Life and Limb
An electrical accident cost the author the one thing she thought she needed the most.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 260 (November 2019). It was edited during the 2019 John Long Writing Symposium, supported by adidas.
Happy to be back home in Estes Park, Colorado, from a three-month trip to Hueco Tanks, I was slammed with work. To stay sane I put in two hours on the 60-degree wall in our garage, then moved to the driveway to refurbish old furniture for the restaurant I was opening. It was April 2, 2017.
My husband, Adam, had shown me a how-to video on using electricity to burn artistic runnels into wood.
“That is so cool! The lines look like rivers on a map. Can we do that?” I had asked.
We rigged a 2,000-volt microwave transformer with mini jumper cables as leads. Adam demonstrated. “First you paint baking soda and water onto the wood to help conduct the electricity, then attach the jumper cables to the wood, then plug the machine in.”
At first nothing happened; then, as the electrical humming intensified, black lines crept onto the wood, merged and sharpened as flames danced along the edges.
“This is perfect!” I exclaimed.
Adam unplugged the machine and warned, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the leads when it’s already plugged in.”
By now I had done several burns, perhaps gotten casual. I dragged the machine outside to the driveway and plugged in the extension cord. Realizing I had forgotten the baking-soda-and-water mixture, I went into the house. It was as easy as that—distracted, I left the machine plugged in. I returned, bent down, and with both hands grabbed the leads.
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The voltage seized me from the inside out. Buzzing crept up my arms, in prickly, pulsing waves.
Shit! This is what Adam told me not to do.
I tried to let go, but the electrical current only tightened my grip.
Scream! I tried. I was trapped in one of my nightmares where I needed to call for help but couldn’t.
Seconds passed. Maybe I can shake the leads free. No go.
My last desperate thought: Maybe I can fall over, and one of the leads will get yanked out of my hand.
The current wouldn’t let go. I guess this is it. I am dying.
I was in a forest. Gnarled tree trunks rose to an emerald canopy. Golden light streamed through the branches, illuminating beds of ferns.
Is this happening or a dream?
A dark tunnel hung before me, its edges cobbled in smooth stones.
Fuck! I think this is real.
Bam! I opened my eyes. I was face down, my cheek on the pea gravel of our driveway, next to the machine.
Yes, I am here, I am back.
“ADAM, ADAM, ADAM!”
I stood, saw my charred hands, and willed myself not to think about them. Just move. I took five steps and screeched at the closed front door, “ADAM!”
The door popped open. I held up my hands and yelled, “Hospital, now!”
Concerned neighbors heard my screams and called the police to report a kidnapping.
The stomach-turning smell of smoldering flesh filled the truck as Adam sped to the hospital. My fingertips were burnt bones. I could see through my thumbs, where only shreds of skin remained. The surviving fingers were gigantic blistered tubes.
“The bones burn first, due to the density, like hot dogs in a microwave,” Dr. Ashley Ignatiuk would later explain.
“This isn’t happening to me! I have no hands! I will never climb again,” I cried.
“You have hands,” Adam assured me.
A screaming banshee answered him, “I have no hands!”
A cloud of opiates. I came to with water running over my burns and a team of nurses canopied above me. That night Adam showed me a picture of the breaker that tripped from the overload, shutting off the electricity, saving my life.
I woke the next day to a grim face at my bedside.
“We are transfering you,” the doctor said. “There is not much we can do for you here. We cannot save your thumbs. Most likely you will only have your index fingers and pinkies.
“They have a great plastic team at Aurora. I sent them your pictures,” the doctor added. “They are not optimistic.”
Transfer. She’d said transfer. I wanted to hope, I needed hope.
As I waited for the ambulance, a nurse came in; I wish I could remember her name.
“You might not remember me, but I met you out climbing,” she said. “I climbed with you. You were such a strong climber.” She lowered her eyes, half-smiled and said, “The doctors can do wonders.”
Adam accosted the doctor before he got in the door, as I craned my neck for a glimpse. The doctor looked young. Youth means inexperience but also innovation, cutting edge, I told myself. Six feet tall, pleasant expression, unruly salt-and-pepper hair. How long has he been doing this?
I heard him tell Adam, “There are things we can do. We can take the big toe off and put it on as a thumb.”
“You’re not taking her big toe off,” Adam said.
“Adam, let him look at me first,” I urged.
Inspecting my hands, Dr. Ignatiuk squinted and tilted his head.
“Get me a needle,” he called to a nurse. “If there is blood flow, we can try.”
This was it. My future. Tears welled in my eyes as tiny pools of blood formed at the needle holes. “No guarantees,” Ignatiuk said, “but I have something to work with.”
