Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists News
Walter H. Short, M.D.
A Race to Save a Man's Hand - When the Right Touch Means Everything
Charles Wilson was cutting baseboard moulding for his landlord Monday in Watertown. He was wearing a sweatshirt. He was tired. The Makita saw he was using was missing its protective shield.
"My hand," he called out, speaking so calmly that his wife, Shawna, wasn't alarmed - not until she stepped downstairs and saw all the blood and the severed hand. She froze.
Their upstairs neighbor called 911 and offered to watch the children. A friend took the belt from a bathrobe and, following Wilson's directions, fashioned a tourniquet to control the bleeding and put the hand in a plastic bag, on ice. The couple rode together in the ambulance to nearby Samaritan Medical Center.
In Syracuse, Dr. Walter Short was operating. He was repairing someone's arm when his beeper sounded.
Emergency doctors at University Hospital told him about a 32-year-old man en route by ambulance from
Samaritan with a hand amputated just above the wrist. The orthopedic surgeon canceled eight more surgeries he
had scheduled that day. He finished the arm operation and then hurried to University.
Within two hours of severing his hand, Wilson was in surgery. "I'm not going to be able to play with my kids no
more" was the horrible thought he took with him as the anesthesia put him to sleep.
Three days later, fighting back tears, Wilson recalled his ordeal while recovering at University Hospital. He thanked
his surgeon and gratefully displayed a twinge of movement from his left middle finger, covered in thick bandages
and swollen from surgery. Wilson said he could feel sensation in his fingers, too.
"He can move all of his fingers, not just the middle one," his brother Joe said. "The swelling is so bad now, but he
can move every one of them. I've watched him."
He wonders if Wilson will be able to hunt again. He's right-handed, but he'll still need strength in his left hand to
Short, a hand specialist with Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists in DeWitt, predicts that feeling in Wilson's fingers will
become stronger over time. Wilson should be able to extend his fingers, move his wrist, grab objects and, yes,
"When everybody works together, you get a success like this," Short said, praising the efforts of rescuers,
emergency room personnel, nurses - and Wilson, himself.
Wilson took a first aid class years ago. It all came back to him Monday. While friends panicked, he recalled, "the
only one that kept their head was me."
As a self-described "jack of all trades, master of none," Wilson said he has worked with saws all his life without
injury. When he severed his hand, he stayed calm. It didn't even hurt, not until a friend tied the tourniquet.
Rescuers later traded the bathrobe belt for an inflated blood pressure cuff.
Short looked at X-rays before operating. One was taken of the hand, and another of Wilson's arm. The saw also
cut the hand's pinkie finger, and Short wound up removing the tip. He said Wilson's arm is an almost-imperceptible 1/4-inch shorter now.
Previously, Short has reattached forearms and fingers and hands that have been severed through the palm.
Reattachment surgeries are not common, but they're not rare, either.
Patients don't regain 100 percent use, but many make strong recoveries, says Dr. Jon Loftus, a Syracuse
orthopedic surgeon who was not involved in Wilson's care.
He said reattachments are technically tricky operations. The farther down the arm you go, the more difficult
surgery becomes. Fingers have more vessels, and tinier vessels than those found in the upper arm.
Wilson's operation lasted about 11 hours. Short had help from a University Hospital orthopedic fellow, Dr. Jean
The cut was a clean slice, which increases the chances for successful reattachment. First, Short had to stabilize and
reconnect the bones, using metal plates. Then he worked on the arteries. The longer the blood supply is cut off
from the hand, the worse the chance for recovery. Wilson's severed hand was white and waxy from lack of blood
flow. As soon as Short reconnected one of the arteries, he recalls, "instantaneously, it pinked up."
Short said Wilson can improve his recovery by staying away from caffeine, cigarettes and any medications that
constrict the blood vessels, and by staying out of the cold. Anything that reduces the size of the blood vessels
reduces the blood flow to the hand, and that delays healing.
Wilson said he'll do anything to be able to hold and play with his children, Cody, 5, Brandon, 3, Kayden, 7 months,
and the baby his wife is carrying. In the days after his surgery, he has been crying, realizing what almost
happened. "I thought about what it would be like without my hand with my boys."
He cried about that when Short came to check on him Tuesday morning. He met the surgeon prior to the
operation but didn't have much time to talk. Afterward, he was so full of emotion.
Wilson hasn't told his children the details of what happened. He doesn't want to scare them. They're staying at his
brother Jimmy's trailer in Theresa.
"They knew right off there was a problem, that Daddy had a cut," Jimmy Wilson said. They talk by phone every
Wilson will remain hospitalized for a week. Doctors want to make sure no blood clots develop and block blood
flow to his hand. After he's released, he'll need physical therapy for about a year, Short said. The hand could still
develop problems, he said, "but it becomes less of a possibility as time goes on."
Wilson said he won't use saws again, and he's not anxious to finish the moulding project. "I only did that as a
favor, and it almost cost me my life."
What Dr. Walter Short had to do
(with assistance from Dr. Jean Paul Brutus)
Stabilize the two bones of Wilson's forearm (the radius and ulna) with metal plates
Sew the ends of two severed arteries together
Reattach multiple veins
Reattach 26 tendons
Reattach several nerves
Stitch skin together
Remove tip of pinky finger, which was severed beyond repair
What Charles Wilson has to do
To improve the odds of regaining the most use of his hand, Wilson must avoid things that lead to constriction of
blood vessels. Dr. Short told him to:
Stay out of smoke-filled rooms
Cut the caffeine from his diet (no coffee or chocolate)
Stay out of the cold
Caption: PHOTO Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer CHARLES WILSON and his wife, Shawna, at University
Hospital Thursday, describe how Wilson cut his hand off in a sawing accident. Orthopedic surgeon Walter Short
reattached the hand. Wilson sliced his hand off while working with a chop saw. By Thursday, he reported moving
his middle finger and feeling sensation in the others. Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer DR. WALTER
SHORT,of Syracuse Orthopedic Specialists, operated for 11 hours Monday at University Hospital to reattach the
left hand of Charles Wilson, 32, of Watertown. Color. PHOTO Stephen D. Cannerelli/Staff photographer
UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL orthopedic surgeon Walter Short shows X-rays of the severed hand and forearm of
Charles Wilson after a sawing accident. Color.