Octorara High School senior Mason Ellingsworth was 11 years old the first time he drove a tractor.
“It was an old, manual tractor,” he recalled.
Five years later, on the sunny Wednesday morning of June 1, Mason and a co-worker were riding inside the cab of a red tractor, pulling a wagon stacked with hay bales. They were to deliver the hay to a farm in the 3200 block of Limestone Road, or Route 10, in Highland Township, Chester County.
Mason’s co-worker was at the steering wheel on the right seat inside the cab, with Mason to his left in the buddy seat. They went over a slight incline on the road and, after driving on the shoulder of the road for much of the trip, needed to center the tractor closer towards the middle of the road in order to turn left into the driveway of the farm.
That’s when a massive, white crane truck approached from the rear and attempted to pass, but instead hit the back left tire of the tractor.
“The tire exploded,” Mason recalled. “The door glass broke. I went from the cab to pinned under the tractor. I was kind of cockeyed underneath it. At the point of contact it jerked me out.”
Three days later, Mason awoke inside Reading Hospital.
“They had to amputate your legs,” his father, Matthew Ellingsworth, told him.
Mason initially chuckled in disbelief before realizing the severity of his situation.
“So that means I can’t play football again?” Mason replied. “I can’t play baseball?”
'Chunk of my heart taken away'
Mason Ellingsworth began playing football when he was 8, a choice made after an ultimatum from his dad, who works full-time as a truck driver.
“I used to show cows for Chester County 4-H,” Mason said. “My dad gave me a choice. He said, ‘You are either going to drag a cow around or you are going to drag a kid around on the football field.’”
And had it not been for the events that transpired over the summer, Mason would currently be a third-year, two-way starter for the Braves. Though, anything he could have done on the field this fall pales in comparison to the impact he’s having on the team in his current situation.
“The courage and the bravery that he has shown shows these guys. … That courage is something we all need,” Octorara football coach Jed King said.
Now in a wheelchair, Mason, 17, attends nearly every Octorara football practice and game.
“I have him as my players’ coach on the field talking to the guys,” King said. “He’s harder on them than I am sometimes.”
On Friday, Mason will be honored at Octorara and across much of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. Several other L-L football teams are donning special shirts for Mason that were purchased at $25 a shirt in recent weeks, an effort that has raised more than $20,000 for the Ellingsworth family.
Mason will also be part of the homecoming court at Octorara’s homecoming football game against Conrad Weiser on Friday night, in addition to being a team captain and participating in the pre-game coin toss at midfield.
The hardest part of the night for Mason will soon follow — being restricted to the sidelines.
“It’s definitely a chunk of my heart taken away,” he said. “I’ve known nothing but sports and work and family time my whole life. It’s been hard.”
Mason made those comments while being interviewed by LNP|LancasterOnline at Monday’s practice. Covering his long, curly brown hair was a ballcap, stained from the diesel fuel that poured out of the tractor after the wreck more than three months ago. The hat somehow stayed on Mason’s head the entire time.
It’s just one of a few unbelievable events from that day.
'Horrific and terrifying'
The gas tank on the tractor exploded as a result of the blowout of the rear left tire that was hit by the crane truck.
“So when I came out of the cab I was just soaked in diesel. My eyes, hat,” Mason said. “EMTs (emergency medical technicians) were dumping water in my eyes because I felt like I was on fire.”
The EMTs put tourniquets on Mason’s legs in an effort to curtail massive blood loss. He has scars on his left arm from road rash, but did not sustain any burns. His co-worker walked away from the incident with minor scrapes.
A tow truck eventually lifted the tractor off of Mason, who was placed on a board, legs covered with blankets.
“I never saw my legs at all,” Mason said. “The only thing I could see, when they pulled me off, I just saw blood. It wasn’t pretty so I looked away.”
“It was horrific and terrifying,” said Mason’s mother, Amanda Ellingsworth. “I still, honestly, have trouble going through it in full detail. I’ll be able to eventually. I struggle a lot with the visual of it. The sheer trauma.”
A helicopter airlifted Mason to nearby Reading Hospital, about an eight-minute flight.
“By the time Mason arrived at the hospital, he had no blood pressure,” Amanda Ellingsworth said. “They couldn’t find a pulse. The miraculous part of this is he was conscious the entire time.”
Until being sedated in order for a surgeon to amputate his left leg above the knee and right leg below the knee.
“There was a lot of debris and diesel fuel with this accident,” Amanda Ellingsworth said. “The nature of the accident was very dirty. They eventually had to amputate above the right knee.”
'He just goes for it'
After eight days at Reading Hospital, Mason was airlifted to Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, in Dauphin County. He recovered there for 28 days before returning home July 6. The quick return was aided by his father and a longtime family friend building a pair of wooden ramps to enter and exit the family’s Chester County home.
First, though, Mason had to learn how to transfer himself from a wheelchair to a passenger seat inside a car.
“We practiced that a couple days before I left (the hospital),” Mason said. “It took me about 20 minutes to put myself in that position mentally to get up there and get in the car. Once I was in I was like, ‘That’s not that bad.’”
Mason’s bedroom is on the first floor. He has a chair seat for the shower.
