Ron. "I didn't know what it was at first. Then all of a sudden the pain started and I put my hand down and all I could feel was a gaping hole."

I would say just be prepared. It can happen to you at any time. - Nathan Sullivan

Ron fell back and screamed as his body and mind registered what had happened.

"[I was] figuring, 'Well, this is not good. I might have the big artery cut,'" Ron said.

Nathan looked down at his father for just a moment before he was spurred into action, tightly clamping both hands over the gash in his father's thigh.

"He looked at me and told me, 'Focus, dad. Breathe, breathe,'" Ron said. He got me calmed down, which was good."

With 10 years' experience and training with the Grand Falls-Windsor Volunteer Fire Department, Nathan knew he had to get his dad immediate medical care — but in the woods, without cell service, that meant getting his dad on their ATV and getting him back to the road.

Too early for Christmas carols?

Nathan hauled his dad onto the back of the ATV, and kept him talking while they were driving out. Ron said his son could hear his speech slurring and slowing down.

"All the way he was talking to me, trying to keep me going, but at this point he was trying something else and he said, 'Dad, sing me a song. I know you can't sing, but sing me a song,'" Ron said.

His song choice was, perhaps, unconventional, he said.

"This goes back to years ago when [Nathan] worked at a retail store here in Grand Falls-Windsor and like all retail stores they kind of put their Christmas music on too early and he had to listen to this from November till January, so he said, 'Sing me a song,' and I said, 'All right, b'y.'"

The song Ron came up with was Jingle Bells, and after a few renditions, Nathan had had enough, Ron joked.

"He kind of turned around and said, 'Enough of that, father, b'y — if you keep it up you're not gonna make it for sure,'" Ron said with a laugh.

The pair managed to get to the road and call for help, with a paramedic crew arriving shortly to take Ron to hospital. When doctors got the wound cleaned up, they found it was a couple of inches deep and eight inches wide and had caused an 85 per cent loss of muscle mass to the leg.

Looking back at the experience, Nathan said it was a sort of "tunnel vision" that took over, with his training driving his movements.

"I knew I had to jump on it immediately and get pressure and kind of assess the situation and see how bad the bleeding was and move from there, but the ultimate goal was to get him on a vehicle and start moving as soon as possible and then call for help," he said.

"We see trauma on the roadside, but you don't have that emotional attachment. But when it's your own family member or close friend, even, it's a little different."

'You never know'

The Sullivans say they plan to be better equipped the next time they head out into the woods, and they've already bought new chainsaw pants, which have protective blocking material to help avoid or minimize accidents. They're encouraging those who frequently cut wood to keep safety top of mind.

"I would say just be prepared. It can happen to you at any time," said Nathan.

"Between us there's probably 60 years' experience, and I feel like once you get overconfident with a chainsaw you lose respect for it. You always respect the saw — you never know when it can hit you."

Since the accident, Ron has shared the story in a Facebook group he's part of called Wood Cutting Boys, in the hopes of sharing his tips for safety with the group's more than 15,000 members.

Ron is at home recovering, with dozens of stitches and staples and a walker to help him get around on his injured leg, and his wood-cutting season may be over early this year.

But the sentiment about safety is one Ron echoes, adding that if something had happened to him when he was out cutting wood alone, "it would have been a different outcome."

"If at all possible, b'ys, if you're going out in the woods, try not to go alone, because that second person can help you a big deal."

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