On a sunny April afternoon in 2004, Brett Bainter came home from work around 3:30 p.m. and found his almost-4-year-old, Jake, riding his green bike in circles in the family’s driveway.
Jake’s babysitter was still there and it was a nice day, so Brett decided to mow the lawn. Brett reached a dead-end at the side of the house, but when he reversed the mower to turn around, he felt a bump. He didn’t know that Jake had gotten off his bike and followed him.
Brett accidentally ran over his son’s leg. Now, 14 years later, Jake is thriving — and his family is reflecting on the split second that changed their lives.
“That haunts me still. I looked down and his upper torso was coming out of the mower deck,” Brett, now 51, tells PEOPLE. “I lifted the mower off of him and I scooped him up and I had him in my arms. I was screaming more than he was. But he was screaming a lot.”
Jake was hospitalized for 28 days immediately following the accident. Over the next four years, he underwent 15 surgeries to try to save his leg.
Then, at age 9, Jake decided — and proudly announced to his classmates — that he was going to become an amputee. But the morning of his amputation, February 19, 2008, his parents were still on the fence about whether they were making the right choice. They asked God to send them a sign.
And they got one: Driving to the hospital, Jake spotted a biker on the side of the road with a prosthetic leg. Brett quickly made a U-turn and the family stopped to talk with Bill Hansbury. Then 71, Hansbury had lost his leg to a MRSA infection only the year before, after a lifetime of athleticism.
“I knelt down and talked to Jake,” Hansbury, who was on a 30-mile bike ride that fateful day, tells PEOPLE. “I told him, ‘If I can do it, you can. You’re seven and I’m 10 times older than you. If I can do it, boy, you can fly.’ ”
Hansbury visited Jake in the hospital, and helped coach his parents through his recovery. “He was like another dad,” Jodi Bainter tells PEOPLE now. “We love him. He’s family.”
The years that followed brought many other changes.
Jodi began using a blog to document Jake’s journey, and in 2012 self-published a book called Make it Morning. As a result, she became a frequent resource for other parents whose children were injured in lawn mower accidents.
“I was tired of talking to these families after their kids were already amputees,” Jodi says.
So in August 2015, she started a foundation called Limbs Matter, which aims to encourage parents to keep their children indoors while they mow the lawn.
“That’s an important message for parents of young children,” says Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
One child is admitted to the emergency room every hour for lawn mower-related accidents in the U.S., according to Smith’s study released last year.
“I’ve taken care of several children in the ER and we’ve seen those identical injuries. The children come in and their leg or foot has been amputated. The story has been the same every time. These are good parents. They simply were unaware the child was behind them,” Smith, an emergency room physician, tells PEOPLE. “It happens in a blink of the eye and before you know it, it’s too late. In just a split second, they’ll shatter bone and rip flesh. These horrific injuries are lifelong.”
After Samantha Eddington’s daughter, Katie, was injured in a lawn mower accident, she was given a copy of Jodi’s book by a doctor at Shriner’s Hospital.
The Eddingtons were determined to save Katie’s leg, with the little girl undergoing 21 surgeries.
When Jodi gathered 12 families from around the country whose children had lost a limb in a lawn mower accident to film a PSA sharing their stories, the Eddingtons were on board.
The family flew from their home in Georgetown, Kentucky, to visit the Bainter family in Orlando three days after meeting with surgeons at Boston Children’s Hospital who recommended amputation. They began their trip fearful and hesitant about moving forward with the surgery, but meeting Jake changed that.
“I watched him in total disbelief,” says Samantha, a 40-year-old nursing professor. “He would run and get in and out of the water. He was completely normal. Completely normal. I never thought we would be normal again.”
Adds Samantha, “What a gift. I could see a 16-year-old version of my child and he was walking and running and she could do none of those things.”
The Bainters answered all the Eddington’s questions, gave them hope, inspiration, friendship and helped guide the family through the process. They talked and texted and encouraged Katie to get her prosthetic leg in Florida at the same place Jake goes to and went with them when Katie was fitted. They even brought cake and balloons.
In the last two years, Katie, now 9, has run eight 5K races and plays on her school’s basketball team.
“Thanks to the Bainter family, Katie is definitely living her best life,” Samantha says.
And Jake, now 18, is also thriving. He’s an avid bass fisherman and hunts turkey, deer and duck. He likes math and biology, and hopes to attend the University of Florida. He and his mother just participated in a 5K together.
Jodi is still sharing her son’s story, and speaks about once a month to churches, hospitals and chambers of commerce about lawn mower safety.
“Our work is not done until we can spread the word and save other families from going through what we did,” Jodi says. “We have to keep other kids safe.”
Mind & Body – Health.com