Life changed in a heartbeat for Bonnyville rancher Ray Murphy

Ray Murphy was in a hurry the day he made the fateful decision 
to try to replace a lost CCIA tag on a bull by himself

Cattle holding pen.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ray Murphy had a bad heart. That’s why he was so busy on that fateful day — Sept. 22, 2009.

The Bonnyville cattleman’s pre-op appointment with his surgeon for open heart surgery was the next day and so he needed to get that week’s cattle shipment moving from Murphy Livestock his 300-head purebred Angus and Charolais operation.

On his way to the loading chute, he noticed a bull was missing its Canadian Cattle Identification Association tag. Normally, Murphy would have asked someone to help him run the bull into a locking head gate to replace it. But his hired help was loading hay for transport and Murphy decided the bull’s head was too big for the gate anyway. Murphy considered reaching his arm through the sides of the squeeze chute, but was concerned the animal might pin his arm in the process. Instead, he stepped up on the catwalk to tag the bull from overhead. It didn’t go as planned. The action startled the bull, and in the process, the animal hit Murphy in the head, sending him backwards off the catwalk.

“When I woke up, I was on the ground and I felt like a football,” Murphy recalls. “All I could feel was my head. I didn’t know if I had arms or legs, or where they were.”

His worker found him after noticing Murphy’s truck hadn’t left the loading chute area. He waited until EMS personnel arrived and had his boss in their ambulance before calling Murphy’s wife, who was at work.

“The message I got from our hired man was that Ray had an accident and he was on his way to town by ambulance,” she says. “I thought Ed had said ‘accident’ to be nice… I thought he’d had a heart attack.”

A doctor told Leona that the bull had done damage to her husband’s C3, C4, and, worst of all, to his C5 vertebrae, leaving him almost completely paralyzed except for one toe, which he was able to move.

According to Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting data, animal-related injuries are the leading cause of non-machine-related farm fatalities in Canada. Between 1990 and 2008, there were 123 animal-related deaths in Canada. More than half involved cattle.

Bulls are particularly dangerous, notes Glen Blahey, a safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

“People are dwarfed by the animal’s size and strength and when you couple that with the animal’s unpredictable, instinctive behaviour, livestock handlers cannot be overly cautious enough when working around them,” he says.

Murphy was transferred to a larger hospital in Edmonton for surgery, and spent three months in recovery before moving to the Glen Rose Rehabilitation Centre and fully committing himself to physiotherapy. He learned to move his limbs a little at first, and then slowly regained more and more mobility until he was finally able to roll over, maintain a sitting position, feed himself, stand and eventually walk short distances.

Man in electric wheelchair.
Friends and neighbours chipped in to buy Ray Murphy an electric wheelchair after the Alberta rancher damaged his spine in an altercation with a bull. photo: Supplied

“I was determined to try and make the best of the rehab as I could,” says Murphy. “You could see little improvements, and it gave me encouragement to keep trying.”

Murphy says he can’t grip a self-propelled wheelchair firmly enough to get himself around but manages just fine in a powered wheelchair. The Bonnyville community chipped in to get him a wheelchair with big wheels for getting around on the farm to supervise all the family, neighbours and hired help who have operated the farm over the last four years.

“My core hired man, Edmund, he certainly came to the task and carried the operation on,” says Murphy.

Still, the Murphys plan to disperse their herd this year and rent out their land.

“You begin to realize when you can’t do things yourself, things don’t get done quite the way you would want them or quite when they should be done,” says Murphy.

Now that his wife is retired, the couple heads south for the winter, where Murphy can be more active and keep up his pool exercises.

“Snow and wheelchairs don’t work together very well,” notes Leona.

All in all, Ray and Leona Murphy say they consider themselves lucky. Murphy was 59 when he was injured, had paid off most of his debts, and had disability insurance — which they highly recommend to young farmers — to cover some of their loans.

Murphy also recommends buying safe animal-handling equipment — as he had done with his chutes, alleys and calving pens. But, he adds, you have to always use the equipment — no matter what.

From the Grainews website: Feds back farm safety training ahead of Ag Safety Week

In a hurry

Being in a hurry is a key factor in many deaths and injuries on the farm, says Blahey.

“The probability of things going wrong increases exponentially,” he says. “We follow established procedures for a reason — they get the job done correctly. When we hurry and disregard established procedures in the interest of saving two minutes, we are setting ourselves up for failure.”

The Murphys encourage other ranchers not to tolerate ill-tempered animals.

“The animal that hurt Ray wasn’t mean, just nervous,” says Leona.

“I never did like hot-headed animals,” adds her husband. “But we tolerated them to a certain degree because maybe they were worth more as a bull than as a cull animal. But now, I don’t tolerate them at all.”

He also recommends having someone with you in potentially dangerous situations.

“Had I had my hired man there, he might have said, ‘No, no, don’t do that — let’s get rid of that heifer in front and put him in the squeeze chute further,’ and we might have come up with a better decision. If you’re doing things where there’s high risk, have two people.”

Murphy shared his story to promote the recent Canadian Agricultural Safety Week and is featured in a YouTube video posted at www.agsafetyweek.ca. The website has a number of ‘producer tools’ for making the farm a safer place to work. These include information on building a farm safety team, talking to your kids about staying safe, orienting workers, and tools for conducting farm safety meetings.

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