It took five people to carry 6-foot, 4-inch Wendell Burkes to his wife Evelyn's Jeep Cherokee that morning in August 2000. He could barely speak or walk and the right side of his body was tingling with paralysis. Wendell, a hard-working farmer, could only think of one thing — his chickens.
The family rushed him to the hospital, 55 minutes away from the Burkes' Noxapater, Miss., home, nestled in Mississippi hill country.
Doctors told Wendell, then 60, that he had suffered a brain stem stroke, caused by a blood clot, which left him with the right side paralysis. After the stroke, Wendell could not hold his head up, was nourished through a feeding tube, and was limited in mobility and communication. By December, he had emergency surgery due to a staph infection that developed between his lungs and rib cage.
“I honestly didn't think he would make it through the first year,” Evelyn recalled thinking. “But we said at the time, we were bringing Wendell home, one way or another.”
Doctors put Wendell's chances of survival at a slim 5 percent. Evelyn went from full-time to part-time at Philadelphia Utilities to take care of her husband. Their daughter, Carol, started taking care of Wendell's three chicken houses, plus four of her own.
But Wendell never doubted that he would not only survive, but return to farm again. As Evelyn puts it, “Wendell's stubborn came out strong.”
Soon his determination won over his doctors, family and friends. His recovery over the next few months was nothing short of miraculous, both physically and in spirit. Wendell was discharged from the hospital in February 2001, shortly after he threatened to call a taxi to drive him home.
A long and arduous rehabilitation lay ahead for Wendell, who still could not walk. He began physical therapy at the T.K. Martin Center for Technology and Disability in Jackson, Miss.
Living Independence for Everyone (LIFE), the Mississippi independent living center, provided a wheelchair. When Wendell again expressed a desire to return to farming, LIFE referred Wendell to the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, which then connected the Burkes with the Mississippi AgrAbility Project.
AgrAbility is a consumer-driven USDA-Cooperative State, Research, Education, and Extension Service funded program that provides vital education, assistance, and support to farmers and farm workers with disabilities and/or their family members with disabilities.
Congress established the AgrAbility Project in the 1990 farm bill to help people with disabilities engaged in production agriculture continue to farm and live successfully and independently in their communities.
AgrAbility combines the expertise of the Cooperative Extension Service at land grant universities with nonprofit disability service organizations, such as Easter Seals, to provide practical education, assistance, and support to individuals.
The Burkes initially contacted AgrAbility in 2002, but an inspection of the poultry houses indicated there wasn't much that could be done, since the houses had not been modernized in quite some time. The case was re-opened in the fall of 2005 after winds from Hurricane Katrina destroyed the chicken houses.
About that time, Wendell finally conceded that the poultry business might be too difficult to operate, given his disability. Undeterred, he decided to start a cow-calf operation.
AgrAbility staff returned to Wendell's farm for another farm assessment to determine what he would need. Herb Wilcutt, Mississippi AgrAbility Project director, determined Wendell needed assistance attaching implements to his tractor and opening gates on his farm.
AgrAbility recommended and MDRS purchased a quick hitch and four solar-powered gate openers.
The quick hitch aids Wendell in attaching implements so he can rake and bale hay without getting off his tractor.
The gate openers improve access around the farmstead and make different areas available to him to check on his beef cattle. “I never knew this much was out there for people,” said Wendell. “AgrAbility shows us that you can keep going and keep doing.”
Farming with a disability is sometimes frustrating. The gate openers “worked just fine the day they were installed,” said Evelyn. “We tried them several times and they worked perfectly. The next they opened, but they would not close.” After a recent visit by a repairman, two of the four gates are now operational.
The Burkes purchased a Kawasaki Mule and MDRS purchased a powered scooter to help Wendell with mobility.
“Those things are wonderful. He can go and check on his cattle with the push of a button and doesn't need to wait until I get home,” Evelyn said. Wendell also uses the powered scooter to attend livestock sales.
MDRS provided funds to make the Burkes' bathroom accessible with a roll-in shower and rails. T.K. Martin provided Wendell with a treadmill so he can exercise at home. He walks on the home treadmill every day to improve his condition, “a quarter of a mile, faithfully, every day.”
Today, Wendell runs about 50 beef cattle in the cow-calf operation. He sells the calves when they reach 400 to 500 pounds. In addition, Wendell produces about 150 round bales of hay on 20 acres per year to feed his livestock. He cuts and rakes hay and tends the family's horses with the help of a hired hand, Willis Haynes. They have five quarter horses and one mule colt.
“He wants to do it all,” Evelyn says of Wendell. “That's a little more than either of us can do.”
Wendell continues outpatient physical therapy one day a week. He currently uses a walker, but is working toward the day he can walk with only a cane.
“Wendell is able to do almost anything he wants. He will even go shopping with me now,” Evelyn said.
According to Wilcutt, the Burkes are just the type of family the AgrAbility project is looking to help — where an accident or injury has disabled a farmer or farm worker, but the desire to continue farming remains strong.
Wendell and Evelyn have been married for 47 years and have a daughter, Carol, and two grandsons, Jimmy and Tucker.
For more information on AgrAbility, visit http://www.agrabilityproject.org or call the toll free number 800-914-4424 to speak with AgrAbility staff.