Doctors help restore injured Carroll artist's thumb

August 10, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Thomas J. Sterner was in his studio, a barn at the western edge of Westminster, on July 17, making wooden backing frames for the plywood paintings he occasionally mounts on the barn roof.

The mixed media artist decided some of the cuts were a little too rough. So he put down his saw and picked up a jointer to shave the wood. Within seconds, he was a statistic, one of about 775,000 people who suffer hand injuries each year.

Mr. Sterner said he doesn't know how he made the diagonal cut that removed about one-third of the flesh and a piece of bone from his right thumb. But he understood right away that it couldn't be retrieved and reattached.

"It was shaved off in several pieces because of the nature of the tool," he said.

He was to learn that surgeons at the Curtis Hand Center of Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore could restore the pinching surface of his thumb -- if he didn't mind living with it sewn to his chest for two weeks.

But first, he needed emergency medical attention.

Jay Hammond, a Westminster woodworking artist who shares Mr. Sterner's studio, drove him to the Carroll County General Hospital emergency room. He was treated and referred to the hand clinic at Union Memorial.

Mr. Sterner "was left without a good portion of the pulp" of his thumb, said hand surgeon Dr. Keith A. Segalman. The medical challenge was to restore the pinching surface of his thumb.

Mr. Sterner said another surgeon at the center, Dr. Michael McClinton, explained that the doctors could try lifting a flap from his middle finger and grafting it to the thumb, but he would almost surely be left with prolonged stiffness in the finger.

He wanted an option that would restore his thumb as fully as possible. An artist must be able to work with his hands. "I want to be an artist until the day I die, and I don't want to have pain in my right hand," Mr. Sterner said.

The surgeons' answer was to sew Mr. Sterner's thumb to his chest. Blood vessels from the chest grew in the thumb, Dr. Segalman said. The blood vessels nurtured skin and fat from the chest that would replace the shredded portion of the thumb.

On a scale of 1 to 10 in complexity, the surgery performed on Mr. Sterner was probably about a 7, Dr. Segalman said.

He said the operation is "fairly sophisticated," but not as complex as the microsurgery required to replant a severed finger.

The hand surgeons at Union Memorial detached Mr. Sterner's thumb from his chest Aug. 3, a procedure he referred to as "being set free."

Dr. Segalman said the artist will need a third operation for "debulking," the technical term for trimming the restored flesh down to regular thumb size.

Injuries similar to Mr. Sterner's are all too common.

"We probably see one saw injury a day" at the hand center, Dr. Segalman said.

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