I remember watching a YouTube video about woodworking years ago, as I was first starting the hobby and hearing the quote “It’s not if it happens, it’s when” in regards to an accident in the shop. That quote has always stuck with me; the idea being that no matter how many safety measures you have in place, accidents can just.. sneak up and bite you on the fingers.
I was working one evening in the shop, making some very basic rip cuts on the table saw on soft cedar boards, about 5″ wide. No crazy angles, no narrow pieces, no jigs involved, just straight forward simple repetitive cuts. I was trying to finish up a set of three Jack-O-Lanterns with the intent to write up a post with free plans for the site.
I think I was put in a bit of a trance by the repetition of the cuts, the podcast I was listening to, and the general thoughts going through my head when I made the mistake of reaching over the blade with my left hand to grab the final board I had just pushed through. I have a habit of hip checking the power button on the saw to shut it off when I’m finishing cuts, which had at least slowed the blade down a little.
I remember hearing the “ting” of my ring connecting with the blade and feeling the slam of my hand bouncing off the table saw bed.
I looked down and saw the white of bones and ligament.
Shock is a hell of a drug. I never really felt any pain or panicked. The whole experience was oddly calm and surreal. I knew that I needed some serious medical attention, quickly, so I found the closest medical professional available: my wife! She was getting ready for bed when I walked in the bathroom and said in an (overly) calm manner “I think I cut my fingers off, I need to go to the hospital”. She retorted with “no you didn’t”. The quickest way to show her that for once in our relationship I was being serious was to hold up my mangled hand, all five fingers pointing in various directions. Sure enough it worked and she quickly dialed 911, promptly requesting an ambulance.
Back downstairs, waiting for the paramedics, the blood came. A lot of blood. I muttered “uh oh, I’m passing out” as tunnel vision set in. I laid myself on the floor, my wife applying pressure to my hand on the way down.
After what seemed like an hour of police and firefighters assessing my fingers and wrapping bandages, the ambulance arrived and I was in the back, being filled to the gills with fentanyl, headed to the trauma center.
Once admitted the doctors got to work cleaning the wounds, assessing along the way. A hand surgeon came and determined that I had lost bone on the pointer, severed two arteries, lost multiple nerves, was missing quite a bit of tissue, and needed many, many.. many stitches. The separation from the tip of my thumb to the base alone would have been considered a traumatic injury, and that was one of the better looking fingers!
Apparently the machete wound guy next door took priority and I wouldn’t be having surgery that night. The plan was to put me back together the best they could, and then come back for surgery.
I spent the next few hours with multiple doctors sewing me back together, finger by finger. When I tell you that I would rather stick my hand in a table saw then to have one single lidocaine injection into my fingers ever again, I mean it! The pain was insurmountable. Between that and the various drugs being pumped in me, I was in and out of it the whole time. I had had enough of the injections and opted to finish up the final finger, the pinky, with no numbing agents. It was actually a relief to feel the suture needle instead of the lidocaine! Yikes.
48 hours later surgeons examined my hand, poking me while asking what I could feel and what I could move, which was little of either. They concluded that my hand was a disaster, which must be a new medical term. I was put under general anesthesia for nearly 4 hours of reconstructive surgery.
While in surgery, it was discovered that I did in fact cut nick tendon, fully severed a ligament, lost a significant amount of bone and cartilage, which caused my finger to just kind of.. fall over. They took this x-ray to show me, which was nice of them. A few long pins were put in to keep that little bugger on.
There was too much damage done to one artery and it couldn’t be repaired, but another they were able to reconnect. One tendon sheath got some “smoothing out”. The ligament was reconnected. Three nerves were bridged with an artificial tunnel. Those are the ones that scare me in the long term.
I’ll be in a hard splint, wrapped in bandages for now, at which point x-ray’s will determine how things are looking. I’ll probably have weeks of pain, months/years of therapy, years of nerve issues, and a lifetime of cold fingers. Good thing my snowmobile has hand warmers!
Safety is a tricky concept. You can spend years and years being extremely careful, honing your methods, and getting comfortable with power tools, but all it takes is one lapse in a concentrated movement to cause serious damage. I blame the injury on me being TOO conformable with a dangerous tool and forgetting to respect the power it has.
I’ll be back in the shop as soon as I can use my hand, and hopefully by that time I’ll have the safety of a SawStop. Check them out if you aren’t familiar, they’re amazing and could have saved my fingers!
I’m extremely fortunate to still have all five fingers (re)attached. This accident could have easily been worse. I was lucky to have a quick acting wife to stop the bleeding and get me help as quick as possible. I’m thankful for the family that rushed over to help, neighbors who were coming through the door before paramedics. I’m grateful for modern accessibility technology that allows me to use a computer with one hand and my voice so that I can continue to work as a software engineer. I’m confident that I will have ten functioning fingers in the future.
PLEASE STAY SAFE IN THE SHOP! And remember, “it’s not if, it’s when”.
Andy “All Right” Buboltz