Holding On to Big Dreams After Swift Hand Surgery

October 03, 2018 6:00 AM

A gruesome accident nearly severed a young woman’s three fingers. Thanks to reattachment surgery at U-M, the patient has regained full function.

Grace Weaver has always been quick to lend a helping hand.

On the day after Christmas 2017, when her father needed assistance building crates for a commercial shipping order at his small business in Manistee, Michigan, Weaver and her two sisters jumped in to help.

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“I was there being a good Samaritan,” the 21-year-old says.

That act nearly derailed Weaver’s impending plans to become a missionary in Athens, Greece. And it would take her to Michigan Medicine’s Comprehensive Hand Center in Ann Arbor.

An unexpected accident

While cutting wood with a table saw, one of several power tools she’s used before, Weaver sliced through the thumb, pointer finger and middle finger of her left hand.

Each digit was dangling by a sliver of skin. The tendons on her ring finger also were severed.

“I don’t even know what happened while I was cutting,” she says. “I blanked out. I don’t even know if I felt pain.”

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Weaver’s experience is common. The Woodworkers Guild of America says table saws cause more injuries than any other woodshop tool. An estimated 79,000 accidents occur across the country annually, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System database.

Weaver started screaming when she saw blood and the scope of the injury.

“I remember praying, ‘Lord, help me to not pass out,’” she says.

 Prayer would be a common response to how events of the day unfolded.

A nearby hospital told Weaver that she had a 20 to 30 percent chance of keeping her fingers but that the facility didn’t have the surgical equipment to reattach her digits. They called around to other medical centers.

“I started praying, ‘Please let me keep my fingers,’” she says.

Scars on Weaver's left hand offer a reminder of her accident — and successful recovery.

Ready for action

More than 90 minutes passed before the hospital found a surgeon willing to try to save them: Kagan Ozer, M.D., of the Comprehensive Hand Center and a professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Michigan.

Because winter weather had iced the roads, the ambulance ride to Ann Arbor was anything but smooth. Medics passed several overturned vehicles en route, Weaver was told, but time was critical.

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The quicker the patient could enter surgery, the better the chances of successful reattachment.

In good weather, the trip from Manistee takes more than 4 1/2 hours. Despite estimating a six-hour trek, the driver made it in 3 1/2 hours.

Ozer was ready. Weaver needed revascularization surgery, a restoration of the blood circulation by repairing blood vessels, the tendons and reattaching the partially amputated digits.

Because Weaver still had a bit of skin holding the digits on, it wasn’t considered a replantation — or a repair of amputated body parts but it nearly was, Ozer notes.

“She had a really bad injury and usually we give the patient little hope because we don’t want them to be disappointed, but we were really lucky,” Ozer says.

During 3 1/2 hours of surgery he reconnected the nerves, tendons and bones. Weaver’s thumb was particularly challenging; Ozer told the family he might attach her big toe as a thumb in a subsequent surgery because the digit is so important.

“Thankfully, we didn’t need to do that,” he says.

Road to recovery

It typically takes about two days to determine if circulation is restored, thus marking reattachment surgery a success, Ozer says.

Weaver passed that milestone and was released four days after surgery with orders to keep it dry and warm, a difficult task in a Michigan winter.

But she did. After an eight-week checkup, Weaver received physical therapy because the fingers had grown stiff after being immobilized to heal.

She underwent a second surgery, a bone graph on her thumb, that June. Ozer had told her to anticipate it due to the severity of the injury. Ozer took bone tissue from Weaver’s hip bone and transplanted it in her hand to further help the thumb heal.

Two days prior to the bone graph, however, the patient brushed her left hand against her sister’s shoulder and her middle finger broke when it twisted out of place.

Weaver contacted Ozer’s office via email about the break and verified that they would address it during the graph surgery.

“I really like Dr. Ozer,” Weaver says. “He is funny, my parents like him and he would answer my questions that I’d email, like concern over a sharp pain I was having.

“I was extremely impressed with my care.”

Lending a hand to others

Ozer’s surgery helped Weaver regain feeling in her hand, move her fingers with some stiffness and nearly make a closed fist just a few months after the trauma.

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His expertise helped her realize her dream of helping others.

Three months after the second surgery, Weaver was in New York getting her hands dirty, learning how to be a missionary. It’s the first step on her journey to spending two years in Greece helping refugees.

“I was worried that I might not get there because of my injury,” Weaver says. “I’ve watched God do a miracle with my injury. God worked through Dr. Ozer to bring about my healing.”

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