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Later, a nurse told me that the facility doesn’t have much experience with severe electrical burns “because most people die.”
I had two bowl-shaped wounds where the current had exited my chest, and one closer to my shoulder where it looked like someone had tried to stub out a cigar. Amazingly, I had no internal injuries.
The first surgery, a debridement to remove dead and damaged tissue, was three days after my arrival. A few days later, Dr. Ignatiuk injected a fluorescent dye into a vein to illuminate blood flow. With the resulting map he formulated a plan: to sew my thumbs into my forearms, to be nurtured by blood flow.
Dr. Ignatiuk and Dr. Seth Tebockhorst partially amputated four of my fingers and sewed the thumb bones into my arms. Any salvageable flesh they folded over the nubs to save every millimeter they could.
I awoke from surgery with a jolt.
“What’s your pain on a scale from one to 10?” the nurse asked.
“Ten,” I stammered. “Beyond 10.”
With my arms sewn together, I feared even sleeping. Only once, though, did I ever wake trying to tug them apart.
Nurses wiped my ass, showered me, brushed my teeth, and fed me. Adam, family and friends kept me sane. A friend made shirts that snapped on the tops of the arms.
From my hospital room I could see the Front Range, the Rockies and Denver. Works by Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Cassatt, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, on display at the UC Health Aurora campus, helped pass my days. I did abs and found a spin bike tucked in the corner of a waiting room. I watched the tip of my left thumb turn pink, then gray and black. Two weeks passed. Dressing changes became less painful, and I chose fewer opiates.
You can do it, I coached myself when I felt as if I was living in a horror movie. My arms were stitched together for three weeks.
At last my arms were detached. Dr. Ignatiuk amputated my left thumb tip, used skin from my thigh to cover the nubs and one full-length finger that still needed skin, and took skin from my hip and bikini line for my palms.
A week later was the big reveal, and the doctors rejoiced: The grafts were pink and healing. I looked down, though, and saw Frankenstein-stitched baseball mitts: a quilt of my own body, different colors and textures. I tried to keep a brave, grateful face as the doctors spoke. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the door closed behind them.
I am alive. I have some semblance of every finger. I should be happy.
But I was going home in a day or two with no nurses or aides. And daily, silently, Adam and I both grappled with questions of what my life would be like and whether I would ever climb again.
Adam and I had met climbing in 2004, when he sent my project. A wiry arborist, he climbed trees and rocks, had spent winters in Hueco before I ever knew what bouldering was. For 15 years our lives revolved around climbing. We moved with the seasons from Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park to El Paso and Hueco Tanks, built businesses: Adam’s Tree Service and our guiding concession Wagon Wheel Co-Op, while I also worked in restaurants. Various companies sponsored us. I volunteered to help the climbing rangers in RMNP and advocated for access and stewardship at Hueco Tanks. We traveled to Yosemite, Tennessee, New England, Squamish, Fontainebleau, South Africa, Switzerland, Italy, Australia. Climbing was part of me—it was part of us. No matter what else I’d had to face in life, getting outside in beautiful areas and focusing on figuring out sequences gave me an escape to a world of challenges.
“We can start surfing,” Adam offered.
I laughed so hard I cried.
“What’s so funny?” Adam asked, offended.
“I believe you,” I said, snorting. “But now I know you really do love me because I know how much you hate water.”
With my hands swathed in huge bandages, I couldn’t reach a tissue.
“Can you blow my nose for me?” How could I think about climbing when I couldn’t even blow my own nose?
Forty days after the accident I was home but not mended. Amazon delivered a bidet attachment. Now I could at least use the bathroom by myself. Well, kind of: The bidet buttons were near impossible, I couldn’t turn the doorknob to get out, and I struggled to pull up my baggiest pants.
Our good friend Mike Wickwire flew in our first day home to help, allowing Adam to get back to his tree service and life. Mike and I did laundry and unpacked the hospital room into my home. Each day I would wait for Adam to come home and shower me. One evening he was rinsing my hair when I let my hands drop to my sides for the first time in eight weeks. Blood rushed to the grafts in a tide of throbbing, crushing pain.
For the first time I wished I had died. “It would have been easier than facing all of this,” I said.
“Not for me,” Adam said.
Our third week at home, my parents came to help. Around then I experienced small but momentous achievements. I could press the bidet buttons, open the bathroom door, pull up my pants, brush my teeth and hair. Then one day while making the bed I felt my little left thumb flex—and the fragile bones broke. The fracture and infection prompted my first outpatient surgery. Dr. Ignatiuk cleaned the infection, threaded the Swiss cheese bones together. I went home with external pins holding my thumb together.
