‘When I Turn 6, Will I Have Real Arms?’
Parker Sebens plays as if he always played this way, as if he always lived a life without arms.
The 4-year-old moves his feet among the Legos, toy cars and plastic dinosaurs littering the family room floor around him. He squeezes Chewbacca and Darth Maul between his feet, then maneuvers the Star Wars figures in a midair wrestling match.
A space-jeep gets a push. A horned dinosaur is grasped and dropped.
Later, sitting on the kitchen floor, he picks up a tipped monster with his feet and stands it up.
“I know how to set this guy there now. Let me show you,” he says, positioning the creature again. “Is that cool, Mom?”
Rene Sebens laughs at the question. Parker’s face spreads into a wide, dimpled smile.
A thin white sleeve covers what’s left of Parker’s left arm, which ends inches below the elbow. His bare right arm--only a stump--hides inside the sleeve of his blue T-shirt.
His mother says Parker doesn’t remember the accident last harvest, when a grain auger ripped his arms from his body, tearing the right into two pieces and mangling the left.
His easy play belies the life ahead of him. His independence will depend on the elbow his surgeon saved from the rampant infection that forced her to amputate the rest of his once-reattached arms.
How far he has to go is clear from what Mitch Sebens says are his son’s goals for the next year: “To feed himself and go to the bathroom by himself by kindergarten.”
Parker’s surgeon, Dr. Jennifer Harrington, says she has heard people who suffered terrible injuries say that they were better off--not because of what happened, but because of what they were forced to learn about who they are, and what’s important in their lives.
She struggles to find similar meaning in what happened to the young patient she calls an inspiration.
“With Parker . . . it’s so hard,” she says. “I do know that Parker has touched a lot of people, and I do know that Parker will help a lot of people.
“And maybe that’s what he’s supposed to do.”
Like boys who grow up on a farm, Parker wanted to be with his father while he worked. On Sept. 18, he was playing with toy trucks in the bed of his father’s pickup as Mitch Sebens ran an auger, loading wheat from bins onto a grain truck.
Sebens had warned Parker to stay away from the auger. He thought his son was safe in the pickup bed: The back gate was closed, and Parker had never climbed out on his own.
Sebens was moving away from the machine when a “funny noise” turned him around.
Parker was trapped in the auger. Mitch bolted to his shop and called for help. He grabbed clean rags, sprinted back, killed the machine and ran for his son.
“He was lying on his back, 10 to 12 feet from the auger, screaming for me,” he says. Parker’s arms were gone, pulled through the machine’s pipe by its rotating, spiraled blade.
Sebens used his shirt and the rags to staunch his son’s wounds. He wrapped his arms around his boy, squeezing hard across his shoulders.
“Right away I noticed he had a bunch of wheat in his mouth, and he spit that out for me,” Sebens says. “And he knew it was his arms because he said, ‘Daddy, my arms.’ ”
The surgeon waited in the emergency room of North Memorial Medical Center. She had reattached limbs before and was confident she could handle this case.
What Dr. Jennifer Harrington didn’t know was what a grain auger was. She thought of the little boy who would soon be under her care and pictured two arms cleaved cleanly from a body.
The doors opened and a dark-haired 3-year-old was rushed in on an ambulance gurney.
“Parker, I’m Dr. Harrington, and you’re going to be OK,” she said. Parker looked at her, aware.
Rene Sebens, who accompanied her son on the flight to Minneapolis, approached Harrington.
“Treat him like he was your own little boy,” she told the surgeon. “You don’t know how special he is.”
One team prepared Parker for surgery. Harrington took the Playmate cooler with the boy’s arms to the operating room to ready them.
The arms were mangled, ripped. “They were so contaminated with grain, you could hardly tell they were arms,” she says.
Dr. Allen Van Beek, a veteran of five double reattachments, joined Harrington in the operating room. She worked on Parker’s left side, Van Beek the right. Blood vessels from his leg were grafted into the limbs. The doctors reattached both arms, repairing what they could.
Parker’s fingers were pink when the surgery ended, half a day after he arrived at North Memorial.
Van Beek told Harrington they would be lucky to save one elbow.
In the end that was all Harrington did save, after rampant infection forced her to pare Parker’s limbs to keep ahead of dying tissue.
Harrington says the elbow will be everything for Parker: With it, he will have a prosthetic lower arm, which will allow him to feed, clean and groom himself.
The hope of that makes the repeated surgeries worth the pain they caused, Harrington says.
“I was just sick, because I felt like, ‘Did I do him any good?’ ” she says. “And now I can say, yes, we did, because I saved him an elbow.”
As he got stronger, Parker rode in a red wagon as Harrington made her rounds, passing her bandages with his feet as she changed patients’ dressings.
“The wagon meant, we get to go and take care of other people, rather than me taking care of him,” Harrington says.
In one room, Parker looked at a man’s ugly wound and smiled.
“Oh, it will be OK,” he said.
“There isn’t a single injury out there worse than Parker’s, and he’s the one with the big smile,” Harrington says. “I think he has a huge amount of inner strength.”
Mitch and Rene Sebens had divorced a month before the accident, but they were together at the hospital for Parker and his three siblings. As days stretched into weeks, the Sebenses sometimes found comfort in the support of strangers at North Memorial. Parents whose children had died wrote to remind them to be thankful they hadn’t lost Parker.
One day, three teens stopped Rene Sebens in a hallway and asked about Parker.
“He’s our hero,” they said. “He could have just given up and died so easily.”
The family was bolstered by their neighbors in Milnor, dozens of whom turned out to finish harvesting Mitch Sebens’ corn and soybeans. Green ribbons appeared on doors, signs and cars throughout the small country town, symbols of hope that Parker would live to come home from the hospital.
The ribbons still adorn almost every street light on Main Street.
Parker kneels on a chair at his mother’s kitchen table, painting his father a card.
He concentrates, moving his right shoulder to control the mechanical arm adorned with Power Ranger stickers. He spells his name with a brush grasped in his hooked metal hand. Then he takes a blow pen into his mouth and spots the paper with color.
“I did it!” he exults. “That’s Daddy’s.”
His mother helps Parker to the floor. With a quick shrug and shake, he slips off the straps of his arm, which clatters to the floor. He bolts to show his bedroom to a visitor, proud he still sleeps on the top bunk.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Rene Sebens says. “He hardly ever complains.”
Harrington says Parker’s age is an asset: All 4-year-olds are learning to use and move their bodies. Parker just has a different body than most.
The surgeon has grown close to Parker and his siblings, who came in pairs to stay with her and her husband this summer.
She posed a challenge to Parker’s brothers and sister the day they met--the same day she amputated his right arm and left hand. Harrington told them what she had done, and why she had to do it. Then she told them how important they would be for the rest of their brother’s life.
“Your parents go away,” she said. “Your siblings don’t.”
Six-year-old Zachary is his ‘brother’s regular playmate. Corey, 12, created a Web site for people to learn how his brother is doing. Fourteen-year-old Kali wondered what she would do when she is older, if a boy she is dating cannot accept Parker.
“If I even sense anything, they’re out of the picture,” she told her mother.
Harrington says the support of Parker’s neighbors will help as he grows more aware of what sets him apart.
But Parker knows he is different. His mother says he warms to strangers slowly, and he is sometimes self-conscious. And at age 4, he is contemplating his future with an innocence that only Parker can.
“When I turn 6,” he asked his father, “will I have real arms?”