Slow steps in right direction after a tragic lawn mower accident
By Kathy Chaffin
There’s a round patch of dirt in Gregg and Melissa Robbins’ front yard on Messick Road where an apple tree once stood.
A family friend cut down the tree because of the pain it caused Gregg to see it. The tree is gone, but you can look into Gregg’s eyes and see that the pain remains.
It is the pain of a father.
n n nFriday, May 9, started out like any other day for the Robbins family.
Gregg left home early for his weekly breakfast with a group of co-workers from the Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ maintenance department. Nine-year-old Mark followed, getting on a bus headed to Woodleaf Elementary School.
Melissa and 3-year-old John were the last to head out. She dropped him off at babysitter Mickey Smith’s house on her way to her job as finance allocations director for the Rowan County United Way.
The day was uneventful, and they all looked forward to celebrating Mother’s Day that weekend. Mark arrived home first and walked next door to his grandparents’ house. It was the last week of turkey hunting season, and he and his grandfather, Forest Mills, had made plans to hunt on nearby family land.
Gregg arrived next and drove to pick up John. He wanted the yard to look nice for the weekend and got the riding lawn mower out to cut the grass.
John was playing in the yard, and Gregg told him to go play in the sandbox. He watched as his son headed toward his favorite play spot, where a toy dump truck, buckets and shovels were waiting.
A few minutes later, Gregg was mowing about two-thirds of the way to the road when he backed up to go around the apple tree.
He heard a thud. Then the lawn mower shut down.
It was 6:45 p.m.
When he turned to see what had happened, Gregg saw his son on the ground, his right leg caught under the mower. He reacted quickly, jumping off and tilting the lawn mower so he could pick up his son.
John’s face was pale, and the cuts on his leg were bleeding profusely. “I thought he was going to die right there,” Gregg says.
With John in his arms, he ran a tenth of a mile to the home of Melissa’s cousin, Carl Messick, and his wife, Linda Jo. “He didn’t start crying until I got him down there,” Gregg says. “That’s when he started yelling and screaming.”
When the Messicks saw John, Linda ran to call 911 and get some towels to wrap around what remained of his right foot. Gregg held the towels in place, applying pressure to slow the bleeding until rescue crews arrived.
Carl ran to the tree and picked up a section of John’s foot cut off by the lawn mower and placed it on ice.
Gregg called Melissa, who was on her way home. She heard what had happened and began to scream.
As she drove down U.S. 70, she cried out: “Oh, my God. Oh, my God, my baby. Please don’t let my baby die.”
n n nFirefighters from the Woodleaf Fire Department were the first to arrive. Rowan County Emergency Medical Service personnel soon followed, loading John into an ambulance.
Melissa rode in the back with her son, and Gregg rode up front. They headed to the Hefner VA Medical Center, where John was to be flown to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center by helicopter.
When the driver found that no helicopters were available, he changed direction and headed to Winston-Salem. “It was a long ride,” Melissa says.
She was comforted to find a familiar face in Emergency Medical Technician Scarlett Ross, a friend of Gregg’s 18-year-old daughter and her stepdaughter, Tiffany.
They tried to keep John awake. “He kept wanting to drift off,” Melissa says.
Her son was pale, and his pupils were fixed. “I was wondering if we were going to make it to the hospital in time,” she says.
Scarlett gave John a little brown bear from a supply of stuffed animals they keep for children. For most of the ride, he held onto the bear.
n n nAt Baptist, a team of at least 10 doctors met John in the emergency department.
Tests determined his thigh bone was cracked where the lawn mower blade had cut into his leg. His kneecap was also cut, and the bone cracked. His lower right leg, near the foot, was broken.
“Pretty much where there was a cut,” Melissa says, “the bones were cracked or broken.”
The trauma team could not reattach the section of foot cut off, but Gregg says orthopedic surgeons assured him that his son ó with the aid of a prosthetic foot ó would be able to run and play like other little boys.
At the time, though, he says it was hard to believe.
John had surgery Friday night to clean his wounds and stop the bleeding. He spent his first two nights in the pediatric intensive-care unit of Brenner Children’s Hospital.
For the next 12 days, Gregg and Melissa stayed at the hospital around the clock, surrounded by family and friends.
Surgeons amputated the bone and what remained of the tissue on John’s right foot on Monday, May 12, followed by another surgery the next day, after which doctors put an immobilizer on his leg. Three more surgeries followed on Thursday, Saturday and the following Monday.
After the fourth surgery, nurses put a bandage on the bear John received from the Rowan Emergency Medical Service and a blue bear given to him by Melissa’s cousin, Robin Mills.
Throughout his hospital stay, John hung onto the bears ó which he named Little Bear and Blue Bear ó and his Thomas the Tank blanket. “Even if he had other things around,” Melissa says, “he made sure he knew where those things were.”
Family and friends rallied around him and the family. Melissa’s parents, Janie and Forest Mills, stayed at the hospital most of the time. Gregg’s parents, Janice and Joe Robbins, kept Mark at their home on U.S. 601 and traveled back and forth.
All over Rowan and surrounding counties and states, the name of John Robbins was added to prayer lists.
n n nMulti-colored balloons and “Welcome Home” signs greeted John and his parents when they arrived home from the hospital on May 21.
The Robbinses took him back to Brenner on June 2 for a seventh surgery, and a physical therapist began working with him three days later. On June 12, Melissa and Gregg says he took his first steps.
“That made my heart feel better,” Gregg says. For Melissa, she says “it was kind of like watching my boy walk for the first time.”
Family, friends and churches continued to offer support. When Jimmy Moore, a friend of Melissa’s father, heard about the accident, he joined up with members of Unity Presbyterian and Cornerstone Baptist churches to schedule a benefit softball home run derby for June 21.
Gregg held John while he threw the first pitch. That same day, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile was in Cleveland for a scheduled appearance. When the driver heard about what happened to John, he drove to the benefit, set him in the vehicle and photographed the Robbins family with the Wienermobile.
Since then, people have helped out as needed. Gregg’s co-workers took on the storage building project he had planned for behind the house, and several local businesses donated supplies.
On June 19, the Robbinses took John to be measured for a prosthesis, returning three more times for fittings.
The prosthesis is expected to be ready within the next two weeks. “I’m not sure that John’s real thrilled with the idea,” Melissa says. “He was complaining the other day that it was tight, but I’m hoping that he’s going to adapt to it well and be willing to wear it.”
In the meantime, the Robbins want everyone who prayed for John and supported them to know he’s doing much better now.
Across the playroom, John laughs gleefully while playing a Nintendo Wii Monster Jam game with his brother. Watching him, his father smiles.
Both are signs that in the Robbins home, a son’s injuries and a father’s heart are healing.
A John Robbins Fund to help with his medical expenses has been set up at SunTrust Bank, 2070 Statesville Blvd.