GARLAND — Few would choose to relive the most horrific and terrifying moment of their life. Kyle Cashwell did.
On a sunny spring day Tuesday, Cashwell was lying on his back in the middle of a cornfield located on a remote expanse nestled in the woods off N.C. 411, just a couple miles north of Garland. He was being tended to by county paramedics John Turner and Rob Davis. Others quickly arrived on the scene as the paramedics crouched between large tractor tires and a corn picker where Cashwell was sprawled out on the ground.
“He’s got multiple open fractures in his right leg,” Davis yelled out.
“He’s got multiple fractures in his right arm,” Turner added.
Cashwell let out a groan of agony.
“Tell Kristy I love her,” he told the paramedics.
“I’ll tell her, but you’re going to tell her yourself,” Turner answered. “Hang on Kyle.”
Moments later, Cashwell sat in the shadow provided by one of his paramedic buddies in a field otherwise devoid of shade, laughing as he sipped a Sun Drop. None of it was real. It was simply a re-enactment, another step in Cashwell’s ongoing healing process from a very real, traumatizing and life-altering experience on Oct. 20, 2014, when his arm and leg were mangled in that corn picker.
Kristy Cashwell was at work that day, but now was watching as her husband uttered her name, playing out an event that changed both of their lives. A surreal scene, the re-enactment will be part of a video that Contrast Creative out of Cary is producing for Duke Hospital, taking viewers through Cashwell’s entire ordeal, from rescue to recovery.
Cashwell ultimately lost both limbs, but his resolve remained intact. Behind the coordination of the film crew and Sampson first responders, Cashwell sought to share his story with others and express his gratitude to the many emergency and medical professionals who helped him that day — and the weeks and months that followed.
Many of the same personnel participated in Tuesday’s re-enactment, including those from Sampson County EMS, Garland and Taylors Bridge fire departments, the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office and Duke Life Flight.
After some much-needed shade and a quick drink, the production crew was ready again, cuing Garland firefighters to run to the scene. They were needed to remove Cashwell’s body from the snapper, as paramedics continued to administer oxygen and ensure his vital signs were stable.
“We’re going to have to get fire to use a spreader and spread it,” Davis called out, pointing toward the equipment.
Cashwell groaned again through his oxygen mask, as they pried him loose and lifted him onto a stretcher toward the waiting ambulance.
Cashwell arrived to the field Tuesday in a crisp orange and blue-striped shirt, which he quickly removed in favor of the plain white T-shirt underneath.
“I wasn’t looking pretty the day I done it,” he explained calmly, before lifting himself onto the tractor, a feat he has to accomplish through calculated movements, a balancing act between his left side and a prosthetic leg on his right.
“I never thought I’d see him on a tractor again,” said Sampson County Emergency Management director Ronald Bass, as he looked on. Bass was one of many at the field Tuesday to offer assistance or resources if needed. “Kyle was a great employee and he’s a great friend to all of us in EMS. He’s certainly got determination.”
Cashwell wasn’t going to turn the corn picker on, and he was operating the tractor ever so steadily, lumbering to the spot in the field where the filming would be done.
“I don’t want to take a chance on anything happening,” a fully aware Cashwell noted.
Kyle’s parents Joe and Sara Cashwell and his aunt and uncle Ruth and Graham Fann, were among the family members watching the re-enactment from a distance. His former EMS supervisor and good friend Kevin Hairr — Cashwell officially retired last year — was also there with his children.
“That day in this field was a bad day,” Sara Cashwell attested.
Hairr was in class with the rest of the paramedic shift that fateful fall day when he got the call about Kyle, urging him to track down Kristy.
“It makes you wonder where Kyle’s head is reliving this,” Hairr said. “He’s come a long way.”
Kristy said it is another step in the healing process for Kyle and the rest of the family.
“It touches a soft spot,” Kristy conceded of revisiting the field, where she has been just one other time since the accident. “I didn’t make it here that day. I met him at the fire department. Coming back to the field is bittersweet.”
Cashwell was snapping corn as part of his second job as a farmer that day, Kristy having already left for work and their three children in school. When the snapper got jammed, Cashwell disengaged and dismounted it in an effort to solve the problem. When the equipment jumped back into gear, it entangled Cashwell’s right arm and leg. He was able to get to his phone and call for help.
