The Hill family's journey this past year is one of sadness, coincidences, faith, and hope.
Four-year-old Jude Hill became a bilateral amputee last year following a lawnmower accident at his home in Germantown Hills. Twenty-six days into his 28 day hospital stay following the accident, his mother, Jen, gave birth to the family's fifth child.
The accident left the family overwhelmed, both emotionally and financially. Greg Hill, Jude's father, said the family had to pick up most of Jude's medical expenses out-of-pocket. Jude was fitted with prosthetic legs and began a rigorous physical therapy program to relearn walking at the Children's Hospital of Illinois. However, Jude found his new legs uncomfortable to wear for more than a few minutes at a time. Greg said the first prosthetics were made with everyday tasks in mind, but not the active lifestyle of a four-year-old.
Jen began reaching out to other lawnmower accident survivors and their families on Facebook. A mother from San Antonio, Texas, referred the family to David Rotter, a prosthetist at Scheck & Siress in Chicago.
"Social media has been very important in all this," said Jen. "Connecting with other moms and other families, that's been critical."
Rotter has worked with many famous clients, including paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell and the late film critic Roger Ebert. After two appointments in Chicago. Rotter was able to craft prosthetic legs for Jude by sculpting the plastic covers to his limbs. The prosthetics themselves incorporate Cheetah blades, contoured metal used by many para-athletes. The blade bases fit into a pair of Nike shoes. Jen said the change in Jude's demeanor was immediate.
"You could see it on Jude's face. You could see the 'I can do this,'" she said. The prosthetics soon became natural to Jude, who uses them to run, ride bikes, climb trees and other physical activities.
Within six weeks of receiving his new legs, Jude was ready to get out on the soccer field for the very first time. The Germantown Hills Athletic Association allowed him to enroll in the team late. Jen said her competitive son would get discouraged sometimes, but he also had a drive to succeed. In the last game of the season, Jude scored a goal and had two assists.
Social media also introduced the Hills to Jodi Bainter, the author of "Make it Morning." In 2004, Bainter's husband, Brett, was driving a lawnmower when his then three-year-old son Jake ran up behind. Not knowing his son was there, an accident occurred, ultimately costing Jake his leg.
Jen ordered the book on Amazon and soon had read it cover-to-cover, highlighting passages and insights that spoke to the experiences her own family was going through. In spite of the 10-year gap between the two accidents, Jen said many aspects were very similar.
She messaged Bainter on Facebook to let her know how much the book had meant to her. Within an hour, the author had e-mailed Jen back. A friendship was quickly kindled, and more similarities were found. When Jen mentioned that her family would soon move to Peoria, she found Bainter's family had previously lived in the same neighborhood. Her husband, Brett, was also a graduate of Metamora Township High School.
Soon, Bainter asked the Hills to come down to Orlando, Fla. in July to shoot a public service announcement about lawnmower safety. Bainter has connections through her job working for the Walt Disney Company.
Greg said he was reluctant to participate at first, but some of the statistics about lawnmower accidents brought him around. Nearly 80,000 lawnmower accidents occur each year, and 17,000 of them involve children, according to the Amputee Coalition of America. Every day, two children suffer extensive lawnmower-related injuries that require amputation.
"That's what turned me around," said Greg.
Jen said there's a common misconception that lawnmower accidents are uncommon. She said they are the number one reason for traumatic amputations in children, especially those in the age 3-4 range.
"It's scary how much it happens," she said.
The Hills were one of 13 families involved in the PSA. Roma Downey, the host of TLC's "Answered Prayers," did a show on the Bainters and contributed half of the $10,000 needed to produce the PSA. It will be released on digital media within the next week, Jen said, and a new website, limbsmatter.com, will feature the stories and pictures of the families. Eventually, the goal is to have it become a nationwide commercial campaign. The message, Greg said, is simple.
"Keep your kids inside while mowing. That is the solution," said Greg. "We were careful, but it still happened, and the bottom line is to keep your kids inside while mowing."
While the Hills said their accident and most other lawnmower accidents aren't the fault of the parents or the child, they want to tell others that being careful with your lawnmower while your child is outside isn't enough.
"We don't want families to experience what we have," Jen said.