Maimed in a Terrible Accident, Minnesota Farm Boy David Virnig Boldly Faces Life Without Arms

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Let's go, moo moo, come on!" shouts 13-year-old David Virnig, coaxing a herd of recalcitrant holsteins into the milking barn of his family's farm in Hillman, Minn. David's sweatshirt is emblazoned on the front with his given name and on the back, defiantly, "Hookman." The nickname, of David's own choosing, refers to a grisly farm accident a year ago this month in which both his arms were torn off at the shoulders. Now, in their place, he must make do with artificial arms and a pair of stainless-steel hooks. Stubbornly, with the determination of a boy who has always done his share and intends to continue, David has refused to let his handicap make him an invalid.

A restless youngster with daredevil exuberance, David admits—grudgingly—that he can't be as helpful as he once was around the family's 200-acre dairy farm. He watches somberly as other family members connect 60 cows to a battery of milking machines. "This used to be my job," he says with a hint of unhappiness. "Next to my dad, I was the best milker."

Still, he doesn't waste time brooding. A year has passed since the cold, windy day when he and his brother, Felix, 16, were filling a feed storage silo with corn. As David reached over a whirling power shaft to put a silage chopper into gear, his jacket became entangled and dragged him into the machinery. He says he knew instantly he had lost both his arms, but he insists, "I didn't feel any pain. I wasn't frightened." He remembers keeping his legs straight to save them.

Felix, his parents and his three sisters came running from all directions. "He tried to pull himself off the ground with his hands, but there was nothing there," remembers Connie, 12. Their father, Andrew, 40, scooped up his son and raced him by car to the nearest hospital, 30 miles away. "My dad was going pretty fast, about 120 mph," David says proudly, though he concedes that at the time, he wasn't entirely aware of all that was happening.

David's severed limbs followed separately, packed in ice by a friend and paramedics, and were sent with him by helicopter from the Little Falls hospital to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, near Minneapolis. There a team of microsurgeons and an orthopedic surgeon began immediately to reattach David's arms. He remained on the operating table for nine hours.

"Things went well initially," recalls plastic surgeon David O. Smith. Doctors gave the boy a 50-50 chance of recovering the use of his arms. But hopes plunged after first one, then both of the sutured limbs became infected, and David became gravely ill. Finally, after eight days, the doctors reluctantly removed his arms once again. Awakening in the intensive-care unit, David moaned in despair when his mother, Marlene, told him what had happened. "Mom," he said, "I can't work no more, I can't work."

But he would. Unlike more cosmetic prosthetic devices, the mechanical hands with which David was fitted are designed for strength in order to make them more useful to him on the farm. They are somewhat clumsy for delicate work, and David still needs help eating as well as dressing himself. Yet he has persevered. At his father's urging he sat alone on a tractor this spring to see if he could still run it. Within an hour, he got the machine moving and later plowed 100 acres.

The Vernigs still use the silage chopper, for which they have devised a guard. Burdened with mounting medical bills, and constantly reminded of his son's suffering, Andrew Virnig has filed a $5 million product liability suit against Kasten Manufacturing Corp. of Allenton, Wis., claiming that the power shaft's guard was dangerously inadequate. The company's president, John Kasten, has not defended the suit, saying the company is insolvent. A judge is expected to set damages soon.

At first David was self-conscious about his hooks and wouldn't wear short-sleeved shirts until late in the summer. Then a larger crisis loomed. After nearly a year's absence from school, he dreaded the prospect of returning. "David is pretty independent," says sister Patty, 17. "He cried at night because he didn't know how he was going to eat or go to the washroom at school since he doesn't want anyone to help him there." But his misgivings faded when he entered a new school, Healy Junior High, last month and found he was even able to work a word processor. Besides, as David cheekily reported to his mom, "there are lots of good-looking women."

School, however, is not particularly high on David's priority list. He still prefers farming and wants to become a cattle buyer. Until then he seems content just to be a speed demon, "ruining rubber" around the spread on his Honda ATV. "I can't change what happened," he reflects. "I'll take it one day at a time, I guess." Working the thumb throttle of his high-powered three-wheeler, he roars off, laughing. "I always go wide open," he says.

From Our Partners