Ken is a stubborn son-of-a-gun. His story reminds us that sometimes we can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as well all know by now, accidents happen.
“Mechanics hands usually get pretty well beat up,” Ken shares with me after explaining the fifth injury to his hands that he’s experienced throughout his lifetime. He’s now in his sixties and recently retired from his careers in mechanics and construction.
On his right hand, he’s missing half of one of his thumb knuckles and shows me some other scars on his palm. He’s got pretty bad nerve damage and scar tissue from those two separate injuries.
And on his left hand, he’s missing most of his index finger (there is a little nub, but not enough to pull the trigger on his favored .22 pistol); while he shows me this hand, he tells me it was also partially degloved, again from a different injury.
I laughed because I didn’t realize how many times this guy actually experienced traumatic hand injuries. Having only experienced ONE major one myself, I am intrigued by his attitude and go-getter spirit that enabled him to keep bouncing back. Before I could inquire about the missing finger, Ken showed me a picture where you can practically see right through his hand: bloody tendons, meat, bones and all. I didn’t ask to see it, but he warned me to brace myself. I got nauseous because it was gross and nasty and worse than I’m describing here… but I’m not trying to make you squirm. I’m sure he’d show it to you if you want to see it.
Ken’s most recent injury smashed both of his hands behind the bucket of a heavy piece of machinery called a loader.
Nearly three years ago, at the seasoned age of 64, Ken faced his worst injury yet.
While working construction out of Reno, Nevada, Ken depended on his team to get the job done.
The ‘operator’ is the man pulling the levers to operate the equipment.
The ‘communicator’ stands between the operator and the laborer.
The ‘laborer’ is the guy getting down and dirty by all the moving parts of the equipment.
Well on the particular day of Ken’s most recent injury that left both of his hands, “smashed to shit,” everything that could go wrong went wrong.
First of all, Ken explains, the communicator was distracted while bullshitting with another employee.
When the accident occurred, the operator made a mistake by jerking the levers the wrong way repetitively in succession.
Ken, the laborer, was out of the sight of the operator, unknowingly ignored by the communicator, and unfortunately left stuck between two dangerous moving parts of the powerful bucket-loader.
“Wrong f*ing way!” Ken screams as his left hand gets smashed behind the bucket.
“Your first instinct is to grab whatever’s biting you,” Ken explains. When his hand got smashed, he immediately used his other hand to try to free his stuck hand. And in the few seconds when the operator was moving the bucket back and forth, Ken’s other hand got stuck, his glove and watch got caught in the moving parts and inadvertently his right hand got pierced by the barbs of the pin that hold the bucket in place. Ken reacted as well all would, and this action left him with two severely damaged hands in one brief incident.
The operator finally moved the bucket so Ken could rip his hands out. Adrenaline and shock played in his favor.
It all happened so fast and the accident caught everybody off guard. Ken felt he was the only one keeping a level head. There was blood everywhere and tension between the coworkers who were directly involved in the accident.
“You guys gotta get your shit together! I can’t grab anything!” Ken announced while the other men were getting upset and reacting to the trauma. Ken needed help. He couldn’t use his hands at all. He needed medical attention. He needed towels and first aid.
Within a few minutes, his boss was by his side and they immediately rushed him to Renown medical center.
The admitting gal in the ER didn’t notice the extent of Ken’s injury as his hands were wrapped in towels when he entered. She announced to him that he needed to wait his turn, and with gruffness, Ken informed her that he wouldn’t be waiting. He unwrapped his mangled, blood-soaked hands as best he could in order to show her the reason for his sense of urgency. “She was eating some muffin or something and as soon as she saw through my hand, she changed her tune.”
Ken was admitted right away. He explained to me that he had to unwrap his hands three more times after that. He was pissed off. He told the medical staff he would not do it again without seeing the surgeon and getting some actual assistance. He explained to me that he wasn’t in a lot of pain at this point, but knew he needed to be sewed up. He wasn’t sure if the lack of pain was due to shock, or the fact that his smashed hands probably cut off some nerves, or what.
The nurse’s team wanted to start scrubbing and cleaning his wounds, but Ken wouldn’t let them touch his hands until he knew the plan.
This wasn’t his first rodeo after all. He’d already lost his other finger in another work-related accident some twenty years prior to this one. By now, Ken was a professional at keeping his cool during heightened moments of trauma.
Additionally, Ken has got a great sense of humor.
He’s a little redneck, a little badass and obviously can tolerate his pain quite well. He explained to me throughout the process, he would purposefully scare whomever he could with the built-in props he had at his disposal.
He found his own twisted joy in teasing the medical staff who was just trying to help him and probably assumed he was in dire pain. It sounds like Ken was having more fun watching others’ react than he was actually in agony.
Shock looks different on everyone, that’s for certain.
It wasn’t long before OSHA and MSHA standards were being enforced and Ken was asked to take a drug test.