The walls of our house were hung with images of past days on rock, taking me back to Switzerland, South Africa and the home parks I loved. The climbing wall down the hall haunted me. Screen savers and Facebook memories flashed pictures of my old fingers.
“No, go climbing, I’m fine,” I assured Adam and friends as they headed out for a day in RMNP. They praised my strength and made sure doors were ajar and food cut up. I hated being left behind. I hated not climbing. I hated not knowing if I would climb.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” they’d ask.
“Absolutely, no,” I said every time. The brittleness and volatility of my hands stopped me—and so did the thought of watching something that might be lost to me.
I focused on the new restaurant, Bird & Jim, named for Isabella Bird and Mountain Jim, historical residents of Estes Park. Isabella, a traveler, summitted Longs Peak with the help of a local trapper. My list of chores included: menu development (a pleasant job of eating our chef Ethan Brown’s fantastic food) and orchestrating paint, tile, floors, internet, propane, payroll, seating plans, layout, reservation system, point of sale, website, furniture, lighting, advertising, wine list, fire suppression, you name it.
Seven weeks later, in August, we spent the lunar eclipse back in another six-hour surgery—removing pins and lengthening the thumb, which meant a skin, nerve and artery transplant. I settled back onto the seventh floor of UC Health in Aurora for one more week of let’s-see-if-it-takes. I sat watching a new hunk of flesh on the protruding tip of my left thumb: Would it turn black again?
Dr. Ignatiuk gained me another half-inch of thumb.
The restaurant had its soft opening on my birthday, October 3, seven months after the accident. Surrounded by family, friends, my doctor and his wife, we toasted my dreams that came true—the opening of Bird & Jim.
“Are you happy?” Adam asked that night.
“I’ve dreamed about this for years,” I said, “but in my dreams, I always had hands.”
Four months after the accident, I started touching some climbing holds I could get my tips behind. The skin grafts were unstable and painful, and it was weeks more before I pulled onto our climbing wall and just held on. In October I began doing pull ups. Mid-month I learned that a good friend, Quinn Brett, had had a climbing accident in Yosemite and would never walk again. That day I had to put a few moves together. For us.
In our garage, I climbed two moves in a row. The pain made me want to vomit. I stepped outside, breathing deeply, rested and repeated the process until I did my first problem on jugs that day. A month later I had my last surgery. I did not go to Hueco with Adam that winter. Instead I turned to the restaurant and continued working through the pain on our home wall.
Eight days before the anniversary of my accident I planned to visit my old friend Boxcar Boulder at Wild Basin in RMNP. I had learned to boulder there, spending countless days deciphering moves and growing muscles.
It was in the low 50s, normally perfect climbing temps, but colder than I wanted. My blood vessels were constricted from the trauma. My hands got cold quickly. I wanted everything in my favor for my first day on real rock.
“Today does not have to be the day,” Adam said.
“It has to be.”
I had waited for this moment. If I didn’t push, it would never happen. There would always be pain and fear.
“Let’s drive there and see,” I said.
The V2 crack traverse on the east face, once a warmup I ran laps on, was to be the biggest challenge of my climbing life.
I strolled around the boulder touching holds that conjured memories of better days. My tiny left thumb fit perfectly on the gneiss pinch of the overhanging V9 that was once on my circuit. Tears were flowing freely now.
I sat and struggled to put on my rock shoes.
How can I do this if I can’t even get my shoes on?
Adam placed crash pads running the length of the three-foot-high traverse. We had no idea what I could hold onto.
A nightmare I’d had in the hospital played in my mind—where I did my first climb after the accident, so excited to be at the top, my friends cheering, and then realized I’d left one of my fingers behind on a hold.
What had once been a smooth dance across a rock face was now defined by fear, pain and jerky movement. Adam hovered behind me. I willed myself to hold on—and my body cooperated. It was ugly, but I got to the end. That graceless movement filled me with joy.
“That’s it for the skin,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
Today I slowly piece together boulder problems. It is frustrating to endure so much hardship and pain but I think of every climbing day as a gift. I battle daily with the durability of the skin grafts. They retain their DNA: No matter how callused it gets, skin from a thigh is completely different from skin on a hand. Despite all of it, I am thankful and so happy I get to try. I was a boulderer before, and I still am one.
Melissa Strong lives in Estes Park, Colorado, running Bird & Jim, climbing and volunteering in Rocky Mountain National Park and Hueco Tanks.
A comprehensive analysis of 30 years worth of data of climbing accidents recorded in Accidents in North American Climbing.read more