Sawmill horror accident: New dad opens up about his darkest days

Jonathan Andersen is determined to set a positive example for his young son.

Jonathan Andersen is an expert in dark humour. With jolly banter and an engaging smile, waving his maimed right arm in the air, he asks, “Do you know where I can find a second-hand shop?”

The 33-year-old Coromandel father is determined to be positive when he could easily be forgiven for being anything but. Late last year, Jonathan’s luck was changing. He had overcome brain injuries from a freak fall and learnt to walk again. And after three major spinal operations, the timber machinist was finally cleared to resume work at a Thames sawmill.

And just as Jonathan and his partner Wendy Grace were contemplating IVF, they found out they were having a baby. Life was good for the first time in a long while and they enjoyed a Christmas they’d never forget.

Then only an hour into his December 29, 2016 shift, his 15th day back at the sawmill, Jonathan had an accident and his right hand was severed close to his wrist. The incident is still under investigation by WorkSafe.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘That doesn’t grow back,’” he recalls. Workmates with big hands became a human tourniquet as they waited for the ambulance.

“I worried about telling Wendy because the stress would not be good for the baby,” Jonathan tells Woman’s Day in an exclusive interview. “There were a lot of tears. I remember saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ over and over.”

With support from Wendy, the new dad is learning how to parent little Odin one-handed.

Wendy, who was four months pregnant, remembers the phone call clearly. “I thought he was phoning to wake me up, but it was his supervisor saying there had been an accident,” she says.

“I just knew that he had lost his hand – it was his worst fear.”

The couple’s fleeting reunion at Thames Hospital, before he was flown by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter to Waikato Hospital, was screened on the TVNZ 1 reality series Code: 1.

Aboard the chopper, Jonathan was cracking jokes with the crew as they rushed him to specialist care. Expert surgeons spent more than six hours stitching the remains of his hand into his groin to maintain blood flow, then harvesting skin from his stomach to form a stump that will later sport a prosthetic hand complete with fingers.

Since the accident, amid his many medical appointments, Jonathan has been given lessons on how to parent with only one hand. “They gave me a doll to practise with, but of course it doesn’t wriggle like a baby does,” he says.

“And how do you hold up the baby with one hand and put the nappy on with the other when it looks like mine?”

After his accident, the timber machinist was picked up by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter for the second time in his life and taken to Waikato Hospital.

While Jonathan recuperated with the help of his parents in Thames, Wendy, 33, moved to Auckland to earn a steady income.

Jonathan confesses, “I would’ve loved to have Wendy by my side, but I was dealing with a lot of grief and with that came anger. I’m glad she wasn’t there to witness just how hard those weeks were, but I survived thanks to Wendy. Without her weekly visits to look forward to, I would’ve gone into such a dark place.”

Jonathan moved to Auckland to be with Wendy and her family shortly before their son Odin was born last month, and the new parents are learning to juggle the needs of a newborn with medical appointments back in the Waikato.

“There is so much I cannot do, but I don’t let it get me down,” tells Jonathan.

“I’m a role model now for my son and I have to be strong for my family. The beauty of this is I get to be there every day with him. If this accident hadn’t happened, I would be doing night shifts and spending a lot less time with him.”

Wendy is proud of Jonathan, especially how he copes with the phantom pains, uses his humour to get him through and how he’s focused on being a good father.

She smiles, “He was concerned about not being able to do anything, but I kept reminding him our son is not going to know that his dad ever had two hands.”

“I’m a role model now for my son and I have to be strong for my family,” Jonathan says.

Nodding, Jonathan adds, “My hands were the most beautiful part of my body, with no scars on them. When I get my new hand, I’ll be able to go fishing, swing a golf club and play with my son. But what I’m most grateful for is the fact I’m here, my son is healthy and my partner is healthy. I’ve had a pretty rough end of the stick for a few years, but this has made us stronger.”

Jonathan is aware that the episode of Code: 1 will remind him of the horrific accident but says it’s worth it to bring attention to the great work of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, which first saved his life when he was hit by a car as a teen.

“I cannot thank those guys enough,” he tells. “Because of them, I get to see my son every day. Being a parent is so special. It changes your life, the love you have. Odin will be at our wedding. He will be a pretty cool pageboy.”

Words: Hayley McLarin

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