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Grit and willpower: Pickle struggled valiantly

Sunday, February 20, 2011

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written, and our Sunday Life & Leisure section went to press, prior to Robert Pickle's death on Thursday. We include it here in tribute. The benefit mentioned in the story will be held as scheduled in order to help pay for the medical expenses incurred during Pickle's hospitalization. Funeral services will be 2 p.m. today at Doak-Howell Funeral Home.

Robert Pickle
(Submitted photo)
"Farmers are just tough, gritty people," said Gay Ervin, local dairy farmer and program assistant for the University of Tennessee Extension Office.

That grit is what saved the life of a Bedford County man severely burned in a farming accident last month. But Robert Pickle, 52, of the Pleasant Grove community remains in critical condition in Vanderbilt's Burn Unit, with third degree burns on his body from the waist down.

Major change

Up until a few years ago, Pickle operated the dairy farm on which he grew up until tough times forced him to sell his brown Swiss cows.

"I know that was very difficult for him," Ervin said.

After selling out, Pickle went to work, driving a tractor, for row crop farmer Larry Gambill. Things seemed to get better for Pickle, having steady work, until that fateful day came late last December -- when everything got worse.

Unexpected fire

That day Pickle, a father of two teenagers, would have the assignment of preparing old farm vehicles to be sold for scrap metal. In doing so, the fuel tanks had to be removed.

"There was one that had been sitting there for 28 years," Ervin said. "He was cutting the bands from it (fuel tank) and there was still gas in the tank. It exploded."

Pickle had greasy overalls on that played a part in saving his life, but they didn't protect more than half of his body from the flames.

"It was really bad," Ervin said. "It burned everything, everything, from the waist down. All that was left was bone and muscle ... He put himself out with his hands. He was there all alone."

Amazing effort

Pickle's cell phone had melted in the fire, so he couldn't call for help. Somehow, he remained conscious, likely in shock.

"He got in his truck with his pants burned off and skin hanging and drove off for help," said Ervin.

Pickle managed to find another farm hand, Coleman Crockett, who was driving a bulldozer in a neighboring field.

"Coleman came over and couldn't believe what he had seen," Ervin said.

Coleman called 9-1-1 and got his friend to the main part of the barn, where Gambill, their employer, was waiting, along with ambulances. Pickle was airlifted to Vanderbilt where he remains today.

Hard struggle

His feet had been protected by the boots he was wearing, but the rest of his body from waist down, along with his hands and forearms, were severely burned. Doctors could not believe the man hadn't lost consciousness, Ervin said, and they only gave him a 10 percent chance of making it through the night and those first few days.

"He's not doing well at all," Ervin said. "He has infections and because of the antibiotics his heart rate is increasing and his blood pressure is decreasing."

He has had eight surgeries since arriving at the hospital, including several skin grafting procedures, some of which his body is rejecting. What doesn't take, doctors take off, allow his body time to heal, and try a different type of graft.

Tough farmer

Through it all, Ervin and other friends of Pickle credit his strength and will to survive to him being a farmer.

A young Robert Pickle shows a dairy cow in 1964.
(Photo by Calvin Daughtrey)
"Farmers are just tougher than the average person," Ervin said.

"It's been a roller coaster ride," added Donna Gambill, Pickle's cousin, and wife of Larry. "That is what they told us it would be from the very beginning and that is what it has been."

Pickle has remained strong, but Donna said Wednesday the time inside the hospital is wearing on her cousin.

"After being in there 47 days it's hard to keep your spirits up," Donna said. "But he's a strong man, and was in good shape before this happened, which helped. But he is very weak right now."

Helping hands

While Pickle remains in critical condition at Vanderbilt, the local farming community is doing what they can do to help. The family is in dire straits, both emotionally and financially, they said.

"Dairy farmers have a very close bond with one another," Ervin said. "It's one of the most dangerous occupations out there."

An account has been set up for Robert Pickle at Peoples Bank of Shelbyville (1122 North Main Street, 684-7222), and organizers are planning a benefit to help the family with medical and living expenses.

A chili supper, auction and tractor pull is being planned by the local dairy community for March 26 at the Bedford County Ag Center. It is open to the public. For more information, call 684-7077.

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My family goes way back with The Pickle family as I to grew up on a family dair farm and showed dairy cows with Robert. In later years we traveled up and down the road going to state, regional and national shows. I for one am honored to not only call him " FRIEND " but his entire family.....

-- Posted by Photographer one on Sun, Feb 20, 2011, at 6:07 PM

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