Watch the moment farmer is impaled on forklift truck spike

A farmer who was impaled on a metre-long metal spike from a forklift truck has spoken of his gratitude to the medics who saved his life. Jonathan Willis dodged death by millimetres when the freak accident happened on October 26, 2020.

Jonathan Willis with the tine he was impaled on. Picture: Mark Logan, EAAA Jonathan Willis with the tine he was impaled on. Picture: Mark Logan, EAAA

He was carefully extricated from the forklift tine by the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA), a land ambulance team and fire and rescue service crew so he could be transported to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where more than 30 people were involved in his through-the-night life-saving operation. EAAA consultant Dr Nathan Howes said: “I have worked for East Anglian Air Ambulance since 2015, and frequently attend incidents involving trapped patients, but I had never been to an incident quite like this, or met a patient quite like Jonathan.”

Father-of-five Jonathan, 42, was working on his dairy farm at Guyhirn, near Wisbech, unloading a trailer of straw bales, when the accident happened.
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He got out of his forklift to untie some straps on the trailer.

But, as he stood between the forklift and the trailer, the forklift rolled forward. Jonathan said: “I turned around slightly to see what it was. The spike basically went right through.”

He had been speared by one of the tines, which had a shape end on it, used to grab the bales. Jonathan shouted and his wife, Wendy, ran out to him, then called 999 at 4.32pm. Within seven minutes, the air ambulance was tasked to attend to provide enhanced pre-hospital emergency at the scene, and it landed at the farm at 4.57pm.

Wendy said: “My initial reaction was: ‘Thank you god, thank you for sending your angels.” Racing against time, the EAAA team worked with the ambulance, police and fire and rescue teams to assess the injuries and coordinate the complex extrication process. Jonathan remained conscious throughout.

But he had to be kept as still as possible while the steel forklift tine was cut by the fire service with an angle grinder to release him from his trapped state. Moving even a small amount could have resulted in catastrophic bleeding.

Emergency services working to cut Jonathan Willis free from the forklift truck tine. Picture: EAAA Emergency services working to cut Jonathan Willis free from the forklift truck tine. Picture: EAAA

The team supported his weight with an ambulance trolley and gave him ketamine to relieve the pain, without making him too drowsy. Dr Howes explained: “It was incredibly important that any movement of Jonathan or the tine was minimised, in case it worsened any internal bleeding, but we also needed to free him quickly.

“The advanced pain relief that we carry was still a risk to Jonathan’s tiring legs, having held the same position for an hour. I was so impressed by how stoic Jonathan and his wife, Wendy, were. “This definitely helped while we devised a plan with the fire and rescue and ambulance services to support Jonathan, cut the tine and release him safely.”

Due to the length, weight and position of the tine, which was still in place, Jonathan could not be safely transferred in the helicopter. Instead, EAAA doctors James Hale and Nathan Howes and critical care paramedic Andy Bates travelled with him in the ground ambulance for just over an hour to get him safely to Addenbrooke’s, where the surgical team was waiting. Andy said: “The odds of Jonathan surviving, I felt, were quite low.

The spike had gone in quite close to his spine at the back. It exited right through the front of his chest. “We were mindful the liver was on the wound track.

His major blood vessels, his heart – all these organs were on the potential track that the spike had taken. If the spike moved or he moved off the spike, then catastophic bleeding and death could have ensued really quickly.” Dr Howes said: “Fortunately, the careful release and Jonathan’s vital signs meant that we could take him directly to my colleagues at Cambridge Major Trauma Centre.

And I’ll never forget the sense of humour he maintained until we reached the operating theatre. It felt like treating a friend.” Jonathan arrived at the major trauma centre at 6.51pm, more than two after the injury.

Emmanuel Huguet, consultant liver and transplant surgeon at Cambridge University Hospitals, with the spike after it was removed in October 2020.
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pPicture: CUH Emmanuel Huguet, consultant liver and transplant surgeon at Cambridge University Hospitals, with the spike after it was removed in October 2020. Picture: CUH

The surgical teams operated on him for almost seven hours, led by Emmanuel Huguet, consultant liver and transplant surgeon at Cambridge University Hospitals.