Soon, EMS, firefighters and law enforcement officers converged on the scene. Cashwell was quickly taken to Garland, where Duke Life Flight took him directly to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
On Tuesday, Cashwell made the same ambulance trip to the pasture behind Garland Town Hall. This time he waited for the helicopter, a chance to cool down as talked with family and friends. About half an hour later, the Duke Life Flight helicopter arrived, circling overhead several times before landing. As soon as they saw the Life Flight guys emerge, Kristy and her children shook hands with the men and embraced them.
Sharing the story
Katie Martin, writer/producer for Contrast Creative, said the videos the company makes for Duke Hospital allow a chance not only to retell a captivating story, but reunite patients with their health care workers along the way. Next week, Cashwell and his family will go to Duke for more filming, this time of the medical and recovery end.
Contrast Creative has produced the Duke videos for the past seven years, taking a suggested list of patient stories each year and selecting the three they believe are the most riveting, while encompassing as many staff areas within the medical facility as possible — everyone from surgeons to environmental services employees. The videos, which are about 10-12 minutes long, are shown at the annual all-staff event meant to celebrate all Duke employees and the lives they impact. They are also shared on the hospital’s website.
“They tend to gravitate toward compelling stories,” said Martin of the Duke-initiated effort. “Kyle’s was one of those stories. To hear that Kyle feels even more blessed now is an amazing thing.”
Martin and Kathleen McDonald, Contrast Creative’s president and executive producer for Cashwell’s story, coordinated Tuesday’s agenda, which began with interviews of Cashwell and his family in the morning. In the afternoon, the entire rescue effort, from the accident to Duke Life Flight, was filmed in sequential order.
“There’s always that human element that has to be present, in addition to celebrating teams,” Martin stated. “He was so well-known at Duke. He was there for 70 days and touched so many of the staff. A big part of it was Kyle’s positive attitude and how Kristy supported him throughout all of that.”
Martin said nearly all the retold stories involve patient participation, however there are times when the patient is not there to help tell the story.
“Not all of the stories have happy endings,” said Martin, “but there’s some healing involved. We’ve never been turned down. I think that’s also because we reunite them with health care workers that helped them.”
Kyle’s re-enactment will not include any fake blood or gore, but will be a “stylized” account that also intersperses a recording of the actual 911 call. Kyle and Kristy talked about the re-enactment leading up to Tuesday. Kyle wasn’t going to do it without Kristy’s support. They both agreed that it would be a good way to share not only their story, but their gratitude.
“We were taken care of so well at Duke, we wanted to help them out in any way we could. I think things like this help him heal. Talking about it helps him get through it,” Kristy said, as their children ran around at the edge of the field. “They just think it’s cool that the helicopter is going to land.”
‘New light on life’
Bass had never seen a re-enactment like Tuesday’s, where the victim plays out the same scenario, but said the video could be a good learning tool. Cashwell’s situation was especially difficult because he was a paramedic himself.
“When you respond to one of your own, it’s a difficult thing. Everyone knew Kyle,” said Bass. “I hope this can be used to help others. That would be a great thing. As tragic as that situation was that day, a lot of things went right too.”
And a lot of things went right in the wake of the accident. The community rallied around the Cashwells, holding every kind of fundraiser imaginable to help with medical expenses.
“Having such support is phenomenal,” Kristy said. “I never thought we would have so much support for a problem that was ours. It sheds a new light on life and our community.”
That support motivated the Cashwells.
“We made a point to get up and get out, and not mope around,” Kristy said. “The Lord leads you places for a reason. We know that the Lord and prayers and doctors are the reason Kyle’s here and we hope we can fulfill what the Lord wishes of us.”
Bass recalled what Cashwell said to him at Duke not long after his accident.
“I can get up and do something or I can stay here for the rest of my life,” he told Bass. “I’m not staying here the rest of my life.”
Many would avoid reliving the worst moment of their life, but that’s just the thing — for Cashwell, it was the moment his life turned around. His life changed, for the better.
Even without an arm and a leg, Cashwell still sees his EMS buddies, goes to his children’s ballgames and works on the farm. Above all else, he’s thankful. Kyle and Kristy said life is better than ever.
“It was a little stressful,” Cashwell said of the re-enactment, “but it was well worth it. It allowed us to really slow down and look at all the treatment that went into it. I just want to thank everybody that has helped me and this community that has been there for me and my family. I can’t thank them enough.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.