A story of recovery and courage
Editor’s Note: The following is the first of a two-part series.
Karen Camp has cared for others for much of her life. She has been the primary caregiver to her husband of 35 years, who has two prosthetic legs. Camp worked as a direct care worker, caring for people by helping them bathe, do laundry, clean and get groceries for 20 years. She enjoys sewing, gardening and spending time with her grandchildren.
But, one day last year in late summer, it looked as if a hand injury was going to take much of that away from her.
In addition to her other hobbies, Camp, a Webster City native who grew up on Division Street and now lives on that same street on another block, has done woodworking and has worked with saws and tools since she was a child.
“I was the third daughter in my family, so I was supposed to be a boy so I did a lot of mechanical and woodworking things with my dad,” Camp said.
On Sept. 2, 2012, Camp was working to replace trim boards on the corner of her garage. Camp said she was done with one corner, and was working on the second with her daughter, Julie, on a table saw in the garage. She still remembers the 20” long and 2 3/4” wide cut she was making at the time. Camp was ripping the wide cut and pushed the wood up to the sawblade as far as it could go and reached up to pull the wood through.
What exactly caused Camp, a lifelong veteran of working with tablesaws, to become distracted is unclear. Camp said her husband thinks something must have caught her attention. Whatever that distraction might have been, it took her attention away from her work long enough for her to lay her hand onto the spinning tablesaw blade.
The blade tore through much of Camp’s hand. It was cut wide open and hospital workers would later find that all but one nerve and one tendon in her hand had been severed. Her daughter screamed and Camp found herself in an emergency situation.
“The first thing you learn is that someone has to take charge and I knew it wasn’t going to be my panicked daughter seeing her mother’s hand like that,” Camp said.
With her own hand cut open, Camp found she had to be the one to take charge. She told her daughter, still in shock, repeatedly to find a phone and call 911. She poured through her purse to find her phone, since they did not have a landline. Her husband came by to check on them, and quickly found himself trying to tie his handkerchief around her hand to slow the bleeding. Camp’s neighbor, hearing all the commotion, came to the garage and was told by Camp to try and find rags in the kitchen to tie her hand since the small handkerchief was not working.
Amidst this chaos, Camp’s daughter found a phone to call 911. Emergency responders came to the house to find Camp sitting on her porch steps, trying not to bleed on the concrete. Her family followed behind the ambulance that carried her to the hospital. Despite the grim nature of her injury, Camp was optimistic, although not very realistic.
“I told them I thought everything was going to be OK because I could still move my fingers. I also saw my skin darken, and I thought it was bruising which would be okay. Of course, my family tells me later that I was barely moving my fingers at all, and what I thought was bruising was actually the skin dying,” Camp said.
Camp wore several wedding rings and a wedding band. She noticed while at the hospital that two of her rings were no longer on her hand. She told her son, Lance, to go back home and see if her rings were there while hospital staff cut off her wedding band.
“If you want to make a lot of money, figure out a way to remove a wedding band like that without cutting it off,” Camp said. “That was the most painful thing watching them cut it off.”
Her rings back home had a similar fate. Lance returned to the hospital telling her that he found her rings but left them back home. In truth, her son didn’t want to tell her that all he found in the garage were bits and pieces of her wedding rings.
When a doctor later came in, the first thing he said was that there was nothing he could do for her hand.
“I remember looking at him and saying, ‘I mean no disrespect to you whatsoever, but I don’t believe there isn’t someone, somewhere that can fix my hand,'” Camp said.
What the doctor really meant was that there was nothing that he could do in Webster City to help her hand. The doctor placed calls to facilities in Ames and Iowa City, with no luck. A call to Des Moines agreed that they would fly her there by chopper to amputate her hand. However, the doctor came back and asked her how long she had been married. When she responded, 35 years, the doctor left and said he would see what he could do.
A last second change of plans had Camp on a flight for 45 minutes, not to Des Moines, but to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where rather than amputating her hand, they would undergo surgery to try and save the hand. Camp remembers little of the flight, saying it felt like seconds before they were there.
“I remember that it was just like on TV when we landed and there were just a bunch of people waiting outside,” Camp said. “There were all of these people with all of these questions.”
Before going into surgery, Camp recalled that she used to play handbells. She said she remembered laying down before going under surgery, signing a few papers, wondering if she would ever play the bells again.
Her family had travelled to the clinic, and waited on what was expected to be an eight to 10 hour surgery. When they were told that they were done in about four hours, there was that initial fear that they had to amputate her hand. However, the surgery went well and they managed to save her hand.
Camp remembers little of her recovery time at the Mayo Clinic. She said the room she was staying in had to be kept at 88 degrees for three days. An apparatus had her arm hang above her heart as well. Family members would come and stay, and traded off who would stay with her in the room overnight.
After the Sunday accident and her stay at the clinic, Camp and her family left on Thursday. Camp described her recovery process as a nightmare. She had to keep her arm hanging for four weeks, and had to prop pillows up against her headboard to try and get to sleep, her arm still hanging from an IV pole.
“That was just no way to sleep. I was miserable for those weeks and I just kept thinking that they saved my hand and I can get through this,” Camp said.
She was not alone in dealing her misery. Camp said that family and friends came out to help her, and she can’t recall a day where someone didn’t stop by her house to drop off a card or a gift.
However, Camp’s trials were not yet completed. She still had to return to her job at Hamilton County Public Health, but found that when she was able to work again, her position had been filled.