Editor’s note: This story originally ran Aug. 13, 2012.
VAN ZANDT - Jerry Bajema remained calm, considering that his left arm was hanging by a thin strap of muscle and skin.
A 67-year-old native of Whatcom County, Bajema lives on nine acres on Linnell Road, a rural lane east of Highway 9. He uses firewood to cook, boil his water and heat his home, so his chain saw is a trusted and valuable tool.
Around noon on July 7, a warm Saturday, Bajema was standing on a ladder against a cedar tree about 50 feet from his rustic house. He put his left hand on the tree to steady himself while he raised the chain saw over his head to lop off some limbs. He was removing them to make room for a shed he planned to erect near the tree.
Then, for reasons Bajema still doesn’t understand, the chain saw kicked back and landed on his upper left arm, cutting through the bone.
“I looked down and it was buried in my arm, still running, “ he recalled.
To make matters worse, when he fell off of the ladder his left hand landed atop the saw’s metal teeth, slicing into his fingers.
“I gotta get to the phone or I’m going to die, ‘” he told himself, quite reasonably.
Bajema managed to reach his house, dial 911 for help, and press a towel to his arm in an effort to slow the bleeding until an ambulance arrived.
“They said I had four minutes left, “ Bajema said.
After a short stay at St. Joseph hospital, Bajema was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he underwent an eight-hour surgery to reattach his arm and insert a metal plate to hold the pieces of bone together.
Because the saw severed tendons that enable Bajema to raise his left wrist and straighten his fingers, he now wears a brace that uses small springs and straps to hold his fingers up, so he can grip them. Surgeons hope to reconfigure his tendons later to give him fuller use of his wrist and hand.
All told, Bajema spent two weeks at Harborview, then a week with his sister in Ferndale.
“I healed real fast, “ he said.
He was ready to return home, but his home wasn’t ready for him.
Bajema is lean and tanned, with blue eyes, a graying beard and a noticeable resemblance to actor Robin Williams. He’s quiet, personable, and accustomed to living on his own.
A lifelong bachelor, Bajema was a bricklayer and concrete worker before he retired. He doesn’t have much money, getting by on Social Security and occasional pay for mowing, rototilling and other tractor work. Last winter, when the snow piled up, he used his tractor to plow his neighbors’ driveways, gratis.
He reads constantly, often detective novels and science fiction, and tends his landscaped acreage, which includes a large pond he built himself.
Given his do-it-yourself approach to life, it’s not surprising Bajema that didn’t tell his neighbors when his house nearly burned down two winters ago.
Bajema often uses his wood cook stove to dry out damp firewood. Once the firewood is dry, he stores it in a box in his kitchen. Apparently, an ember sparked a fire in the box while he was out of the house. When he returned, he confronted a fire in full blaze.
He doused the flames himself, left the house again for awhile, then returned to find his ceiling still on fire. He threw water on those flames and drenched the ceiling from the attic side.
The fire was finally out, but some of his windows were busted, parts of the ceiling and other areas were charred, and soot and the smell of smoke permeated the house.
Bajema’s one-bedroom home - cobbled out of three chicken coops before he bought it - was in so-so shape even before the fire. The house lacked a concrete foundation, the roof leaked and the back porch had collapsed.
Bajema had done some repairs over the years, but didn’t have enough money for a major overhaul. He likewise couldn’t afford to repair the fire damage, so he covered over the broken windows and carried on.
Laurie Lewis, a neighbor of Bajema’s, heard about the ambulance from her daughter and rushed to St. Joseph, where she visited him before he was flown to Seattle. When she returned home, she walked to Bajema’s house to check on his two dogs: Tiny, a mastiff, and Roux, a chocolate Lab.
At first Lewis was puzzled when she entered the house. She turned on the lights, yet the interior remained dim. It was the soot and charring from the fire.
So when Lewis visited Bajema at Harborview, she asked him if neighbors could clean up his house and belongings. A private man, Bajema nonetheless agreed, knowing he needed time, therapy and rest to fully recover.
“It’s hard to do anything one-handed, “ he said, quite reasonably.
As word spread, Bajema’s neighbors rallied to clean his house, care for his dogs, wash his belongings, haul away trash, and erect a shed to store his newly boxed belongings.
Early on, neighbors thought about helping Bajema repair his house, but decided it would be smarter, and no more expensive, to find new shelter for him.
Kara Deyerin, who lives near Bajema, began calling contractors and soon reached Meshak Drew, the owner of Squalicum Builders. Deyerin didn’t know it at the time, but Drew had led a volunteer effort two summers ago to rebuild an elderly Bellingham man’s house that was in danger of being condemned.
“It ended up being such an amazing experience, “ Drew said.
When told about Bajema’s situation, and told that neighbors would help coordinate the project, Drew agreed to volunteer as general contractor for Bajema’s new house.
“I’ve already contacted a number of my subcontractors and suppliers, “ Drew said. “People are willing to donate.”
Plans are still in the early stages, but Drew said the new house might be 700 to 750 square feet, and cost $20,000, maybe less, depending on donations.
For now, neighbors have donated the use of a travel trailer that has been set up on Bajema’s property. He’s staying there until details are worked out for a new home.
Neighbors also are organizing benefits to help Bajema, and bring him a meal every night, sometimes more than one.
Accustomed to doing things on his own, Bajema knows it can be OK to accept a lot of help from his friends.
“I would have gone back to my house, they but they wouldn’t let me, “ he said with a smile. “The neighbors are just awesome.”