Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Man's Hand Reconstructed Index Finger Turned into a New 'Thumb'

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Man's Hand Reconstructed Index Finger Turned into a New 'Thumb'

Article excerpt

Robert Wilson was squeezing a bag of grease into the running

gears of an industrial cement mixer when his right hand got

caught. The machine ripped out his thumb and a chunk of his

wrist and forearm before he could pull it loose.

"Pure hell," said Wilson, 44, of northern St. Johns County. "It

just felt like my hand was gone."

The Jan. 5, 1995, accident at a Railroad Concrete Crosstie

Corp. plant on Philips Highway took from Wilson the ability to

hold a pen, button a button, and perform 80 percent of the

functions a good hand does.

But an unusual series of surgeries, ending with a 90-minute

procedure last week, promises to return to Wilson a functioning


In December, two hand surgeons disconnected Wilson's index

finger, rotated it to face the remaining digits, and placed it

into the thumb socket.

"We made his index finger into a thumb," said Bruce Steinberg,

the doctor who has overseen the project.

The Dec. 5 surgery was a successful reconstruction, but Wilson

still couldn't move his new thumb. Last week, doctors performed

a follow-up procedure in which they hooked the new thumb to two

tendons leading to the muscles in the forearm that power most

finger movements.

Doctors told Wilson to immobilize the thumb for three weeks,

though the thumb will be carefully moved for him during physical

therapy sessions. After three weeks, Wilson should be able to

move it on his own.

"He won't be able to play the piano. He won't be able to do

surgery," Steinberg said. "[But] he should be able to hold a

key, hold a pencil and pick up small objects."

Steinberg has been building a reputation for unusual surgeries.

In 1994, he successfully tried an experimental procedure to

save the arm of John Meguliki, a Tanzanian teen who's arm had

been bitten off below the elbow by a crocodile. In 1995,

Steinberg helped Luka Lukic, a Croatian soldier whose arm had

been shredded by shrapnel. Steinberg and another physician

repaired the arm with a piece of living bone from Lukic's leg.

Wilson hopes to become another success story for Steinberg.

Before the accident, Wilson used his right hand to write and do

most other things. He has learned to use his left, but said he

looks forward to again using his right to hold his wife's hand

and make other simple but important grasps.

"I won't be able to go back to being a welder/mechanic. . . .

It's too early to say [exactly] what I'll be able to do with

it," Wilson said.

Any recovery of thumb motion would be a welcome ending to what

has been a devastating experience, Wilson said.

"The night of the accident, I was told [by a doctor] I would

never use that hand again," said Wilson, who lives with his

wife, Cecilia, and daughter, Erin. …

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