Expert hand surgery and hope get Ray back to a normal life after tragedy

Ray Eshelman works in his garden
Quick thinking from his grandson and referring providers got Ray home days later.

While cutting the last piece of PVC pipe he needed to complete his hydroponic growing system, Ray Eshelman lost control of his mitre saw. The blade caught his right hand and cut it severely.

Quick thinking by his grandson and decisive action at his community hospital got Ray, 77, from his home in Albany, Illinois, to University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, where orthopedic surgeon Joseph A. Buckwalter V, MD, worked late into the night to save the hand, which had almost been cut off completely.

Days later, Ray was home, learning to use his replanted hand and getting back to living his normal life again. He’s eager for his next appointment with Buckwalter.

“I’m looking forward to shaking his hand so I can show him how good I can do it now,” Ray says. “Plain and simple, I love the man for his expertise.”

Quick response makes all the difference

Ray doesn’t remember exactly how he lost control of the saw because it happened so fast. When he ran into the house for help, his wife Beth saw the injury and guessed the hand might be lost. She wasn’t even sure he’d make it to the hospital alive.

“He came in holding his hand, which was almost not attached,” Beth says. “He was bleeding everywhere.”

Their grandson Kaleb, 17, took one look at Ray’s hand and ran to his truck to get a piece of rope. He tied a tourniquet around Ray’s arm and held it tightly to stop the bleeding while Beth called for an ambulance.

“Kaleb wouldn’t let go of that tourniquet until Ray was lifted into the ambulance,” Beth says. “We’re so proud of him. Dr. Buckwalter says that’s probably what saved Ray’s life.”

Ray was rushed to a local hospital in Clinton, Iowa, where emergency doctors didn’t waste any time.

“They called for an airlift to Iowa City,” Beth says. “Bless those doctors. I don’t know their names, but they reacted fast.”

‘Even the doctors were a little bit amazed’

After Ray arrived at UI Hospitals & Clinics, Buckwalter worked for about an hour to repair the two arteries that had been cut. Without bloodflow, the hand couldn’t have been saved. With that accomplished, Buckwalter was then able to begin the long process of replanting the hand.

Meanwhile, the family was already preparing to help Ray get accustomed to life with a right hand that might barely function, given how badly it had been damaged. But shortly after returning to his room after the surgery, Ray caught everyone by surprise: He moved all the fingers on his right hand.

“I looked at him and said, ‘How did that happen?’” Beth says with a laugh. “I think even the doctors were a little bit amazed!”

Since then, Ray’s rehabilitation has been a series of small successes. On his first day home, he dressed himself one-handed. Working with a physical therapist, he began exercises designed to increase his control of the fingers and the strength of his grip, and he was soon back to his normal chores, taking care of the hydroponic system and helping out in the kitchen.

He favors the left hand, but he’s increasing how often he uses the right hand.

“When I pick something up, I’ve got to make sure I’ve got a good grip on it,” he says. “It’s like picking up something slippery.”

He says he’ll soon return to his work of restoring a 1946 Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was interrupted by the accident.

Beth says the expertise and the support of Buckwalter and his team were pivotal to Ray’s recovery from tragedy.

“The progress Ray has made is so far beyond what we thought would be possible,” Beth says. “Iowa City gave us hope. Dr. Buckwalter gave us hope. And that’s half the battle right there.”

Albany, Illinois