melissa i strong
rock climber, writer, photographer, working on life daily
How Quickly Life Changes
I could feel the tingling beginning slowly in my hands. Immediately I tried to throw down the electric leads. As I desperately shook my hands I realized I couldn’t. I was part of the electric chain and that was when I realized how screwed I was as I felt the current ramp up.
On April 2, 2017 I made a mistake, a very big mistake. I wanted to reclaim tables from the old Sundeck restaurant, recently acquired by myself, to remodel and open as the new restaurant Bird and Jim. Attempting a new look on the old knotty pine tables I was burning designs in the wood, called Lichtenberg figures. I never heard about this before until my husband showed me a YouTube video when I was trying to come up with ideas and I decided that this is what I needed to do to our table legs. So I went to the storage unit and dug out an old microwave. Adam took the transformer and turned it into the power source of the wood burning technique. I believe my big mistake was rooted in complacency. I had successfully burned several tables. I was used to using the machine and I was not afraid enough.
It was the end of a long day, however, I wanted to continue and get a bit more work done. I plugged the machine in to make sure it would reach where I was working. I realized at that point I had not made the baking soda and water solution that conducts the electricity between the leads. I tossed the extension cord to the ground and went into the house and mixed the solution. I came back out and pick up the leads not realizing that I never unplugged the extension cord—that is when the tingling slowly began in my hands.
I was aware the entire time I was being electrocuted. As the current built up and I failed to throw the leads down I could feel my muscles clinch tighter and tighter. In the (approximately) 20 seconds that the electricity coursed through my body I was trying to come up with a way out of this situation. I thought about falling to the ground hoping one of the leads would dislodge from my hand then I realized I couldn’t even fall the electricity held me suspended. Right after that everything went dark.
I think at this point I died a little. My last thoughts were of how desperate I was and then it was dark. Slowly some things came into focus and in front of me there was a dark tunnel. I noticed the entrance was rimmed in cobblestones as dark shadowy figures floated in front of it. I asked myself, “Is this a nightmare?” I am a very vivid deep dreamer and was convinced this had to be a nightmare but I answered myself, “I don’t think this is a dream—this is actually happening.” Immediately with that realization I was extremely scared and knew I wanted to and needed to get far away. If I could get back to Adam he could get me to help and I knew I needed help. That was the last thought I had as I pulled away from that darkness and bam my eyes opened to the gravel that lines our driveway. As instantly as my eyes opened my voice finally was able to work and I screamed Adam and I screamed Adam again. Adam was in the house and obviously could not hear me. Somehow I summoned the strength to stand up and take four or five staggering steps to the front door and then he heard me. As he came to the door I held up my hands and screamed hospital. He scooped me into his arms and ran me to the front seat of his truck. He started the truck, at that point I screamed “fuck the glow plugs—drive” (diesel engines have glow plugs that should warm up before starting). On the way to the hospital a 15 minute drive that probably took us half the time I screamed several different things it began with “No--this isn’t happening to me” and then as I stared at my hands more I started to scream that “I have no hands” and then my next lament wailed was that “I will never climb again.”
I was in no pain driving to the hospital but the mental anguish of the state of my melted hands was enough pain. They looked like melted wax, almost greenish with charred pieces of bone sticking out where fingers had been. The fleshy insides of my thumbs were gone and the jagged burnt bones were sitting open. The overwhelming pungent smell of burnt flesh filled the truck.
I directed Adam on which turn to take to get to the emergency room and he screeched to a halt in front of the door. Adam ran around and opened my door. Instead of getting carried I jumped out and ran in. There was no one in the emergency room so we continued to run into the depths of the hospital. At this point I was yelling, “I need a helicopter.” Familiar faces began emerge from around corners--being the small town that it is you always see people you know including the hospital. Someone asked me what happened as they were getting me on the gurney and I told them ”that I electrocuted the shit out of myself.” That was when I felt pain for the first time. I told the EMTs that, “my chest is burning.” They cut my clothes off and started an IV. The burning sensation I was feeling was one of the exit wounds of the electricity. As they started to take care of me, my thoughts turned to the machine. As far as I knew it was live and could hurt someone and somehow that popped into my mind. I called out to Adam, “the machine, you need to go home and turn it off, Cassidy (our 13 year old lab) or someone else could get hurt.” The ER doctor at this point had called a helicopter and told us it was about a 20 minute ride to the burn center at Greeley so I told Adam after he secured the machine to just head to Greeley.
