Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Wood Shop Accident

I was working in my shop, alone at home, carving out the inside of a large cherry bowl I'm making. I was using an angle grinder with a 4" Lancelot cutter, basically a steel wheel with chainsaw teeth. It is known to be a little dangerous but it is also quite effective at removing material rapidly. I had been using it with good results. But I tipped it the wrong way, it grabbed the wood and threw the tool out of my hands into my chin and throat. Instantly there was a lot of blood. I managed to turn off the machine and head for the house. I'm thinking jugular vein, might not have much time. I grabbed a kitchen towel, clamped it over the wound and called 911. I bet I was calling within 60 seconds.  I never looked at the wound. Worried I might faint I sat on the front stoop so they'd find me and waited for the ambulance. A policeman showed within 10 minutes. By that time I started to think I'm going to be OK. The cloth had not soaked through, I wasn't feeling faint, I didn't think I had lost too much blood, help had arrived. I was loaded into an ambulance and from that time on I felt pretty relaxed, joked and enjoyed conversations with the professionals, and felt grateful for their competence.

At the Mt. Nittany ER the physician there inspected the wound which started bleeding again and decided it was out of his realm. I believe he called their vascular surgeon who didn't want to come in and told him to send me to Hershey Medical Center. So I was packed up again and loaded into a helicopter. It was a beautiful evening for a flight and it was fun. The techs warned me that when you come in on the helicopter you are considered a trauma victim and treated as such; you will be swarmed.  And so it was. They give you a nickname because they don't take any time for registration. I was Trauma Raleigh.  There were probably 15 people in the room, everyone with a task. Rapid fire questions, four people on a side moving me from one table to another, flipping me side to side carefully inspecting ALL of me and calling out info, filling charts, taking x-rays, bright lights, cables and tubes. What a trip!

This is a teaching college so quite of few were students I'm sure. The head doc inspects the wound and explains the plan - a CT scan to determine any unseen damage and then OR to clean up the ragged wound and stitch it up. They knock me out and next thing I wake up in a dark room with a male nurse from Kenya looking after me. I don't think I slept much as is typical in hospitals. The entire experience has been surprisingly pain free. Everyone who attended to my needs was kind and seemed competent.  I am in awe at the level of training, expertise, and technologies that were brought to bear in response to my accident. From drivers to pilots, EMTs, medics, technicians, nurses, and docs, all did their jobs well.

The doctor's final report to me was that I was very lucky indeed. The cut missed an artery by a millimeter or two. If that had happened I wouldn't have made it to the phone. This thought makes my heart beat faster.

My whole family showed up at the hospital to pick me up the next day. The outpouring of love and concern for my well being, for which I am so grateful, has been humbling. It makes me think that being the recipient of this love comes with the responsibility to take care of yourself. Had the worst case scenario played out it would not have mattered to me at all but I am stricken by the pain it would have caused the ones I love the most. Your life is not just yours to do with as you please; you are entwined in the lives of others.

As you can imagine I have relived the accident many times trying to make sense of my extremely poor judgement and my incredibly good fortune. My confidence is shaken. What will prevent something like this from happening again? Is it age? Am I weaker? Am I more distracted, less attentive? What must I learn, what can I do better with this second chance?

I started with some practical things. I discarded the chainsaw like blade. I purchased some new tools and safety equipment. And I am trying to make a new commitment to safe practices. I list them below with commentary. They are not new and most I have always tried to follow to varying degrees.

1. Give your complete attention to the task at hand.
    I think this is easily the most important. Any potentially dangerous task requires focus. Pausing to evaluate the situation is important and too easily ignored. What is dangerous about this? If it kicks back am I in the path? If the tool slips where is the follow through?

2. Be patient.
    Take your time. Don’t hurry. Don’t force anything.

3. If it feels dangerous it probably is. Find another way to do it.
    This has been a credo in my shop for a long time and served me well at times I’m sure. There is always more than one way to do something. Some are safer than others. This fails however when something feels safe just from repetition. Driving a car for instance. Hurtling along at 70mph in a little metal box feels safe enough that we do it with one hand while fiddling with the radio, drinking a cup of coffee, or texting.

4. Wear safety apparel.
    It is often uncomfortable and cumbersome. Wear it anyway. I purchased a full face shield that flips up and down. It would have prevented my injury. Spend whatever it takes to find safety equipment you will use.

5. Keep your tools sharp and well adjusted.
    Dull and improperly adjusted tools are more likely to bind and kickback.

6. Clean your environment.
    Have good lighting so you can see what you are doing and a clean floor for good footing. An organized tidy space promotes more thoughtful, careful work.

In two weeks time my wound is completely healed. I've started work on the bowl again.

A note on the macabre selfie taken in the ambulance. My daughter is studying to be a physician's assistant. I thought she would like to see a picture.  I said to the EMT, "I better smile so she won't worry about me."

5 comments:

youngdreamergirl said...

So glad you are okay. I was thinking about you and sending positive vibes your way. <3

Fields said...

At Moosewood I noticed the mark on your neck... I thot to myself "what is that... it looks like a mean scar" ... it looked kinda fresh but I didn't want to bring it up...man ... it's good to have you around old friend!

Unknown said...

I think I'll go clean up my shop.

Carolanne Currier said...


You're a lucky cat, Stephen. Eight lives to go.

The tool's manufacturer deserves a copy of your account. Clearly, they weren't at fault, but if they keep a record of such accidents, yours belongs in their file.

The telephone was as instrumental as the helicopter or any of the medics. The synchronicity of it all! The blessed freedom from political bickering... the CARING!

It must have been 20 years ago when Kate Reinard's sister was carrying a bag of ready-mic concrete down her cellar steps, tripped, and fell across her table saw, turning it on and severing her jugular, in the last few seconds of her life.

As Leonard Cohen sings, "...we are so lightly here."

Eddie said...

Why did they have to inspect ALL of you? The only place affected was your neck? They didn't cut all your clothes off did they? If they did, there was no reason too do that.