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October 21, 2013

Feeling returns to man's hand severed by chainsaw

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

LA PORTE CITY, Iowa — When the razor-sharp edge of the falling locust tree's trunk caught up with Roger Batchelder at 11 a.m. last Halloween, his right hand came clean off midway up his forearm.

There wasn't much blood, according to Roger's wife, Patty, maybe a cup pooled in the sleeve of her husband's hoody. Neither was there much pain, according to Roger, who does recall the feeling of his arm bones being crushed under the tree's weight.

"It never did hurt," Roger said. "I can't figure it out."

A year has passed since his hand was severed and subsequently reattached. A grim tale, Roger, 75, has gotten better at telling it. Because of a winning, if slightly dark, sense of humor, the violence of that day is easier to recount.

"I've told it enough times, I don't freak out when I tell it anymore. The first time around it was hard for me to tell it."

Hard because Roger remembers the lead up to the grisly moment vividly.

He had just finished a diagonal cut through the trunk of a locust tree on his farm in La Porte City. Patty saw it all happen from her seat in the truck just a short distance away.

The tree began to fall, but in the wrong direction. The hard point of the severed trunk slid down the stump, driving straight at Roger's chest like a massive spear. He tossed the chainsaw and moved to get out of the way but snagged his foot in a hole.

The heavy trunk whooshed past, taking Roger's hand with it. The hand hung loosely from the sleeve of his sweatshirt. Roger tried to grab it but it fell out.

He stumbled around the underbrush as Patty came running over.

"I thought, 'I'm going to have to find that hand so they can sew it back on,'" Roger said.

Thinking her husband was going to bleed to death, Patty applied pressure to the wound until ambulance crews arrived. Roger can't remember much after that.

"He was clammy and gray white," Patty said. "He was in shock."

"I couldn't pass out because I knew I had to sign my release papers," he said with a laugh.

When they arrived the medics loaded Roger and drove him out to the gravel road that abuts the property. A helicopter was waiting there to airlift him to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

"Just like it was all written out in the script of a story," Patty said. "Things just lined up perfectly. If we had waited just 20 minutes longer they wouldn't have been able to save his hand. It was just that fragile a time period."

Roger was rushed into the intensive care unit where he remained for nearly five days. The doctors told him they could sew his hand back on or install a prosthesis. He chose his hand.

"I think anything created by nature is better than anything created by man," he said.

The doctors used tweezers to remove several long wooden splinters from his arm and cropped hand before they could begin operating.

Three surgeries later, Roger's hand was reattached. The doctors inserted two metal brackets into his forearm, held together with six screws. They used a skin graft from his leg to cover some of the damage.

Slowly, Roger began to recover.

Nearly a year later he has regained limited use of the hand. He can't bend his fingers, but he can sometimes move his thumb, and centimeter by centimeter, his sense of touch is coming back.

Roger sees a physical therapist about twice a week, and will begin seeing a biofeedback therapist soon as well. The idea is to train his brain and his hand to work together again.

"It tingles all the time because the nerves are trying to establish themselves," Roger said. "They're growing in there. But like when you cross your legs and cut off the blood circulation, you get that tingling sensation, that's what I feel all the time in my hand."

Roger has had to grow accustomed to life without the use of his right hand.

"It's the small stuff," Roger said. "Stuff you wouldn't even think about."

He can still drive and even continues to help Patty cut wood on occasion. Nowadays they use a smaller electric chainsaw that Roger can use with his left hand. Needless to say, Roger is careful.

He has had other health problems, including three run ins with cancer. But Roger is a survivor, and a good-natured one at that.

"This is the way it is. If you worry about everything life hands you, you go crazy I think. You just take it in stride. That's all you can do."

Copyright 2013 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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