By Luann Dart
Barely a tick in time. Not enough time to even form a thought. Just one reflexive movement. And suddenly Doug Bichler’s right arm was trapped in a baler. Realizing he would lose his arm, he focused on survival.
Doug Bichler became a farm accident statistic on June 26, 2017. Every day, an average of 243 agricultural workers suffer a serious lost-work-time injury. Five percent of those injuries result in permanent impairment, according to the National Ag Safety Database.
Today, Doug continues his recovery, and he tenaciously continues ranching with his wife, Maria.
Doug is the third generation on the Linton, N.D., ranch, which will become a century farm in 2020. The youngest of eight children, Doug launched his own seed stock operation in 2000 and started selling bulls the following year. By 2005, Bichler Simmentals had started a yearly production sale, held the second Tuesday of each February at the ranch. With 250 registered and commercial cows, the ranch uses AI and embryo transfer to build the herd’s genetics.
Doug returned to the Linton area in 2005, juggling a full-time job as a North Dakota State University Extension Service agent and ranching with his father. By 2011, he had returned to the ranch full time.
Then, the couple’s world tilted.
“I was servicing the baler, getting ready to bale our first cutting of alfalfa,” Doug says. “I was cleaning some net wrap off the rollers and had the door locked open.”
Then, after greasing the chains, Doug started the baler as the final chore for the night.
“I was on my way to turn the tractor off and go in for the night, and I saw a big piece of net wrap fall off one of the rollers and down onto one of the belts,” Doug says. “Before I even thought about what I was doing, I reached over to pull that piece of net wrap out of the baler. It sucked me in before I even realized what I had done. It was a very split-second thing and it was all over.”
Doug describes being unconscious for a time, then awaking to a new peril.
“My shirt was actually strangling me, so I woke up and got my shirt off and that got sucked into the baler,” he says. “My arm was stuck at my bicep between two rollers and the belts were going the same direction.”
After about half an hour, Doug decided he needed to act.
“Then I just decided I needed to get out, and I started pulling,” he says. “I knew I would lose my arm.”
With his arm free, he crawled into the tractor to turn it off and find his cellphone. The cellphone battery was dead, so he walked to the house, wrapping his arm in a sweatshirt he found in the car. Inside, Maria, who was 7 months pregnant, awoke from a nap to hear Doug calling for her.
After a call to 911, the sheriff’s department, ambulance and fire department arrived.
“I was completely in shock,” Doug says. “I was just in survival mode. The pain didn’t set in severely until people started showing up and I started relaxing. I kept saying, ‘I’m going to lose my arm, but I’m going to be OK.’”
“It was such a surreal thing,” she says.
Doug was transported to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., where he underwent three surgeries before returning home July 18, 2017.
The rest of the summer and fall was a whirlwind of doctor appointments, as Doug underwent rehabilitation, pain management and physical therapy, and Maria prepared for the Aug. 1 birth of their daughter, Amelia.
As Doug recovered, the N.D. Stockmen’s Association coordinated a work weekend at the Bichler ranch, with about 60 volunteers arriving to repair fences, build a chicken coop and complete various chores.
“It was a crazy amount of work done,” Doug says. “It would have probably taken us a year to do the work they did in a weekend. Every time I go out now, there’s very seldom a time that doesn’t go through my mind. I’ll remember that forever.”
Farm Rescue also responded to the couple’s needs, delivering hay in the fall.
Today, the couple still receives an outpouring of support.
“It’s humbling how so many have reached out to us from across the country,” Doug says.
Doug’s nephew, Patrick Schumacher, works at the ranch, and Maria works full time from home. Doug underwent an additional surgery in October and is now awaiting a prosthetic arm.
“This obviously isn’t an ideal situation, but everything worked out,” Doug says. “The silver lining is that I’ve always been left-handed. It made things easier, because I still have my dominant hand. … Obviously, there’s some things you need two hands for. I could say that every day is a challenge. I have to get creative sometimes. There are things I had to figure out right away that are second nature now. It’s just a new normal in doing things.”
“I would say one of the biggest challenges for both of us is how this has affected us mentally and emotionally,” Maria says.
“Our faith life has helped,” Doug says.
The birth of their daughter gave them new focus, and 250 cows to feed helped draw them back into daily life.
Doug shares a message with farmers and ranchers about his accident.
“I taught farm safety,” Doug says. “It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing. I wasn’t in a hurry. I don’t feel like I was being careless. Those things happen so fast. You do not have time to give it a second thought. I’m telling everyone now, just don’t have anything running. If you have to, make sure somebody else is there.”
Doug also wants everyone to know he is doing fine.
“This happened, but I’m still here,” he says. “I still have so much to be thankful for. It could have been so much worse. I can still walk out the door and do chores every day. … It was hard, it is tough on you, but if you let that take over your life, if would be so much worse.”
Health care sharing program help cover costs
As a young ranch family, the Bichlers had enrolled in a health care sharing program, which is not traditional insurance. Rather, they belong to Samaritan Ministries, a national health care sharing program in which members help cover each other’s medical expenses.
Members send their monthly payment to the family identified that month as having a medical need.
When Doug had his accident, the family submitted their bills to Samaritan Ministries, then other members sent their monthly payment directly to the Bichler family to cover the cost of Doug’s medical care.
The company also negotiates with hospitals to lower bills on the payee’s behalf.
“They’ve been really good to work with,” Doug says.
Dart writes from Elgin, N.D.