He reminds the folks that were in the ER room with him that he “can’t hold it.”
So, he asked the nurse, “are you gonna hold it for me, ma’am?”
She declined the offer and Ken turned to his boss, “Well God damn, you’re up, Mike!”
“I’m not touching that thing!” his boss announced.
Luckily his wife finally showed up and she took the awkward pressure off the situation.
Ken relished every second of attention he received and kept the mood light with jokes as often he could. This was his personality. Ken at his finest, even during what could be considered dark and upsetting moments, he was being himself.
Ken explained how it wasn’t long before they shot him up with some painkillers, gave him a nerve block in his shoulder, anesthetized him, and took him off to surgery.
“They sewed me up and sent me home,” Ken explained. Not touching too much on the grueling days of recovery that I know so well. He said he actually enjoyed being taken care of by others, which is the opposite of his personality. He didn’t mind asking for help when he needed it and appreciated all his wife did for him.
“Yeah, its tragic. Yeah, it screws some shit up, but what are you gonna do?” You can’t just lay in bed and mope about it and feel sorry for yourself. Cause that does no good to anybody. So, you get what you can fixed and you go on.”
Ken wanted to get back to work as soon as possible.
Within three months he was back to light-duty. He worked for Granite construction and he told me how the office never looked better and the filing cabinets were all up to date after a few months of busywork.
Within six months, Ken returned to the field full duty. He took a break from being as hands-on as he once was and he reveled in bossing the younger guys around. He contributes much of his healing, both physical and mental, to just getting back to work.
“The best healing for hand injuries is using your hands again. You know, to pinch, screw, grab, lift, squeeze… it gets everything working as it should and you don’t think about it.”
Ken had 1 plate and ten screws in his mangled left hand at one point. His right hand had gotten away with just some stitches.
They took most of the screws out when his hands were stabilized, but Ken wasn’t trying to have any more procedures done. He just wanted to get back to the grind and get back to his life.
He told me about the amazing benefits he’d received by going to a chiropractor to receive LED Light Therapy.
He said insurance wouldn’t cover it, but a buddy of his saw great results from it, so Ken opted to try and pay out-of-pocket for this treatment.
“LED Light Therapy has the ability to increase blood flow and lymphatic circulation, decrease pain and stimulate many cellular processes that accelerate healing,” explained by Chiroeco.com.
While Ken recounts the past two-plus years of struggling to live his best life with both of his hands, he hardly touches on the ‘emotional’ side of the healing process, even though many of my questions are geared towards anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness.
I’d say some people are just wired differently. And Ken is one of those people, however, he is not the first nor last of his breed.
He raised his children to “Cowboy Up” and get back on the metaphorical horse.
“Stop whining. You’re still looking at the top side of the grass. Make the damn best of it!”
He explained to me about how he lost his index finger in an accident when he was in his forties.
That accident involved, yet again, Ken being hands-on with laborious equipment, specifically tensioning chains, while another man operated the forklift that would raise said chains.
The men were using the chains to lift a large metal frame, and lo and behold, the operator looked away just briefly and during that blink of an eye, Ken’s fingers and glove were immediately maimed in the chains.
The doctors attempted to sew his finger index back on, but it turned black and didn’t take, so a few days later, they removed it completely.
Freaking Ken kept his severed digit in a jar of formaldehyde.
I’m not kidding.
He still has it.
“I’m gonna be buried a whole man.”
Lord help us.
You would think losing a finger would make him not trust others as operators or steer him clear of working in that field… but no, he accepted his loss and moved on with the job at hand. Needless to say, this story really impacted me. I ran away from my job after I got injured, but this guy, he dove right back in. It was only twenty years later when he found himself in a similar predicament. And it still hasn’t stopped him. Ken. The Jokester. The Gunslinger. Fearless and hard-working Ken.
He’s got the right attitude.
“When you get severely injured, your limitations are all up here.” (He points to his head.) “If you think or say to yourself, ‘I can’t do that,’ you won’t be able to. So you gotta keep the attitude: I CAN, I WILL, I’M GOING TO! And get out of my way!”
Ken reminds us that attitude is everything. He still lives a life he values and even with gnarly setbacks, he keeps his chin up.
He still hunts, shoots guns and works with his hands doing what he loves. His injuries have slowed him down but they won’t stop him. He’s adapted as best he can and doesn’t hesitate to ask for help.
“If you think you’re limited and you’re screwed up and you’re gonna be sittin’ on your ass the rest of your life doing nothing but whining and feelin’ sorry for yourself then, uh, that’s what you’re gonna be doin’! If you think ‘I don’t need my hands, my legs, et Cetera,’ then you’re still gonna do what you want!”
So here’s to Ken, a man who does what he wants, like keeping severed body parts in jars for twenty-some years. Do you boo-boo. Do you.