He was only 4, so Matthew Baldwin can’t recall much about losing his right leg: not getting sucked under the riding mower, not paramedics tying a tourniquet, not getting flown to the hospital by helicopter.
He does remember racing wheelchairs with his dad, getting his first prosthetic with Spider-Man printed on it and playing basketball against a squad of two-legged players and winning 26-6.
“You’ve got to deal with it,” he said, showing off his Star Wars “robot leg” with 20 foot positions and a bendable knee. “Make the best of it. That’s what I want to say.”
At age 12, Matthew is a chatterbox kid finishing the sixth grade at East Garner Middle School. He likes to shoot hoops in his yard. He likes to play Plants vs. Zombies on Xbox. Sometimes, when he gets too sweaty, his leg falls off.
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And now, after eight years, Matthew appears in a two-minute video airing nationwide – one of 13 amputee children telling their stories after lawn mower accidents. You see him walking with a sneaker attached to his prosthetic foot, a parental voice explaining in monotone, “It was time to mow the lawn.” More parents chime in over images of pint-sized amputees: “I did not see my child,” and “I was the one driving the mower.”
Roughly 600 children a year lose limbs to lawn mowers, according to data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Council. Scan recent headlines and you’ll find a 2-year-old Florida boy who ran out in the yard before his mother could stop the mower, a 3-year-old Canadian child following behind his father while he cut the grass. Most often with injuries like these, riding mowers caught children’s arms or legs in the blades, usually when the mowers were moving in reverse or after kids fell out of the seat.
“I remember that I blacked out,” Matthew told me, the picture fuzzy after eight years. “They kept trying to give me water for some reason.”
On that August day in 2008, Matthew and a buddy were playing with squirt guns while his mother’s boyfriend cut the grass in Swan Quarter, the far-flung rural town on Pamlico Sound. Matthew’s father Roy was flying back from Utah when he got the call, and from the explanation he got, it sounded like the two boys ran up to the mower at the same time.
To hear Roy Baldwin tell it, in daily blogs starting in August 2008, his son’s recovery was inspiring enough to eclipse the intense grief. The hospital staff reported he cried once through the whole ordeal. A day after surgery, Matthew was sitting up in his hospital bed, coloring and watching movies. In two days, he could maneuver a wheelchair. After six, he graduated to a walker. In three months, he had a Spiderman prosthesis.
Now Matthew can run well enough to play basketball with a wheelchair team. I met him on Wednesday at a Starbucks in Garner, and within seconds of meeting me, he was raving about a cool-looking car in the parking lot that somebody had painted with handprints.
“When it happened,” Roy said, “I was devastated. Depression set in. All the hopes and dreams you instill in your kids, you think, ‘It will never happen. People will pick on him. It’s just a bad break.’ After seeing him not cry, fall down and get right back up, I started thinking maybe I went to the wrong place mentally. Look at him. Nothing stops him. Unless maybe an Xbox gets in the way.”
Appearing in the video, made by the advocate group Limbs Matter and the nonprofit Amputee Coalition of America, lets Matthew’s family show how common and preventable these injuries are. For me, it is painful but important to watch 13 children getting along without feet, legs and hands. I don’t have a riding mower, but I am guilty 100 times over of dragging my push mower backward – one of many no-nos that can lead to limb loss.
“I see an insane amount of parents pushing a lawn mower with the kids pushing a fake lawn mower beside them,” said Meghan Baldwin, Matthew’s stepmother.
Matthew attends amputee conferences across the country, most of them dominated by veterans and the elderly, but in making the video, he got the chance to meet and hang out with kids who have faced the same setbacks and rebounded from the same horror. They’ve all managed to stay kids.
“It was fun,” Matthew told me. “They were not faster than me, and I’m used to people being faster than me. Yessssss!”
Here are tips for keeping children safe around lawn mowers:
▪ Keep children inside while cutting grass.
▪ Turn off machine if children enter the mowing area.
▪ Check behind and down before backing up a mower.
▪ Never ride mowers with children.
▪ Do not allow children to operate mowers.
▪ Be careful around corners, shrubs and trees that block views.
Source: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission