Finger Reattachment Surgery Helps Family Craftsman Get Back to Work

November 26, 2018 7:00 AM

An unexpected slip caused a life-altering accident for a father of two. Thanks to surgeries and specialized care at Michigan Medicine, he has regained function.

It was 7:45 a.m. when Matt Gingerich switched on his table saw.

Making the final cut of the day, the 31-year-old intended to trim a wooden board for a play barn he was building as a Christmas gift for his two daughters.

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But as he guided the wood across the table that morning in November 2017, the board kicked out and Gingerich’s left hand slipped into the spinning blade, severing his thumb and pinkie finger and mangling the tendons and nerves of the other fingers.

“I looked down and, because I was wearing thin gloves, I saw blood and a blob where my thumb and pinkie used to be,” says Gingerich, of Sturgis, Michigan. “I kind of freaked out.”

He shut off the saw, then hustled across the street from his workshop to his home and family.

Gingerich knew immediately that his life had taken a dramatic turn. Thanks to the expertise of plastic surgeons Steven Haase, M.D., and Kevin Chung, M.D., of Michigan Medicine’s Comprehensive Hand Center, the outcome was far better than the patient feared.

“So much went right that day,” Gingerich says. “Everything lined up.”

Good fortune after accident

The first lucky break occurred at a nearby hospital.

An emergency room doctor there wanted to send Gingerich to another hospital to clean up his wounds and send him home without reattaching the missing digits, but a nurse insisted on calling an area orthopaedic surgeon.

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That physician happened to be in the same hospital preparing for surgery. After examining Gingerich’s injury, he contacted the Comprehensive Hand Center and sent him there.

Fortunately, Gingerich’s brother-in-law returned to the woodshop to retrieve the missing thumb and pinkie, preserving them in ice.

It wasn’t the first time, in fact. “He had experience preserving fingers,” Gingerich recalls. “His grandpa my wife’s grandpa had a similar accident a couple of years ago on the exact saw I was using.

“I remember thinking that morning before I started that I had to be careful because I didn’t want to lose any fingers like Grandpa, and sure enough, I did.”

Another fortunate coincidence: Because Gingerich woke up early to work on the project, he never ate breakfast. An empty stomach made extensive surgery possible without delay.

Coordinated team effort

When he arrived by ambulance at Michigan Medicine, Gingerich was greeted immediately by a care team that put him at ease.

“I remember it was the day before Thanksgiving, and to hear he was building a gift for his kids, it really touched all of us,” says Haase, an associate professor of surgery and the medical director for wound care at Michigan Medicine.

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Chung, his colleague, began replantation and reconstruction surgery at 1:30 p.m.; Haase took over two hours later, reattaching the bones, the nerves and the circulation by 11 p.m.

“The thumb was replanted, but we couldn’t save the small finger, so we used it for spare parts,” Haase says.

Gingerich remained hospitalized for a week.

"[Matt] is a model patient because he works hard in therapy, he’s curious and he asks a lot of great questions."
Steven Haase, M.D.

After the surgery, Haase warned Gingerich’s wife that the accident was potentially life-altering and that her spouse may need to find a new profession. Gingerich is a department manager at an RV manufacturing plant, a job he ultimately was able to keep.

“The outcome I’ve had has been remarkable,” says Gingerich, who even referred a family friend to Haase and Chung after she fell, injuring her wrist and hand.

Therapy brings relief, function

After a planned second surgery in June to loosen the tendons and scar tissue, Gingerich has more motion and better function in his fingers and has feeling back in all but the tips of his pointer and middle finger. He’s continuing physical therapy to work on completely closing his fist.

Says Haase: “He is a model patient because he works hard in therapy, he’s curious and he asks a lot of great questions.”

There is very little that Gingerich can’t do. Still, he does have to do some tasks differently, including typing.

But he remains good at being the boss. With the help of seven family members and friends, Gingerich instructed them on how to finish the play barn in time for Christmas.

“I helped paint it, but they got it done and my kids, now ages 4 and 5, loved it,” he says. “It has been a favorite thing to play with for this entire year.

“They know and understand what I lost and went through in order to create it for them.”

To learn more about the Michigan Medicine Comprehensive Hand Center, click here.