KNOX, Pa. (EYT/D9) — To Seth Apel, it almost seems natural now.
He swings only with his left arm, backhanding the bat toward the pitch like a tennis player returning a volley. He makes good contact, too — he hit .262 as a junior on the Keystone High School baseball team and walked more times than he struck out.
A natural right-hander, he now throws with his left arm — no other choice, he says. He’s become good enough at it that he hopes to pitch this season for the Panthers.
He plays virtually every position on the diamond — he even caught an inning against Karns City, receiving a pitch with the mitt on his left hand, popping the ball in the air as he dropped the glove, snatching the ball out of the air and firing it back to the pitcher in one smooth motion.
Since he was 12, Apel has had to adapt after a horrific accident on his rural Knox farm severed his arm from his body just below the shoulder.
The limb was reattached during a six-hour surgery and he’s had multiple other operations in an attempt to return as much function as possible to his right arm. He can bend his elbow normally and his bicep and shoulder are strong.
The 18-year-old Keystone senior is still fighting to regain mobility in his wrist and fingers, however, after nearly seven years.
He doesn’t know if he ever will be able to use his right hand again.
And he’s at peace with that.
“You know, you get used to things,” Apel said. “Life goes on. There’s no use sulking about something you can’t change.”
Apel has become an inspiration over the years. To his teammates. To his peers. To those struggling with their own difficulties all over the world.
It’s his calling. It’s his answer to everything happens for a reason.
“I’ve been really blessed,” Apel says, smiling. “I’ve been able to get my story out there and help others.”
At first, though, Apel wondered why. Why me? Why did this happen?
At first, he wanted to die.
‘I JUST WANT TO SEE JESUS’
Seth Apel doesn’t remember much about the life-altering event that happened to him on Nov. 7, 2015.
Just bits and pieces. A snippet of a recollection here. A moment in time frozen in his mind there.
He remembers the cuff of his coat getting caught in the power take-off of a tractor. He remembers the instinct to jerk his arm back.
Then the sight of his right arm lying on the ground 10 feet away from him.
The PTO had twisted and severed his arm between the shoulder and the elbow. Seth, 12 at the time, said he didn’t immediately go into shock.
He was just confused.
“When it first happened, I felt a tug,” said Seth, a homeschooled senior. “My reaction was to pull back. I looked down and I didn’t see my arm.
“If I didn’t pull back,” he added. “I wouldn’t be here today.”
All Seth could do was lie on the ground and scream. His grandfather, Tim Smith, heard his bellows and raced out to see what was wrong.
Confronted with the horrifying scene, he called 911. An ambulance arrived in minutes. Seth was taken to a nearby field where he could be transported by medical helicopter to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
With his father, Josh, by his side and his mother, Angela, in route from New Bethlehem, the reality of Seth’s accident set in.
“I questioned why it happened to me,” Seth said. “It’s natural when something traumatic happens. You question why.”
Seth loved the game of baseball. Was enamored with every aspect of it. He was a standout right-handed pitcher on his Little League team and was looking forward to the season coming up in the spring.
Funny what the mind focuses on in times of trauma. Seth’s initial thoughts were he’d never be able to play baseball again.
As they waited to take off, Seth kept saying, “I just want to see Jesus. I just want to go see Jesus.”
Angela got the word her son was in an accident from her mother, Cindy Smith. They were attending a baby shower in New Bethlehem when Cindy received a frantic call from Tim.
Cindy got up and left the room. When Cindy returned, she couldn’t find the words to tell Angela what had happened.
“She was saying, ‘It’s Seth. It’s Seth.’”
Angela packed up her three young girls, the youngest not yet 2, and drove toward home, not knowing if Seth was alive or dead.
As she saw the medical helicopter land in the campground, a sense of relief washed over her.
“At least I knew he was alive,” she said. “That made it a little easier to deal with, what had happened, because my thoughts before that was he could be dead.”
Angela raced to the ambulance where Seth and her husband, Josh, we waiting. Josh was bawling. Between his sobs, he told Angela what had happened and the extent of Seth’s injuries.
More relief, oddly, engulfed Angela.
“I just said, ‘That’s OK. We can handle that. He’s alive,’” Angela said. “That’s just what my focus was. Keep him alive.”
Seth’s severed arm was also in the ambulance, packed initially in ice inside a garbage bag before being moved to a cooler for the trip to Pittsburgh.
ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST
Dr. Lorelei Grunwaldt and the surgical team at Children’s were pessimistic that they could successfully reattach Seth’s arm.
The nerves were stretched and torn. That made Seth a poor candidate for the delicate procedure.
Something — she’s not sure what — compelled Dr. Grunwaldt to want to try. The consensus of the surgical team was the operation would fail, but she dug in anyway.
“In my heart, in my mind, I felt there was a greater than a 50-50 chance of it being successful,” she said in an interview with the 700 Club.
Dr. Grunwaldt felt that Seth deserved a chance to keep his arm. She convinced the rest of the team to go ahead with the operation.
Seth’s family had no idea that effort was underway.
“We were in the waiting room, and they came out and said, ‘Well, we’ve got the arm back on,’” Angela said. “We about fell over. We never expected that. We thought they were just going to patch up the wound and that was gonna be that. The fact they were able to reattach it was really a miracle. It’s really a miracle it has done as well as it has.”
