Think about a spot in a field a quarter-mile away, downhill from your house.

Now imagine crawling back home from that spot, using just your arms.

The heat index is in the mid-90s.

Kenny Patterson of Cherokee, Iowa can tell you what it was like; he did it on June 13, 2016.

His ordeal lasted five hours – or 14 months and counting, depending how you look at it.

Patterson was spot-spraying thistles in a lower pasture when his four-wheeler overturned and rolled over him, breaking his right femur near the hip.

“It sounds like an unbelievable story,” he said, when he and his wife Kathy shared it with me.

Patterson was driving on a downhill grade, angling across a side hill with a rear-mounted, full sprayer tank. The ATV’s left front wheel dropped into a worn rut of a cattle path hidden by tall grass.

When he and the ATV tipped left, he knew the outcome would be bad. He heard his thigh bone snap when 700 pounds of equipment rolled over him.

The ATV kept rolling, ending upside down not far from him, with the engine still running.

“I was instantly (mad at myself)… Stupid, stupid,” he said, about driving on a sloped grade with uneven terrain. “I thought, ‘this four-wheeler is gonna catch on fire and burn up; I don’t want to get toasted too.’”

So with a right leg that “just flopped” below the hip, he used his shoulders and arms to drag himself 50 feet away and considered the options. It was early afternoon. He didn’t have a cell phone. His wife didn’t expect him home until supper time.

“I did some talking to myself,” he recalled. “’My son’s at work. My wife thinks I’m ‘somewhere’. Nobody’s gonna look for me. It’s hotter than the hubs of Hell, but I’m a stubborn SOB and I’ll either make it or die trying.”

For the next five hours, he inched his way up the hill using his arms and elbows. His arms and hands were bloodied, and his broken leg caught in cattle path ruts as it drug along. He lifted his leg out of the ruts with his hands to free it.

When his arms and hands were raw, he turned over and scooted backwards on his rear, but that was worse.

“I even tried hopping with my good leg, but I came down on my bad leg and the pain dropped me.” So he went back to belly-crawling.

Kathy had been in town and returned late in the afternoon to make supper. By 6:30, she was concerned and called their son Nicholas to ask if he’d seen his dad.

Nick came over to the farm in Patterson’s ’78 Jeep. Before heading to fencelines that Patterson had intended to spray, he noticed an open gate north of the farmstead that would ordinarily be shut. When he went to close the gate, he spotted the overturned ATV down across the pasture.

In the meantime, Patterson had made it to a cattle yard, but he couldn’t cross it because of deep ruts that kept catching his leg. He went back to the pasture route and crawled until he reached a waterer on a concrete pad. After hours crawling in the heat, “I got myself up somehow and drank water out of that mossy cattle tank.”

When he heard his Jeep, he knew someone was coming to find him. He started hollering.

“Nicholas called for the ambulance,” Kathy continued. “He came back and told me ‘I found him, and it’s not good. He’s in the cattle yard. He wants a Mountain Dew.’”

Patterson was transported to Sioux City and had surgery the next morning. A titanium rod was implanted the length of his femur to hold three pieces of bone in place.

Over the past year, he’s had physical therapy. He’s operated a tractor but only recently has been able to climb steps alternating right and left legs, instead of leading with his left.

Patterson is recuperating and optimistic. In spite of all he’s gone through, he and Kathy maintain a sense of humor. They recounted fatal ATV injuries in neighboring communities and know Kenny was lucky to survive. “The bone broke into three pieces but it didn’t sever an artery or break through the skin,” he said.

He cautions about hazards like cattle paths or washouts hidden by tall grass, driving across a steep side hill, and having a full sprayer mounted on the ATV that changes its center of gravity and adds momentum to a rollover.

“One of the last things I said that morning was ‘I don’t have that much experience on this thing.’ I’d never sprayed with it except on flat ground; I was too far down that slope.

“I don’t plan to get on one again,” he added. “I’ll use my Jeep or tractor.”

Kenny Patterson is a lifelong farmer at Cherokee, Iowa. He runs a 100-cow cow-calf operation and grain farm with his son, Nicholas, and recently retired from the fur-trading business he operated for decades. He’s known for the signature stocking cap he wears in all seasons.