At the house, Adam discovered why I was alive, the breaker on the house tripped. It’s funny when I was going home from the hospital people were wondering if I was afraid to go home where almost died but I look at it as where I lived--the house saved my life. At this point I was heavily drugged and put into a helicopter and took a 20 minute ride to the burn center in Greeley, Colorado (we eventually received a bill for the helicopter ride it was $43,000. We give them our insurance card).
In Greeley they took me in and gave me great care but they did not have a reconstruction plastic surgery staff to help my horrifically burnt hands. The next morning I woke up in the burn center and the doctor the said “I am sorry but we cannot save your thumbs. We sent pictures to the doctors in Denver and they are not optimistic. We are going to transfer you.” I responded that, “I was not ready to give up hope on my thumbs and was very happy they were transferring me.”
After a crazy ambulance ride I wound up at the burn center at UC Health Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora. The head doctor at the burn center, Dr. Ann Wagner, knew I was coming in and needed more then just burn help. She called in Dr. Ashley Ignatiuk who is a plastic surgeon that specializes in hand reconstruction. He was on duty when I arrived and was able to take a look at me. Initially he had a very skeptical look on his face as he examined my hands, not very positive that the thumbs were savable. He then asked a nurse for a needle and pricked what was left of the tips of both thumbs. A tiny pool of blood welled up on the surface. He said that was all he needed. He would try to save my thumbs. The extent of relief I felt when I heard those words was indescribable, and then the journey began and it still continues today.
During the first exploratory debridement surgery he used what he referred to as spy -- it is a “indocyanine green, a fluorescent dye injected into the vein that lights up living tissue” typically used in angiograms. With this Doctor Ignatiuk told me that he “could see the future of the injury” and instead of sitting there and letting tissue die away he was able to proactively take off the dead tissue and try to save what he could. What he was trying to save the most were my thumbs, “They were fried from the inside out,” Ignatiuk said. He did everything he could to save my fingers. The apparent loss of the effected fingers was obvious but electric burns are similar to frostbite and continue to declare themselves. There was a constant worry of how the injury was going to progress and resolve.
To introduce the thumbs to good cardiovascular flow since the inside of them were burned out he sought skin and blood flow from other sources of my body. Initially he suggested sewing my thumbs into my abdomen and pulling skin from my stomach to graft the rest of the fingers. Then he lifted my shirt and looked at my abs--from climbing I have a decent core and not a lot to work with so we went with plan B, sewing my thumbs into flaps on the opposing forearms--I refer to it as the “I dream of Jeannie pose.” I voted for the arms instead of the abdomen for many reasons but the first was comfort and every day movement. This seems like a daunting proposition but three weeks of being compromised to save your thumbs is worth it and that was what kept me going. The motivation to have thumbs combined with the unbelievable care given by my husband, my family, my friends, my doctors, the burn techs, the nurses, the CNA’s and the Estes Park community all helped me stay positive during the 5 ½ weeks I was in the inpatient pavilion.
As long as my nausea was under control I took daily walks on the CU campus. There was a private collection of masterworks on display at the campus. This exhibit gave me a point to my daily outings to walk there and spend time amongst the paintings. It was a great treat for all the visitors who drove hours to come visit me. People weren’t simply stuck in a hospital room looking at me, we got to take a short walk and look at works from Picasso, Renoir, Pizarro, Matisse, Monet, Degas, Cassett, Chegall and Legrand. This was a definitely an amazing reprieve from the hospital daily routine and honestly quite a treat to get so to spend so much time with these pieces of art. The security guard told me it was 40 million worth of art estimated in that room containing 16 paintings and 2 sculptures.
While I was sewn together I was allowed to get on a stationary bike. One of the residents told me about a bike in the waiting room on the sixth floor. This is after I was moved out of the burn ICU and to the seventh floor of the inpatient pavilion. I was still definitely on a lot of medication—for three days I had to find a bike each day not remembering where I had wandered the day before. For about two and a half weeks every day I rode the bike. This was not the huge effort for my normal self but for someone who had just undergone two surgeries and was on a lot of drugs it definitely helped keep me sane and somewhat in shape.