(Seth Apel with Pittsburgh Pirates’ Neil Walker in the hospital shortly after his surgery to reattach his severed right arm)
After a six hour surgery and 48 hours of waiting — and a whole lot of praying, not just from Seth’s family, but from thousands across Clarion County, Pennsylvania and even the world — Dr. Grunwaldt’s gamble paid off.
When Seth finally awoke, a piece of scripture leapt into his mind.
“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,” he said.
Seth story became international news.
His ordeal was recounted on Pittsburgh television stations, The Today Show and even in the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom.
Neil Walker, then of the Pittsburgh Pirates, visited Seth in the hospital. So, too, did former major leaguer Sean Casey.
His story was also told on the 700 Club, a program that airs on the Christian Broadcast Network.
Seth appreciated the well wishes and support, but he also had a bigger goals in mind.
He wanted to be a source of inspiration, to help others going through great trauma.
He also wanted to play baseball again during the upcoming Little League season in the spring.
That revelation shocked those around him, but also made them proud. Seth wasn’t going to let what had happened to him stop him.
He was determined.
“We were very proud of him,” Angela said.
(Seth was able to return to the Little League field just six months after his accident)
“At first I was considering being a mascot or something,” Seth said. “It was my last year of Little League and we were thinking about how I can I be a part of the team. What can I do? I was like, ‘No. I want to play.’”
But how, with only one functioning arm?
Seth jumped on YouTube and typed, “One-handed baseball players.”
He was surprised by the number of videos that popped up. He studied them, watching intently to see what kind of challenges he’d have to overcome to play with one arm.
Seth knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.
Seth worked tirelessly, teaching himself how to throw left-handed. He learned how to swing a bat with one arm, practiced fielding a ball with his glove and shedding it quickly so he could throw.
It was arduous work. Long hours. Plenty of failures and frustration. And, yes, there were moments, fleeting occasions of doubt, when Seth wondered if he would ever be able to step back onto a baseball field again.
He pushed those thoughts from his mind.
Seth had faith he could do it, and to him, faith was a powerful thing.
“For a normal person with two arms, it would be hard to learn how to throw with the other arm,” Seth said. “I didn’t have an option. I couldn’t cheat and throw with my right. I couldn’t quit. If I’m gonna play, I have to make this work.”
By the spring, he was playing again. A smile beamed on his face when he took his first at-bat, when he fielded his first fly ball, when he made his first throw to a base — simple things that he took for granted before, but were monumental now.
As time passed, things became more natural for Seth. He developed his skills enough to crack the starting lineup for Keystone.
“He’s always been determined,” Angela said. “He a very determined child. He didn’t let it hold him back.”
JUST ANOTHER BALLPLAYER
Seth worked with batting coach, Ed Kemmer, on the best way for him to swing with one arm.
When he first started, he used his right hand to stabilize the bat before he swung. Now, he just uses his left arm.
“I don’t have a power arm, but who needs a power arm when you can find the holes,” Seth said, grinning.
Seth has undergone several procedures after his accident with the hopes of returning more function to his arm.
Some of the surgeries have been painful.
Two years ago, surgeons removed a portion of his thigh muscle to transplant into his forearm.
“That was probably the hardest one he’s gone through,” Angela said. “He said, ‘I’m not gonna do this again. I’m not going through this again.’ That was tough. It’s his prerogative. It’s his life. If that’s it, he’s gonna be fine because he’s learned how to function without it.”
Seth is also a soccer player. During the fall, he broke his right forearm, necessitating another surgery to implant another plate for support.
“That was a hiccup that we weren’t expecting,” Angela said. “He hadn’t thought about how brittle that forearm was getting.”
No more surgeries are scheduled. He still cannot bend his fingers enough to grasp items. He’s hoping in time and with more work in physical therapy, he can someday.
(Seth has learned ways to still hunt despite limited use of his right hand)
An avid hunter, Seth has found ways to tackle that passion with one arm, as well.
“I’m big into the outdoors and whitetail deer,” Seth said. “I’m going to Wisconsin this August with some wildlife biologists.”
Seth has blended in seamlessly with his teammates on the Keystone baseball team. His ability to play any position and his good eye at the plate has helped him get on the field and contribute for the Panthers.
Then there are all the things he can do for his team off the field.
“Seth is one of the most outstanding young men I’ve ever met,” said Keystone baseball coach Nick Banner. “He’s a phenomenal baseball player. He’s better than most players with two arms. He can play any position. I will play him anywhere in a game.
“He’s my captain,” said Banner added. “He is an awesome guy. He inspires everyone around him.”
There’s one more thing Seth wants to accomplish before his baseball career is over.
He wants to pitch again.
He’s thrown out the first pitch left-handed at a Pittsburgh Pirates’ game and at the Little League World Series.
But he wants to face live hitters. Stare them down. Strike them out with a pitch thrown from his left hand.
“It’s my senior year, I want to pitch again,” Seth said, a smile creasing his face. “I’ve been working on pitching. It’s still a work in progress.”
Angela doesn’t put anything past her son.
“He really wants to do that,” Angela said. “When he sets his mind to something …”
Like Seth said when he first awoke from his ordeal.
“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”