“I get around either in a wheelchair and down on my hands scooting around,” he said. “Just trying to get around any way possible. It feels good when I’m down on the ground. … It’s easier to get around in the chair. But that isn’t a good mindset to have. I’m getting too comfortable with this chair. I need to get out of it.”
Sneaking snacks out of the kitchen cabinets is now rather challenging.
“Getting stuff out of cabinets is hard,” he said. “I try. I pick myself up and get up on the counter so I don’t have to ask someone else to do it.”
It’s the same attitude he has when retrieving the mail at the bottom of the driveway.
“Our driveway is pretty good incline,” Amanda Ellingsworth said. “When he goes down to the bottom to get the mail, he will not let me push him back up. If there’s something that looks like he might need a hand, he’ll sit for 30 seconds and figure out how to go about it. Then he goes for it. True Mason fashion. He just goes for it.”
Along the way, there have been hard conversations with others who see Mason and want to help.
“People still ask me, ‘Can I push your wheelchair? Can I help you with anything?’” he said. “I don’t mean it in a rude way but I want to show people that I can do it.”
He’s made exceptions for his closest friends.
“They are about the only ones who I will let push my wheelchair,” Mason said.
Those same friends provide a bit of normalcy at times with brotherly, good natured ribbing.
“They still mess with me,” Mason said. “They pull my wheelchair back and I fall forward and almost fall out. Or they’ll put me up in a wheelie.”
Phantom pains still come and go in both legs, a result of his body attempting to send signals to limbs that are no longer there.
“Some of them are painful,” Mason said. “Some of them aren’t. I just got one a couple minutes ago. It lasted two seconds. In the hospital they would go on for five, 10 minutes at a time. That’s when it was at its peak. It’s once a day now.”
'I saw Jesus'
Mason admits there have been hard days along the way. But he doesn’t come off as a person who asks, ‘Why me? Why now? Why did this happen?’
This was pointed out to Mason while being interviewed for this story. He paused a full six seconds before answering.
“I haven’t really told this to too many people, but I saw Jesus the day of the accident,” Mason said. “I also saw the devil.”
The Ellingsworth family are devout Christians.
“As the tractor was coming down on me, Jesus put me into a cradle and had his hand up on the cab of the tractor,” Mason said. “I saw his face. I saw him. I saw everything. The crane truck was in the yard. I saw the devil perched up on it. He couldn’t do anything because Jesus was standing there. …That’s why I have never questioned why this happened.”
It also serves to explain the approach the Ellingsworth family has taken with the driver of the crane truck.
While the family has not communicated with the driver since the wreck, Amanda Ellingsworth said, “We pray for him every single day.”
“In this earthly realm of things, something always has to be someone’s fault,” she sid. “But we look at this as a spiritual battle. This is not the truck driver who hit Mason, it was the devil who tried to take him. … We wish (the driver) well. We hope he is not losing sleep at night thinking it’s his fault. … That’s not what is important. What is important is Mason is alive.”
'Do it for them'
On Saturday, Mason and his parents will leave for a roadtrip to Duncan, Oklahoma.
That’s where, next week, Mason will be among many participating in the 16th annual Bilateral Life Camp put on by Dream Team Prosthetics.
The term ‘bilateral’ refers to people who have been amputated above both knees.
“The life camp is about meeting people in a similar situation as you,” Seth Alexander said. “And being able to have a lot of peer mentoring go on. You find out you are not alone.”
Alexander was 16 when he lost both legs above the knee in a single-car accident. He’s now 27 and works as a certified prosthetic lab technician at Dream Team Prosthetics.
“Sometimes I’m wearing my legs (prosthetics) from 12 to 16 hours a day,” he said. “I drive a car with no adaptive devices. I have two small children. I’m able to live my life everyday.”
Mason will have an initial evaluation with Dream Prosthetics at some point next week.
“We have developed a program to enable individuals to get up and walk and live their lives post-injury,” Dream Team co-owner Randy Richardson said. “Our approach is aggressive to get them back up into life and get them reintegrated into life as fast as possible.”
Asked for a price range, Richardson provided an example for a microprocessor-controlled prosthetic: $45,000. Per prosthetic.
“That’s a standard technology,” Richardson said. “That is generally covered by Medicare.”
The actual cost for Mason to obtain prosthetics is still too early to say. But should the Ellingsworth family need to, they’ll be able to dig into the tens of thousands of dollars raised for them by others, like the T-shirts bought by several L-L football teams, and a GoFundMe that has raised more than $70,000 since the accident.
The support is part of the reason why Mason continues to push forward.
“Not that he feels he owes people anything,” Amanda Ellingsworth said. “But he has said, ‘I can’t just do this for me or for us, I have to do it for them.’”
In years to come, Mason eventually hopes to enter the workforce as a welder or lineworker.
“I want to be a physical, hands-on laborer,” he said.
A more immediate goal Mason has in mind is to walk across the football field on Senior Night on Oct. 28. He also has aspirations to play baseball next spring.
“That’s not an option. It’s an, ‘I’m going to,’” he said. “I’m going to be on that baseball field at least once next spring.”
If interested in making a monetary donation to the Ellingsworth family, you can do so at his GoFundMe page.