A priest stood over Zach Short – who lay in a coma in a hospital in Wichita – ready to give him the last rites.
Zach wasn’t breathing. His heart had stopped. So had his kidneys. His lungs were filling with fluid.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it,” his wife, Jodi, said softly. That night the doctor told her Zach was going to pass slowly, that his numbers were going to start to drop, she said.
Friends came in to say their goodbyes, thinking this would be the last time they’d ever see their friend alive, three days after a farm accident sent 7,200 volts through his body.
Yet, in a rural community centered on faith, along with a rich agriculture tradition, folks never stopped praying.
Every day at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., farmers parked their equipment during the busy season of fall planting and harvest to pray. A sign welcoming people to Zach’s hometown of Assaria urged people to pray. Family and friends lined the hospital halls to pray.
Thanks to social media, prayers spread across the nation. “Prayer warriors,” they called themselves – more than 2,800 of them – began to post their thoughts and prayers on a Facebook page, “Prayers for Zach Short.”
Assaria resident Lori Blake received a text from a friend the day Zach coded in the hospital, asking for prayers.
“Zach needs your prayers right now,” it read.
“I will never forget that day,” she said. “We all stopped at work and prayed.”
Zach, 25, tells the story from his kitchen table at the farmhouse where he grew up, alongside Jodi and their 2-year-old daughter, Brynlee. Nearly a year has passed since the farming accident that occurred in a soybean field not far from the Saline County town of Assaria.
He has never imagined being anywhere else – or doing anything else – but farming, carrying on the family tradition as a fourth-generation Kansas farmer.
Zach attended Hutchinson Community College, where he met Jodi. They married in 2012, and Zach joined the family business, farming alongside his dad, Chris, and brother, Matt.
The newlyweds moved into the farmhouse on the family farmstead. His parents, Chris and Lisa, moved into Assaria. Daughter Brynlee was born in September 2013.
Everything, it seemed, was going perfectly.
Until Oct. 25, 2014.
“We were in a really weedy soybean field,” Zach recalled, noting that he and farmer John Tinkler were custom harvesting for an area farmer.
When Zach and the crew came back from lunch to begin cutting, Tinkler already was unloading the grain cart into the semi. No one noticed that the grain cart’s auger was touching a power line.
“We all hopped in our machines and started cutting soybeans,” Zach said. “It probably wasn’t within a couple minutes of cutting (John) gets on the radio, saying his tractor is on fire.”
He asked someone to bring the service truck and fire extinguisher. Then Tinkler bailed out of the combine, never touching any metal.
“He didn’t touch a single step of the tractor,” Zach said, adding that if he had, it might have killed him.
Zach, the closest to the service truck, stopped his combine and ran to the fire. He couldn’t find the fire extinguisher, so he went to inspect the fire more closely, high-stepping the hitch and grabbing the grain cart’s ladder with his left hand.
“The second I touched it, I couldn’t get off it,” he said. “It is 7,200 volts when it surges. I don’t know what it is before it surges.
“With that much volts, people usually die because you can’t get off it,” Zach said.
The current pinned him to the grain truck for at least 30 seconds.
Maybe it was just happenstance.
Not long before the accident, a friend, Tyler Ash, found a wooden shovel with a plastic scoop in the middle of a dirt road.
He figured the Short family had lost it from their service truck.
The family ran into Ash in Salina, who said he had the shovel in the back of his truck.
“I said, ‘I don’t think that’s our shovel,’ “ Zach said.
Yet the family’s farm hand and shop mechanic, Les Ferm, of Roxbury, said he might as well throw it into their truck bed. Ferm didn’t give the shovel a second thought until that afternoon in the soybean field.
Ferm, who had pulled up near the fire, could see what had happened. He tried to warn Zach, but Zach didn’t hear Ferm’s screams. Then it was too late.
“I could hear the snapping and cracking,” Ferm said.
In all honesty, Ferm figured Zach was gone. Flames were shooting from his body. But he still tried to figure out a way, with a service truck full of metal tools, to pull Zach off the cart. Ferm couldn’t touch him himself or he’d get shocked.
Then he remembered the shovel. He hooked it on Zach’s shoulder and pulled him off the cart. Zach fell to the ground.
“I thought he was dead right here,” Ferm said, adding that Zach wasn’t breathing. “Then I dragged him away from it. Then he started breathing.”
Ferm put out the fire on Zach with his hands.
“He’s Zach’s guardian angel,” Jodi said of Ferm.
“He saved my life,” Zach said. “The wooden shovel – we were so lucky we had that. I think it is kind of a sign that it was there.”
There are plenty of reminders of that October day. Zach can still hear the snapping from the electrical surges. The charred spot at the field still won’t grow anything. And there are the scars from the accident – which he’s not bashful about showing – as well as his amputated legs.
He remembers a split second of pain and seeing a white light. Then, for weeks, everything went dark.
In an induced coma in a Wichita hospital, he dreamed a lot – about the people who came in and out of the hospital room. He recalls talking to his deceased grandfather in one dream.
For Jodi, however, the first days were tense. Zach was in critical condition. Doctors weren’t encouraging.
“The doctor came out and said, ‘We have done all we can today, and we will move forward tomorrow if he makes it through the night,’ “ said Jodi. “I said, ‘What do you mean if he makes it through the night?’ He said he was very sick, and I lost it.”
