Lost leg led to change in law

It began as an unremarkable summer morning. But that day in July 1985 irrevocably changed Tim Hierlihy’s life.

It began as an unremarkable summer morning.

But that day in July 1985 irrevocably changed Tim Hierlihy’s life.

He was working on the Alaska Highway, near the South Access road, when a truck ran over his leg.

Wearing a vest and a hard hat, Hierlihy was in charge of inspecting the overlay of asphalt on the roadway. He’d been working on highways with Public Works Canada for eight years.

On this particular morning, he was walking up and down the stretch of broken road when he stopped to take notes.

The equipment was shut down for a morning coffee break.

“One truck had pulled in front of the paver, about 200 metres,” he said in a phone interview.

It was a semi towing a long box, used to load asphalt, and larger than a dump truck.

“When these things are backing up slowly they’re real quiet,” said Hierlihy.

People started shouting, he said.

He looked up at them, then looked back as the truck started rolling over his leg.

“He knocked me down and started running up my leg,” he said.

It was a painful and tedious recovery.

Bedridden in Whitehorse General Hospital for the next two months, Hierlihy underwent seven different surgeries on his leg.

Because of the trauma to his body, Hierlihy could not properly absorb oxygen.

This meant he couldn’t be medevaced South.

“I was suffocating,” he said.

“There were two nights when my wife was hauled in and they didn’t think I’d make it through the night.”

In his early 30s at the time, Hierlihy also had a two-year-old son at home.

“My wife, she went through a simultaneous hell,” he added.

“I was on a lot of painkillers at the time so I don’t remember a lot of this stuff. I just hear about what it was like.”

Numerous operations and 60 days with his leg pinned and tied were not enough.

Hierlihy lost his leg above the knee.

“Because of complications and infections they just kept chiseling away at me,” he said.

Eight months later, he flew south to be fitted with a prosthetic leg, which reaches up to his hip. As well, he entered into a year’s worth of rehabilitation. It wasn’t until 1987 that he could function again.

And his career working on the roads was over.

“It’s difficult for me to walk on rough ground,” he said.

“It’s best on hard, flat surfaces. Anything less than that diminishes the walking ability; I can do it, but it’s not pretty.”

 So, it was back to the books.

Hierlihy got a diploma in business administration and has since worked his way through a variety of jobs with the federal and territorial governments.

Currently he’s acting director of policy and communications for Highways and Public Works.

If there is a positive outcome from the injury, it’s that Hierlihy wouldn’t be in his current job without the forced change in focus, he said.

The recovery period was trying, though.

“Everybody reacts to injuries differently,” he said.

“I met guys down there (in rehabilitation) who’d lost two legs, who were doing a lot better than I was.”

With a young family at home, Hierlihy was determined to push on.

“It’s very difficult on relationships when these things happen because it really jolts your life and everything you’ve got going for you.

“My wife was very supportive and my family was very supportive.”

The Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board and the federal government also helped him through those years of building a new working life.

“There is a lot of onus on yourself to take responsibility and to take charge,” he added.

“Ultimately it’s up to the person who’s injured to get back up and get going again.”

Life would have taken a different course for Hierlihy if that truck had stopped.

His injury also led to changes in the industry, making roadwork safer.

Back-up warning signals became mandatory on highway equipment in the territory, after Hierlihy lost his leg.

“That probably could have made a big difference in my accident,” he said.

Hierlihy’s workplace-accident story is one of many.

Since 1991, 18,011 people have spent time off the job after being hurt at work. Another 39 have died, according to the compensation board.

Today marks the 15th national Day of Mourning. Canadians across the country will be commemorating those who were injured or killed on the job.

The compensation board is hosting a ceremony in the Yukon government building on Second Avenue at 12:30 p.m.