Irene and Ralph, good friends who each have lost spouses and who live in rural Vicksburg, refer to an accident in March 2004 when the tractor Irene was driving flipped and trapped her underneath. Ralph, who was driving a second tractor, used his to free Irene and then rushed to call an ambulance.
Irene, suffering two collapsed lungs and ribs broken in 37 places, likely would not have survived without Ralph's quick assistance and the fact that she was able to crawl a few feet and sit up, a move that may have kept her from drowning in her own fluids.
When the ambulance arrived, Ralph insisted that Irene be rushed to Borgess Medical Center where she was in intensive care for nearly a month before being transferred to Borgess-Pipp Hospital in Plainwell for recovery.
"I feel good now," Irene said in mid-December. "I tire a little more than before."
But then she is 80 years old.
Irene, who in the 1950s was one of the first women in the area to drive a large truck, was working to pull a 1934 Ford truck out of the woods on the land she owns when the accident occurred. When her tractor was unable to free the truck, which had been there for many years, Ralph attached his tractor to the front of hers and they began to pull together.
That decision, Ralph now says, "was a mistake."
While they pulled, Irene's tractor apparently hit a rut, causing the machine to flip.
"Irene was caught under the fender, seat and steering wheel," Ralph said. "When I pulled her out she was gurgling. I ran to the house and called an ambulance and they got here pretty quickly.
"She had crawled to the tractor and sat up. How she did that I'll never know. She could barely talk. She said, 'I hurt all over, Ralph.' I figured she was gone, I really did. She was like a rag doll.
"It was terrible. It was a moment I don't want to live over again."
Irene has almost no memory of the accident or the first few weeks afterwards. "I do remember seeing a big tire above me as the tractor flipped over, but I don't remember anything else," she said. "It's probably a good thing I don't remember."
Ralph was by her side much of the time while she was at Borgess. And she was visited frequently by her daughter, Janet Green Poats, a medical technologist at Borgess.
"She knew I was there," Ralph said. "She would squeeze my hand."
The fact that Ralph spent so much time at the hospital gave him a good look at the level of care. "I've got nothing but praise for Borgess," he said. "Those nurses were fantastic."
Irene does remember the time at Borgess-Pipp. "I got good care there," she said.
The accident was on March 28 and she was transferred to Borgess-Pipp on April 14. On May 17 she returned home.
"When I came home I had to use a walker," she said. "But pretty soon I could use a cane. I recovered pretty quickly."
Ralph said he thinks that Irene recovered so well because she was in such good shape before the accident.
A hard worker all of her life, Irene was born near Vicksburg and had moved to the farm where she now lives in 1945 with husband Merle, who died in 1998. They had dairy cattle and she drove a truck for D&E Weiandt for 25 years, beginning in 1958.
"I started driving a 5-yarder," she said, "and gradually moved to bigger trucks. We hauled asphalt and I worked on the exit ramps for I-94 in the early 1960s."
Remarkably, Irene drove the tractor again after her recovery from the accident.
And yet again the tractor flipped while she was driving and she had a foot trapped underneath. "I had a few broken ribs," she said. "I was able to crawl out and stand up. I thought, 'This ain't bad.'"
Has she been on a tractor since? "No," she said. "I sold that tractor. There was no way I'd go back on it."
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