MIDWAY — It’s a step up from catching your first pop fly. For a 12-year-old, mowing the lawn for the first time is just another stepping-stone toward your first shave.
And so it was for Abe Tullis, who had seen has dad mow the lawn many times before and had visions of opening up his own lawn mowing business with one of his neighborhood buddies.
Now it was his turn to power up the mower.
The backyard spread out in front of Abe that sunny Tuesday afternoon. He heard the lawn mower give a soft purr that grew to a mild roar. With a little push, he was off. He moved up the yard with ease, his pass done. But as he anticipated the turn to start row two, he heard a sound. Something dark shot out from under the lawn mower and hit him in the chest.
“It felt kind of like stinging, but kind of like a bruise-sting mix thing,” Abe said.
Two and a half hours later the surgeon at Primary Children’s Medical Hospital took John Tullis, Abe’s grandfather, aside.
“He basically said, ‘This could be very good, or you need to be prepared for something that could be extremely serious,’” he said. His grandfather doesn’t remember the doctor’s exact words but said, “There was definitely no question about the implication.”
Thursday, more than seven weeks after a 2-¼ inch nail shot into Abe Tullis’ heart, the boy was in good enough shape to complete a soccer camp at Brigham Young University.
Abe’s father David Tullis, a family practice and Emergency Room doctor, heard his son yell out and ran to his side, confused when his son said his chest hurt.
“As I looked at his shirt there was just a little tiny hole,” David Tullis said. “I pulled it up and I remember just seeing this curved end just sticking slightly out of the skin.”
His first instinct was to pull the little piece of metal out, but he stopped.
“As I pulled the shirt up and watched him breathe, as his chest expanded the nail pulled in a little bit and it looked like it could be deep,” he said.
That was when David Tullis knew he had to get his son to the hospital; he told his wife Myndie to get the car.
“It went through the front part of the heart into the right ventricle and hit the interventricular septum, which is a thicker part of the heart, and that’s where it stopped,” David Tullis said. The metal piece was short enough not to break through that part of the heart he said, but long enough that “it was still plugging the hole that it went through and he was able to form a clot around that.”
Myndie Tullis held her son in her arms as they raced to the hospital: "Stay with me, stay with me," she recalled saying.
ER doctors came to Abe's aid. Myndie stepped into the hallway of the Intermountain Heber Valley Clinic hospital, and with shaking fingers began scrolling through the contacts on her phone looking for someone, anyone, she could text to pray for her son.
“Abe was mowing the lawn and something shot up and penetrated into him right above his heart. We are being flown to Primary Children’s. Please say a prayer for Abe and the doctor that will work on him,” the text message said.
David Tullis told his wife the X-ray revealed the nail had penetrated his heart.
She said her husband broke down.
“We just hugged and he said, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Myndie Tullis said.
David Tullis said he tried not to think that he might lose his oldest son.
“Just thinking about him possibly not being there was a pretty pretty scary thing.”
Another car ride
David Tullis stayed at the hospital to wait with his son to be flown to Primary Children’s Medical Center. Myndie Tullis left to make the 45-minute drive by herself, her husband hoping to fly with their son.
“People have asked me, ‘How did you get through that drive? Was it the most horrible thing you’ve ever experienced?’“ she said. “It was really hard. I cried a lot, but it was also one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.”
She said she felt a power come over her that was not her own, which she credits to responses to her text message.
“I just felt this almost tangible power and peace that did not come from me,” she said. “And along with that, just this sense of gratitude that I am (Abe’s) mom and it just completely encompassed me that whole ride.”
Neighbor Emily Ballstaedt was at a pool with a few other neighbors and their children when she received the text message.
"When I first read it, I gasped," she said.
Ballstaedt had to read the message a few times before she could read it to the other mothers. Everyone started to cry.
The mothers said a prayer right there on the pool deck. Then they gathered their children at the edge of the pool, some of them still in the water, and said another prayer. Five-year-old Gwen Ballstaedt offered a simple prayer: "Please fix Abe's broken heart."
Abe Tullis arrived at Primary Children’s Hospital and was rushed to 4 ½ hours of open-heart surgery.
He said later he remembers thinking at some point that he might not live.
“But that was for like five seconds, then I’m like, ‘I’m going to make it, I’m good,’” he said.
Abe Tullis talked about the surgery. He said Dr. Todd Haderlie stitched around the nail. Then, like a drawstring, someone pulled the nail out while the stitches were pulled and closed the hole in his heart.
He was released from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit less than 24-hours after the surgery. Fourty-eight hours after open-heart surgery, Abe Tullis' chest tubes were taken out and he said he felt no pain.
There is nothing hanging on the walls in the Tullis’ home. With a 15-month-old, Myndie Tullis is just now starting to think about hanging pictures. The only exception is a small metal figure made of nails that spell out, “ABE,” a the vase of flowers next to it, and a picture of Jesus Christ.
“I know he was protected,” his mother said. “So many little things had to happen for him to make it.”
David Tullis said after the surgery, he asked himself, "Why did this happen?"
David, the father, had mowed over that very spot many times. Abe, the son, didn't do anything differently. Why this time? Why hadn't he pulled the nail out and why did he drive his son to the hospital himself? How were the doctors so prepared, and the helecopter refueled just before the call?
“I think that same moment another thought came, with this happening, ‘Why did he make it?’ I think just flipping the question like that made me realize that he’s a pretty important kid and that a lot of things worked out,” he said. "We know he's going to do some amazing things."
For now, Abe Tullis' lawn mowing business is on hold.
"Yeah I don't really want to mow lawns," he said.
The next time his family is doing lawn work, Abe Tullis has a new plan:
"I'm going to play video games."
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