He said: “Upon hearing the description on Mr Willis’ injuries, I was completely taken aback and had to ask for the information to be repeated three times. “It seemed near impossible for someone to have survived such injuries as that area of the abdomen is full of overlapping tightly-packed-together organs and very major blood vessels. “In order to carry out this highly complex surgery, there were approximately 30 people in the operating theatre at one point, including colleagues who held the spike in place from underneath before we were sure it was safe to remove.

“When we finally had everything in place to safely open Mr Willis’ abdomen, we were astounded by the trajectory of the spike. It had transfixed parts of the intestine, but somehow found an incredibly improbable ‘eye of the needle’ line past all the major blood vessels, as well as missing the right kidney, liver, and pancreas. At that point it was possible to safely remove the spike and repair the intestinal injuries.

“Mr Willis was simultaneously very unfortunate to have his injury, and also miraculously lucky that the spike didn’t cause any life-threatening damage to the numerous large blood vessels in its path. To this day, on CT scans, I cannot draw a straight line between the entry and exit points without going through vital structures. The spike must have pushed those vessels out of the way as it advanced.”

Jonathan Willis with Addenbrooke's surgeon Emmanuel Huguet and the spike.
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pPicture: Mark Logan, EAAA Jonathan Willis with Addenbrooke’s surgeon Emmanuel Huguet and the spike. Picture: Mark Logan, EAAA

Just two weeks later, Jonathan was discharged to recover at home.

It took almost five months for his wounds to heal fully and, since he had been impaled by a dirty piece of agricultural machinery, he remained at high risk of infection, especially as it had punctured his bowels. “Mr Willis’ incredible recovery is down to his amazing composure and courage throughout this ordeal and the amazing teamwork I witnessed that night at Addenbrooke’s,” said Mr Huguet. “Many people from different professions in the emergency services – in and out of the hospital – drew on years of experience and know-how to get Mr Willis safely recovered. “I found the efficient, focussed, professional performance of everyone involved very moving, as well as the fact that everything was done with gentleness and care in spite of the technicality and urgency of the situation.”

Reunited with the team that saved his life, Jonathan said: “What happened to me was just such an unusual accident and I’m just so, so thankful that there were so many expert teams available to help me get through it. Otherwise, I’m sure the outcome could have been very different. I will be eternally grateful to everyone involved in saving my life.”

Wendy and Jonathan Willis with East Anglian Air Ambulance care paramedic Andy Bates and consultant doctor Nathan Howes.
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pPicture: EAAA Wendy and Jonathan Willis with East Anglian Air Ambulance care paramedic Andy Bates and consultant doctor Nathan Howes. Picture: EAAA

His wife added: “We know that without the enhanced skills of the air ambulance team that day Jonathan wouldn’t have made it to hospital.

They took control of the situation – which was like living my worst nightmare – and made all the right decisions which got him to the right hospital and to the right surgeon with a fighting chance. “We were then so incredibly lucky that Jonathan had one of the best surgeons in the country leading his operation. The Addenbrooke’s team quite literally worked miracles in the operating theatre that night and ensured that Jonathan came home to me and our five children in one piece.”

A year on from the accident, the Willis family have raised GBP33,000 at a charity ball to thank the East Anglian Air Ambulance team for the part they played in Jonathan’s rescue and to help keep the charity in the air for others who need it. Dr Howes said: “I have been amazed by his survival and recovery, and I am so grateful to Jonathan and Wendy for visiting us, a year later. These stories sustain us and help keep us ready for the next call.”

Jonathan Willis, who has recovered from being speared by a forklift truck tine.
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pPicture: EAAA Jonathan Willis, who has recovered from being speared by a forklift truck tine. Picture: EAAA

You can support the East Anglian Air Ambulance, which relies on public donations, by visiting https://www.eaaa.org.uk/.

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