Life was hanging by a thread – and the self-made man didn’t have a prayer. In another heartbeat or two, his days would be cut short.
“I thought, ‘I’ve had a pretty good life, my wife will be OK and my kids all have jobs,’” Pete Hedges of Richland said as he recalled an October 2011 morning when he knew he had only moments to live.
For the Hedges Family Estate winemaker and general manager, the crisp pre-dawn on Red Mountain had started as a typical day. Arriving at 5:30 a.m., Pete had prepared work orders for the crew scheduled to arrive an hour later.
But routine would soon change to risk.
“It was just getting light,” the athletic 62-year old said. “I got into the wine press – it’s outside because you need room to use a forklift to put in the grapes – and I couldn’t see very well.”
Pete was intent on checking a patch he had applied on the wine press’ rubber bladder, a mechanism that compresses to squeeze juice from the grapes. A man already stressed by a 70-to 80-hour harvest workweek, Pete had found frustration when the electronic control wouldn’t rotate the hot dog-shaped cylinder. For access, its doors needed to be parallel to a catwalk.
But the doors were parallel to the ground instead – and the power had not been turned off.
“It’s not rotating anyway, so I stuck my head in and my lower body is out, feet on the ground,” Pete said as he set the scene unfolding in faint light. “Leaning around one of the metal screens, I lifted myself up – like on parallel bars – to get in further to see the repair.”
Suddenly, the alarm on the controller sounded a loud and clear warning.
“That was my moment of sheer terror because I knew it was going to start rotating and I knew what was going to happen” Pete said, recalling the horrific reality. “The door hits me on the back and the sheet metal is catching me in the front. My hands and arms are inside and it’s like a big rolling pin. It started breaking vertebrae and I could hear it, like a big stick breaking.”
As thoughts of his family melded with the sound of crushing bone, the safety cord on the outside of the drum spun into sight. In a desperate reach, Pete’s fingers found their mark.
“I need to yell, but my lungs are punctured so all I can do is say a loud whisper ‘Help!’ Pete said, aware there’s a 10-inch concrete wall between him and his crew inside the building. “Fortunately, some of the vineyard workers are cleaning the lugs we pick grapes in and one of the guys had walked over to turn on the water spigot and saw me.”
Pete remembers the wail of the ambulance, the backboard strapped to his crushed body, the intense pain.
“I was in and out of consciousness, but you couldn’t tell by looking at me that anything had happened to me,” Pete explained about the aftermath. “Next day I was bruised everywhere.”
Inside his body, Pete had suffered severe damage. Four broken vertebrae, one offset by a quarter inch, every rib broken, sliced spleen and bruised liver. In the days ahead his healing would come with the help of doctors – and more.
“Friends had prayer groups and my sister-in-law’s church put me on their prayer chain,” Pete said about the outpouring of support including business partners and friends. His wife Jane remembered one faithful group of senior ladies who visited faithfully, asking God for healing.
Today many view Pete as a walking miracle. Nine months after his accident he bicycled the Seattle to Portland bike race and a year or so later he jumped from a plane in a tandem skydive. In March of this year he chose to retire early.
Not surprisingly, his philosophy has changed.
“Life is precious. Everyday be glad you have it, kiss your spouse, hug your kids,” Pete said, his voice filled with emotion. “It always brings to mind that Tim McGraw song about how the thread of life is very tenuous, you never know when it’s going to be cut.”
In the words of the songwriter and Pete Hedges, “Live like you were dying.”Well I, I finally read the good bookAnd I took a good long hard lookAt what I'd do if I could do it all again. -- Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying
If you have a story idea for Light Notes, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lucy on Twitter @LucyLuginbill