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Separation anxiety

Tourniquets and the art of tyin’ one on



“I think I need a tourniquet.”

I heard my mouth issue the unlikely phrase calmly, like asking for a glass of water. I’d been climbing, and just fallen a dozen feet. A boulder the size of a refrigerator fell with me. It stopped moving right between my knees. I was dazed, sore, and I couldn’t move my neck, but mostly I was grimly aware that my right hand was no longer on the end of my arm.

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The hand was still attached, but just barely. It dangled near my elbow. Between it and me was an exposed mess of shattered bones, grated skin and severed sinew. The open end of an artery was pumping wildly, painting arm and granite in a warm red. The bright ivory bone fragments and mangled innards looked like a deer leg that had been blown apart by a bullet. The wound had an inoffensive, almost coppery odor, like damp meat or blood. I imagined my deer-butchering days might be over.

My partner, Kara McMahon, appeared from behind me, frightened but poised to help. It took only seconds to agree the hand was lost. It required no imagination to see my arm now ending in a stub. We turned our focus to saving the rest of me. As far as we could figure that meant stopping the bleeding.

Kara pulled the climbing rack from my pack, unclipped a 24-inch sling of webbing, and doubled it up. To get the loops around my wrist I grabbed the limp hand with my good one and lifted it. Bone shards caught and clicked in the joint, but the pain felt distant. The joint was in the wrong place and the hand, heavy and stiff, did not feel like mine, or even alive.

The sling positioned, Kara stepped across and straddled me. She removed her cotton T-shirt to use as a bandage. The morning sun shone on her skin, backlighting her like an angel. I quipped that the real tragedy was that she didn’t rip her shirt off while straddling me more often.

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Two friends—John Adams and Jesse Froehling—arrived horrified, and offered to do whatever they could. John got through to 911 immediately. An ambulance would be at the trailhead in an hour or so, but that seemed a long ways off. We had much to do before then, not the least of which was getting me—the biggest guy in the group—to the road.

This would be a first tourniquet for all of us. Kara hardened herself, grabbed a stick, inserted the lever through the loops of webbing and twisted. The strap snugged against my forearm about two inches upstream of the wound. I breathed deeply, realizing that we were choosing the terminus of my new arm.

“Ready?” Kara’s face was inches from mine. She was about to finish off my hand with a tourniquet, a thing neither of us had ever considered. I nodded, slowed my breathing, and positioned my hand back where it had always been. The wrist gurgled and clicked. I looked directly through a void that had recently been my wrist.

The tourniquet dug into my forearm. Kara repositioned for leverage, then twisted until the spurting stopped. She went a few turns more, then pressed the stick against my forearm and tied it tightly in place.

Sitting there, propped against my pack, I wanted to help, but I was at a loss. Most pressing now was the walk out. The idea of getting to the rig with this now-extraneous appendage flopping at the end of my arm was freaking me out enough that I considered yanking it off entirely, removing it like a bracelet. I thought I might just pull it off, slip it in my pocket, and carry it out. Why not? What was the better option?

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