It seemed like the end was near again on day three when Zach coded for nine minutes, his heart stopping and his kidneys not functioning.
“He couldn’t breathe, and they were using a bag to pump air and keep him alive,” Jodi said of Zach, who was on a ventilator. “They made me make a decision. I told them, ‘Don’t shut him off. His brain is still there.’ “
Doctors called everyone into the room to say their last goodbyes.
“God must have done some work that night,” Zach said.
The medical staff starting taking water off his lungs. As the night progressed, his kidneys began working and his levels began to go back to normal.
“The next morning, his lungs were half empty and the doctor said he hadn’t seen anything like this,” Jodi said.
The Short family always lends a hand when folks need it, said Gypsum-area farmer Justin Knopf.
“Everyone in the community thinks so highly of the Short family, just all they do for neighbors and their approach to farming and being a part of the community,” Knopf said.
Knopf said that when he heard about the accident, his first thoughts were of a Scripture passage from Matthew, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them.”
Using the CB call signal 10-4 to make it easy to remember, he and his family set their clocks for 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., stopping wherever they were to pray. Other farmers across the area joined in at the same times.
“We all stopped the combines and tractors and prayed for Zach, that the Lord’s will be done and He perform a miracle and leave Zach here to be with his wife and daughter,” Knopf said.
“Harvest is a busy, intense time; you hardly stop and eat,” he added. “But here was a community of folks who believe in prayer – who care enough about family – to stop their harvest operations, stop whatever they were doing in the field ... for several moments and pray. For me, that is a powerful testament to people’s faith and also the care that everyone has for this family.”
That’s just what folks around here do: When someone is in need, they lend a hand and they pray. They prayed the night Zach coded. They prayed for his countless surgeries and every other step along the way.
“The night he was dying, the whole hallway inside the burn unit was filled with family and friends praying,” Jodi said, adding, “People were waiting for the call the next morning (that Zach had died), and they never got it.”
Donations pour in
Fundraisers were organized across the Southeast of Saline school district, which encompasses Assaria, Gypsum and a few other rural towns in southeast Saline County.
A bucket passed around at a home football game just days after the accident raised $650. Food benefits brought in thousands, as well as a GoFundMe support page, which is up to $63,000.
Assaria’s Lori Blake, who is on the local school board, along with Alex Weller, owner of Exit 14 restaurant in Gypsum, and a few other school district residents, organized a spaghetti feed and auction at the school.
Green Bay Packer Jordy Nelson signed items to be auctioned off at the event. But residents donated items from their hearts, as well, Blake said.
“What was different from other auctions, there were real ag-centered items,” she said, adding that someone even auctioned off an hour-and-a-half of hay grinding.
Weller said he served more than 700 meals that night. In all, with a donation from a hospital foundation, they raised about $70,000.
Weller, a lifelong friend of Zach’s, said he rented a house with Zach while attending Hutchinson Community College.
“He is the only reason I passed my freshman year of college,” he said, explaining with a chuckle, “He made me go to class.”
For months, the extended Southeast of Saline community sought news of Zach’s recovery. Zach’s mom, Lisa, along with Jodi, kept fellow prayer warriors updated daily on Facebook.
That includes his continuing journey back to health. Zach spent 20 days in a coma. He underwent about 20 surgeries, which included one to partially amputate both legs. Doctors battled to save his left arm and worked to heal the burn wounds.
It had been a long journey from hospital beds in Wichita and St. Louis. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, Zach came home to a crowd of family and friends, many holding “Welcome home” signs.
Hundreds lined the street leading to the farmhouse, Zach said.
It was what they had been praying for, said Blake.
“Zach is a testament of what can happen through that collective prayer,” she said.
The support through it all, whether providing meals, helping with the farm work or, of course, praying, has been amazing, Jodi said.
“We are just thankful we are in the community we are in,” she said. “In a community like this, it’s like everyone is close family.”
Long row to hoe
Zach’s journey is far from over, Jodi said. He continues to do physical therapy. Five days a week, they travel to Newton, where he goes into a hyperbaric chamber to heal stubborn wounds from the skin grafting.
It’s been a rough journey, Jodi admitted.
“Even when we came home, it was like bringing home a newborn baby for the first time,” she said. “You have to do everything yourself, the things the nurses did all the time.”
But through every step, “I just stuck with God, kept my faith,” Jodi said.
There are bad days – days where he gets more frustrated, Zach said. He can see, from the farmhouse window, his family rebuilding used Case combines, one of the farm’s businesses.
“ ‘God, what am I going to be able to do?’ “ Zach said he has asked. “ ‘Why did this happen to me?’ “
His family is always there to bring him back up, he said. And there are plenty of good days.
In August, Zach was fitted for new legs. On his first attempt, he stood up and, largely without help, walked. As the days go by and his skin gets thicker, he hopes to wear the prostheses longer.
“He is doing amazing,” said Jodi. “Nothing is stopping him. God is so good.”
“I know I still have a long way to go,” said Zach.
However, he said he has been told that while he will have some limitations, he should be able to again climb into a tractor.
That’s the ultimate goal, he said, reflecting that’s saying a lot “when you’re not supposed to live.”
“They said I was supposed to be on dialysis the rest of my life, too,” he said.
Incredibly, his internal organs are fine, Jodi said, adding that, as T-shirts worn by community members point out, Zach is nothing “short of a miracle.”