Montana Headwall » Head Lines & Features

Separation anxiety

Tourniquets and the art of tyin’ one on



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I forced myself to inspect the wound more closely. All the back-of-hand tendons were severed. So was at least one artery. The nerve situation was unknown but I couldn’t feel anything past the pinch point. No bones or connective tissues seemed to bridge the gap. The skin of my wrist looked like perforated tissue paper. The hand might release with a reasonable yank. One bundle of abraded tendons remained intact on the inside of my wrist. The “flexors,” I’d learn later. Having butchered dozens of deer and elk, I have some understanding of tendon strength. Without a knife, the effort would be heroic, if not futile. I was vaguely aware that a series of aggressive but unsuccessful tugs would be hard to erase from my memory.

But walking out with a dangling hand was equally unappealing. Jesse found a nearby juniper branch and I used my left hand to press the fingers of the unfeeling right hand into a fist around it. The pale fingers stayed where I put them. Jesse wrapped it with Kara’s T-shirt and held it snug with webbing. The whole mess would be held rigidly in place and not flop about.

Montana Headwall
  • Kara McMahon

This took maybe 10 minutes, and I hadn’t moved an inch from where I’d landed. Kara insisted that I sit tight until she’d checked out my spine and palpated me for less obvious injuries. She’ll say anything to get a piece of me.

* * *

Kara pinched my toes and poked every inch of my body. All seemed fine until, probing near my knee, her thumb pressed into something she called “squishy.” That hidden 3-inch gash would eventually take several layers of stitches to close, but I hadn’t noticed it. Kara was now even more suspicious about my ability to assess my own spine, and she suggested we wait for the medics.

But this hell was starting to get to me, and I was ready to get off the rock and to the hospital. My neck was stiff but didn’t seem broken, so with my friends’ help I struggled to my feet, only to find my knees and feet too banged-up to stand, let alone walk. The terrain didn’t permit a side-by-side carry, so I started scooting downhill in one-handed crab-style. The truck was just a quarter-mile away, but that seemed terribly far.

I don’t recall hearing ATVs, but John tracked down a rider (I didn’t catch your name, but I still owe you a beer!) who came over immediately and gave me a ride to the road. We pulled in just as the ambulance arrived—an ambulance carrying no pain meds. Too much risk of getting them stolen they explained as I finally let myself lose it, writhing and complaining on the gurney but thankful to be hospital-bound.

Less than an hour later, nurses at the St. James Hospital’s emergency room in Butte injected me with some forget-about-it cocktail. A kindly doc chatted me up while unwrapping the mess.

“What are we looking at here?” he asked, maybe of Kara, maybe of me.

“Well, my hand was sorta pinched off by a falling boulder. It’s pretty ugly.”

Montana Headwall
  • Kara McMahon

“Oh yeah? What do you think is going to happen?”

He carefully deconstructed our makeshift splint, revealing my wrong-colored and disjointed hand from the dirty, crusty mess.

The purplish-yellow color was difficult to swallow. “I think it’s done for,” I said.

“Done for?” The doc leaned close to my face.

“We don’t do amputations,” he said.

His matter-of-factness was so confident I believed him. But I knew that the tourniquet had been constricting bloodflow for an hour. And with my hand and wrist resting on blue surgical pads, I could clearly see more space than wrist separating the two. But it was the right thing to say, an invigorating and empowering last thing to hear before passing out.

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