As my healing continued the pain lessened. It was at it’s height when I woke up from the second debridement surgery when they cut off the rest of the bone and dead tissue and sewed me together. It took a little while to get over that hump but slowly I was able to get off of different drugs daily. By the time I left the hospital I had completely weaned myself off of pain meds. I’m not sure if it was the best timing. My last day with no pain meds was the day before the doctor revealed my hands to me. Getting off of opioids causes some anxiety and I was already feeling anxious so that was definitely a restless day awaiting for what Dr. Igntuik called “the big reveal.”
About a week before “the big reveal” my hands were separated and skin grafts were done to my fingers. My thumbs were created using the skin from my arms that they were sewn into and my fingers and palms were rebuilt with skin from my thighs and groin area. My hands are a patch quilt of my body and when they revealed them to me they were definitely showing their seams and were very swollen. It was a challenge seeing and accepting my new hands but my sister-in-law helped me realize was that the doctors could see how good they were going to look and I was still looking at hands that were still in need of a lot of healing time. A few days after the separation and grafting surgery I went home for the first time in 5 1/2 weeks.
Going home seems like something anyone would look forward to however the first three days home where the most challenging. I was in my house in an environment I was familiar with, in an environment I was used to being very active in and now here I was with both hands bandaged, full of open wounds and not able to do anything for myself. When you’re in hospital it seems acceptable to be so dependent but at home it was a big challenge. Plus I didn’t have a 24/7 staff of amazing nurses and CNA’s. Even though my husband was a great supporter it’s difficult to be so dependent and I felt bad continuing to ask someone else to sacrifice more of their life for me. Luckily we had a friend fly in, Mike Wickwire. He had the time and was able to come help take care of me for couple of weeks. This was a great relief to both me and Adam. Adam could sit and chill out and not worry about what I needed next and I could spread my “will you help me’s” out to more than one person at least. Also Adam could return to work.
One of the essentials to me functioning at home was us ordering a bidet toilet seat—it was key to helping my pride. Amazon prime delivered our Toto toilet seat on a Saturday, banner day here! This was my low point I wished I was dead. The first three days home I said it each day yet somehow managed to smile during each of those days as well. If I died I wouldn’t have to deal and life would go on for those left behind. Each day after the first three days things got better as far as healing and mobility goes. During this first week home I was not only dealing with the crushing limitations of not functioning in my environment but the second day out of the hospital I went to the construction site (soon to be our new restaurant Bird & Jim, where the old Sundeck was located)--this definitely culminated my depression. As soon as I saw the restaurant I knew we would not be open this summer. A little work was done well I was in the hospital but the progress was minimal. It was difficult accepting all of this--the disappointment and the struggle was real. I had no choice but acceptance. I did however ask my contractor to hire two of my good friends who are on-the-job kicking butt and moving things moving along. I am spending my days focusing on decisions about the interior and keeping the protect moving forward. We are now hoping for an early September opening. Check out our websit, birdandjim.com for opening day updates and other future events.
I had another surgery on Friday, June 30th cleaning up an infection and partially reconstructing my left thumb. The doctor was able to save my nail bed that was growing out of the end of my thumb and into space. He cleaned up the infection. He cut the web between my thumb and index finger extended it and cut out scar tissue. He resurfaced some scar tissue on my palm and he also fused the bones at the end of my left thumb together. He tried fusing in the previous surgery but the wire got infected and he pulled out. He was hoping the scar tissue would hold it together but during the healing process I separated the bones and they were sitting next to each other. He fused using three different wires saying that he was making them “rock climbing strong.” Difficult going back to losing the use of one hand but at least I have the use of the other. He will finish the reconstruction of the left thumb in a few weeks. This would give me more time to heal before Bird & Jim opens. I am fortunate to have good partners and an amazing chef so I’m not afraid to open when I can’t use my hands. I know I’ll be able to be there in some capacity and I know my partners are great which is why I picked them. We will have one more surgery on my left thumb as well just some minor reconstruction on the right that he might be able to do under local anesthesia.