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An edited version of this story was originally published in Iowa Farmer Today

Story & photo | Stephanie Leonard



A Shortcut … to the ER

Crash, snap, groan.

Those were the sounds of a shortcut.

It was a beautiful Sunday in May, and I was gung-ho to get a lot done: weed, clean gutters, till garden, and set up my patio.

I hauled a 10-foot fiberglass step ladder up from the barn for the gutter work, but decided to first hang ceramic pots on the pergola. I only needed a couple extra feet to reach the hooks, and I weighed the options of carrying the big ladder around the house versus giving it a try with a 2-foot aluminum step ladder that was nearby, lighter, and easier to maneuver.

I knew the short ladder was the poorer choice, safety-wise. I wouldn’t have three points of contact on the ladder that the 10-foot ladder allowed. I had a heavy pot to lift. I knew you shouldn’t get on the top step. There was no soft place to fall.

On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have to get on that top step. And it would only take about five seconds to hang the pot. Besides, falling on the usual well-padded body part isn’t a big deal – my words might turn the air blue, but so what.

I took the shortcut.

In the split second it takes to fall off a ladder, you don’t know how it happened.

I don’t remember standing on the top step but I likely did.

I don’t remember reaching forward or to the right, but I likely did.

Yet in that split second, Oh-no- it’s-happening-this-is-going-to-be-bad- what-a-stupid-mistake races clearly through your mind before you’ve even hit the ground.

A subconscious response tells your body to break the fall.

I likely stuck out my right arm.

Feeling sick to my stomach, bloody faced, looking at broken pottery shards and a right hand that was in an unnatural position, unmovable, swelling and turning purple, there was an illogical reasoning that somehow, I had to turn back the clock and do it over, because this had turned out all wrong.

My simple shortcut took me to the emergency room, to x-rays and a tetanus shot, to a couple weeks of sugar-tong splints, immobilized elbow-to-knuckles, to short arm casts, to a strange looking mannequin-arm that was eventually freed of the cast and as useful and flexible as a stick of wood.

I surely hadn’t expected that the shortcut would give me a distal radius fracture, a broken wrist.

My friend Kathy was sympathetic, and I think she probably winked when she asked if I was going to do a root-cause analysis of my own accident. Having many weeks to replay that wrong decision gave me plenty of time for it.

I picked the wrong ladder; that was clear. One hand was full, the other hand nothing to hold on to for support.

Most importantly, my mistakes were about risk perception, the why part of going with the wrong ladder.


One, I didn’t anticipate the range of consequences; I recognized only ‘I might fall,’ not ‘I might fall and … break a bone, have to go to the hospital, have to do everything with only one hand,’ or even worse: have a head injury, be disabled, or die. I hadn’t thought of potential outcomes resulting from falls, even those from short distances. The outcome I had expected was that the job would get done, and I would have saved myself the steps, hassle, and two extra minutes of moving a bigger ladder. I hadn’t imagined a very possible outcome of months altered by a broken and mending bone.

Past experience

Two, I hadn’t ever fallen from a ladder before, so it would be unlikely I ever would, right? I’d only had good outcomes on ladders, even tall extension ladders. What could be the big risk with a little step ladder that I use often? My prior experience influenced my expectation that this would be a minor job with no negative outcomes.

Self confidence

Three, I’m usually pretty sure that I know how to do things safely to get a job done. I thought I could be careful and smart enough, even with the short ladder. Had I been a little less confident, I would have chosen the ladder with side rails to hold onto.

These factors affect the way we all perceive risks and the decisions we make to minimize or accept those risks.

Over eight weeks, I learned how frustrating it is to have only one arm and hand that works. I thought about a friend who has farmed his whole life with just one arm; about a friend who fell off a 10-foot step ladder and broke only his ribs (he was lucky); about a woman who told me about her husband’s fatal fall injury.

My fall could have been much worse. But it was also entirely preventable.

How about you?

Does your perception of risk take into account all the possible consequences and outcomes?

Will the shortcut be worth it, or will it take you on a detour you hadn’t planned?

More Information

Stephanie Leonard’s edited version of her own story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Cartoon | Rick Friday

Photos | Stephanie Leonard