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Rural Missouri Magazine
Back into the woods
One Ozark logger doesn't let
his wheelchair slow him down

by Eric Syverson

Josh Woodcock sits in his new Timberjack 430B loader. A quadraplegic as a result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident, Josh delimbs and loads trees into the family’s logging truck for eight to nine hours a day.

Logging is a dangerous profession that requires strength, stamina and coordination. Imagine performing the job without the use of fingers or legs.

Josh Woodcock doesn’t have to imagine; the 21-year-old quadraplegic runs the loader for a five-man logging crew based in Summersville. Five days a week, Josh gets up before sunrise, maneuvers his wheelchair to his 2002 Chevy Silverado and heads to work for the family business.

Two years after a life-threatening spinal cord injury, Josh works a full-time job. “I definitely wasn’t going to sit around the house and do nothing all day,” he says. “I’d go crazy if I did that.”

Josh still talks about the maintenance work he did on the family’s logging equipment, and his bedroom wall sports antlers from trophy bucks he shot with a rifle. A one-car accident ended those activities, but it didn’t crush his spirit. Family and friends note Josh’s determination, and his job marks his achievement in a long road to recovery.

On the way to Bible school on Jan. 23, 2004, Josh crashed the family’s 1992 BMW outside of Mansfield. He was ejected 20 to 30 feet from the vehicle. Within minutes, a registered nurse found him with his eyes rolled back in his head and his jaws clenched shut. Josh was breathing only four times per minute, so the nurse used a Buck knife and the tube from a ball point pen to clear his airway and keep him alive. The crude emergency procedure worked until paramedics arrived.

At a work site outside of Licking, Josh uses the loader’s mechanical arm to pick up a log. Most of the Woodcock family’s logging business comes from cutting pine trees for lumber and utility poles.

Josh spent eight weeks at St. John’s Regional Health Center in Springfield recovering from his injuries. He had broken his neck at the fifth vertebrae from the top of his spine. His arms and wrists had only limited movement. Circulation and support problems also kept him on his back. He couldn’t sit up for more than 10 seconds without passing out, and leaning in any direction would cause him to fall over.

His condition wasn’t much better when he returned home. Jerry Woodcock, Josh’s father, remembers that time well. “He was 97 percent dependent on the family,” he says.

For the next 10 months, Josh underwent rehabilitation in Lebanon. The going was tough at first. He had full control of his biceps, but he was so weak he could only curl the weight equivalent to eight paper clips. Therapists worked on other muscles, which were stiff with disuse. “It just about killed me; it hurt so bad,” Josh says. “It felt like they were tearing me apart.”

Josh drives himself to the jobsite each morning in a specially adapted pickup truck.

The routine of stretching seemed endless, but the therapists’ words of encouragement helped Josh along. “They’d say, ‘That’s good therapy,’” he recalls. “Everything I did was good therapy because I couldn’t do anything for a couple months.”

Little by little, Josh’s strength and coordination improved. Near the end of his rehab, he was nearly yanking therapists off their feet, Jerry says.

Now Josh eats, answers the phone and pushes himself around in his wheelchair without help. He and his family say his progress is one of God’s miracles — one of many since the crash.

But something was still missing, and it had been on Josh’s mind since his accident. He wanted to go back to work. It was impossible when therapy took up all his time, so Josh watched and learned until he felt he could do all the exercises at home. One year after his accident, he quit rehab to return to his family’s logging crew in the Ozarks woods.

The Woodcocks used a little “redneck engineering” to modify their loader to accommodate Josh’s needs.

“We needed another guy out there, and I knew I could do it,” Josh says. “I didn’t want to be inside all my life. I wanted to be back out working with my brothers.”

Josh’s dad needed little convincing. “I said, ‘I don't know how it will work, but we’re going to give it a shot,’” Jerry recalls.

The Woodcocks, who primarily log pine trees for lumber and utility poles, have a truck and three pieces of logging equipment. Their loader, which picks up and moves logs, stays in one place and requires an operator who can sit for long periods. Josh knew where he was going right away.

But finding his place on the crew was the easy part. Most loaders are controlled with hands and feet. That wasn’t an option for Josh, so the Woodcocks modified the machine.

Josh and his brother Joe share a laugh as they try to figure out a problem with the loader.

Using Plexiglas from the loader’s windows, Super Glue and a little “redneck engineering,” the family adapted the loader to meet Josh’s needs. Joysticks with support pegs and a couple of --hand-made switches allow him to control the equipment with his arms and hands.

Josh still remembers his first load back on the job. Stacking logs on the crew’s truck took him 45 minutes. “My brothers were so happy for me,” he says. “They wouldn’t tell me I was slow.” Now he can move a 30-ton load in 10 to 15 minutes — an average time for most loader operators. His fastest time, Josh states, was 30 tons in four minutes and 50 seconds. Regardless of speed, there aren’t many disabled loggers like Josh out in the woods. Joe Long, a forester for Current River

Pole Company in Licking, oversees the Woodcocks and eight to nine other independent contractors in the area. “I’d say it’s quite rare,” he says.

But Josh doesn’t see himself as exceptional. “Some people say they think it’s really impressive to be back at work and everything, and yeah, it is,” Josh says. “But I’m impressed that I have support. I actually don’t take any credit to myself.”

Josh gets some help from his brother Jeremy as he lowers into his wheelchair after work. The winch system the Woodcocks installed helps Josh get in and out of the family’s loader.

That support has shown itself in many ways. After the accident, Josh’s parents and five siblings moved into St. Johns for 25 consecutive days. Five of them didn’t go home once.

Jerry remembers Josh being worried he was a burden to the family. Jerry told him he was forbidden to say that word again. “I said, ‘Don’t you cuss like that again,’” Jerry recalls. “We’ve had an understanding since then.”

Josh also had more than 800 visitors while at the hospital, which included friends, family and members of the Summersville Mennonite Church.

Boosted by those around him, Josh refuses to let his disability get him down. After all, he says, paralysis doesn’t end a person’s life.

“If I can glorify God through making the best use of what he’s given me, and help somebody else in that, that’s my goal,” he says.

From his perch in the loader, Josh seems to be making that goal a reality.

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