Adam, family, friends and more:
The only way I have gotten this far is with the help of my family, friends and community of Estes Park. Adam was by my side every second living in fear of me not ever having thumbs--initially we both thought I could wake up and only have two fingers on each hand. There were never any guarantees going through all this and I still won’t be 100% worry free until it’s all over. Eventually after eight days of Adam being in the hospital day and night I made him go home. He went home one night. Then finally I told him he had to go home for at least three nights. He was commuting from Aurora to Estes Park and going to work and driving back. The first night he left me my friend Bronson flew from Utah to help take care of me. I let people know I was in good hands and could be left “alone” but my friends were so great they wanted to make the sacrifice and I was so happy to have them. Bronson and Jennifer took turns each week spending a night with me while Adam went home. Without being asked, amazing people in Estes heard of my plight and offered help. Erin and Andria made me shirts that snapped on the shoulders so during the three weeks of being sewn together I could get out and walk and not be in a hospital gown. Dave offered to finish burning all of the table legs. He is a wood worker and wrote me that he taught the technique and had a safe set up. Good friends organized sanding parties and continued to sand the tables and chairs. I felt love coming from every part of the community of Estes and it really helped with my healing. I also received cards, notes, packages and flowers from people all over the US. I really felt how much people cared and I cannot thank everyone enough. The nurses and the CNAs at the hospital were also extremely instrumental to my healing. I could feel everyday that they weren’t just doing heir jobs—they truly cared.
I talk to my family every day on Skype. This helped a lot to feel so connected even though they were far away. Our daily chats made me feel better and gave me another part of my hospital day to look forward to. My sister flew in from Massachusetts for the last weekend I was sewn together and it was great having firsthand care from a family member--washing me, my hair, brushing my teeth she took over for Adam and the nurses for little bit and I had someone to watch chick flicks with! My in-laws, from Colorado Springs, came up on a regular and kept me company. My sister-in-law helped me with my OCD (cleaning and organizing) as she organized my room and help clean it up every visit! Once I was home my parents came to visit and then my sister recently just came back out with my two nieces and nephew. My brother is fighting his own battles at home with mouth cancer but he is been a constant supporter along the way. I think was important for us to celebrate life and be truly appreciative that we weren’t all at a funeral.
Climbing—“I will never climb again” is one of the things I yelled on my way to the hospital as I stared at my melted hands. I have gone through several different waves of ups and downs when it comes to the future of my climbing. Sometimes I like to think that if I was not a rock climber this really wouldn’t be that bad but I’ll never know. The thought of not climbing again is devastating. But now I don’t believe it. I know I will climb again. Will I climb at the level I was able to climb at—maybe or maybe not —the only way to find out is to try. My friends at Kilter donated some holds that we put on the stairs so I could begin working on my new grip.
Attitude—along this journey I keep hearing that I am an inspiration to people—my positive attitude that is. I’m not sure why I have it but I do. I seem to have some sort of try hard gene and the ability to not get lost in myself. It has enabled me to work hard at everything I do including being a person. I am thankful that I have it. It has gotten me through this trying time and allowed me to not wallow in the darkness and there is plenty of darkness available to dive into, however plenty of light too. I have cried and I have grieved for the loss and I probably will for quite a while but staying in the position of feeling sorry for myself doesn’t get me anywhere. I am fortunate to have been given what it takes but it makes it considerably easier when you have such amazing support pouring in.
I know I have a long road ahead me but I do know and appreciate how lucky I am to be alive and have hands--and I do have hands and fingers. They might be a little shorter and my thumbs still need some work but I’m here and I’m functioning. I realized that the human body is a pretty amazing thing never to be underestimated. As human beings we can survive, we can adapt, we can stand up to adversity and thanks to education and science we can fix human errors.
These two pictures were taken right after Dr. Ignatiuk pricked my fingers you can see tiny little pools of blood on the ends of both thumbs.
A day or two after they sewed me together.
These were taken by Bronson during a dressing change--a few weeks into the flaps.
Right when we got to UC health Aurora. Adam worried and below worried me.
My sister ♥️
My two doctors. In the middle Dr. Ignatiuk behind him Dr. Seth who is working on his fellowship in hands.
Lots of amazing friends and family
View from my 7th floor window.
The night before the big reveal and (left) seeing my new hands for the first time.
unapproved hanging :)
Above: You can see here how the nail was growing
Right: My current state--casted, only one hand though.
My first hike--Crosier with Lindsey!