In a split second, injury disrupts project, and life

News photo by Joni Averill   Tim Higgins stands before the tree house he was building for his children before he fell and crushed his ankle and broke a rotator cuff, both of which will require extensive surgery that will keep him out of work for some time.
News photo by Joni Averill Tim Higgins stands before the tree house he was building for his children before he fell and crushed his ankle and broke a rotator cuff, both of which will require extensive surgery that will keep him out of work for some time.
Posted Nov. 30, 2010, at 6:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:41 a.m.
News photos by Joni Averill Tim Higgins displays the leg that many surgeries will enable him to keep his foot attached to his leg after he crushed his ankle when he fell from the tree house he was building for his children.
News photos by Joni Averill Tim Higgins displays the leg that many surgeries will enable him to keep his foot attached to his leg after he crushed his ankle when he fell from the tree house he was building for his children.

Ever since Tim and Marsha Higgins and their four children, Carlianna, 16, Kirsten, 14, Oliver, 12, and Gabriel, 10, moved into their Kenduskeag Avenue home in 2004, “the boys have wanted a tree house,” Tim told me.

And why wouldn’t they?

If you were little, moved into a new home that had a huge yard, was near a stream and had big, terrific, beautifully branched pine trees even the Swiss Family Robinson would love, how could you not want a tree house?

“Every year we kept saying we were going to build a tree house, but there was always something more important to do,” Tim explained.

Like getting settled in and building an addition — all those things that need to be done to make a house a home.

“But, this year, finally, we said we were going to do it. It turned into a great family project. We had a great tree out back and a lot of material lying around,” Tim said.

So the tree house project began, and what a project it is.

After all, what’s a tree house without a deck? A full-size window? A real door?

Tim works for Cianbro Corp. and is a carpenter but, he admitted, he had never built a tree house before.

“It depends on the tree,” he said of how the building takes shape.

A deck went up. A front wall, a back wall and a nice roof. Progress.

Then came Sunday, Sept. 12.

That morning Tim took Gabriel to youth football. Marsha and Oliver were off with travel soccer. The girls were doing homework. It was a nice day.

Tim decided to put up some outside paneling on the tree house, something he and Gabriel could do together.

All was going well until Tim tried to install a piece of plywood that, apparently, was “a bit bowed.”

With Gabriel in the tree house, Tim pushed the ladder up and started to climb to tack the plywood. That’s when it happened.

In a split second, the ladder slid, and Tim with it.

“I work for Cianbro,” Tim said. “We take safety so seriously. There is no excuse for an accident. In my mind I was not putting myself in danger. It was a tree: a little project we were doing. But in two seconds, it all changed.

“I’ve been on hundreds of ladders. I’ve done all kinds of things. I wasn’t really high up.

“When it started to slide, I thought I could reach out and hang on to the deck and drop 4 to 5 feet but, somewhere, in between that process, something happened.”

Whether it was a hole in the ground or the way the ladder hit when he fell, Tim’s not sure, because the next thing he remembers is “looking down and my foot is, basically, detached from my leg. At that point you didn’t need a Ph.D. to know I wasn’t going to walk it off,” he said. And he had a broken rotator cuff, too.

The girls came out.

Carlianna called 911.

Tim’s folks live next door and one of his sisters rushed to his aid, but it was off to the hospital for emergency surgery to remove most of Tim’s crushed anklebone.

Later, stainless steel rods from heel to shin were added, “since nothing is holding it all together,” Tim said.

Two months passed. More consultations with doctors in Bangor, Portland and Boston and then, a couple of weeks ago, Tim underwent surgery in Portland to insert a metal plate from the front of his shin to the top of his foot that will hold the foot and leg together.

Eventually, Tim’s bone marrow will be combined with other materials to fuse the foot and leg. He won’t have a moveable ankle, but he hopes to be able to walk.

And the rotator cuff? That surgery is upcoming, so it’s a long road back and a long time out of work.

The Higginses have insurance, and the folks at Cianbro have been wonderful, Tim said, as have friends, family and community members who are working to help them with expenses they face during Tim’s recovery.

Marsha’s part-time job enables her to tend to the family and Tim’s needs, but it will be some time before Tim is back at work.

Tim and Marsha are overwhelmed by the generosity of people who have offered to assist them, he said.

“You see all the greed and pain in the world, and there are so many nice people here that it really helps the healing process.”

They extend their heartfelt thanks to those who’ve stood by them.

Among those good and kind folks are the Knights of Columbus, who are hosting a benefit spaghetti dinner, silent auction and dessert auction plus musical entertainment from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, in St. Mary’s school cafeteria at All Saints Catholic School, 768 Ohio St. in Bangor.

Admission is by donation, and all proceeds benefit the Higgins family.

For more information, call Keith Forbes at 735-4131.

Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; javerill@bangordailynews.com; 990-8288.

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