THE AMPUTEE: A LESSON IN THE CONSEQUENCES OF CARELESS GUN HANDLING
Some years ago I met a fellow at a local gun shop who could be the "poster boy" for gun safety; and an object lesson in how NOT to do things. I was waiting to pick up a repair job and this man was standing in the driveway, waiting for the shop to open after lunch. He was a big, burly guy with numerous tattoos. Despite it being a brisk day, he was naked from the waist up, except for a sort of canvas-and-steel harness strapped to his chest and waist. This supported a platform at shoulder level, on which his right arm was resting. It was obvious he'd had some sort of major arm injury, but when I asked what had happened I wasn't prepared for the answer I got.
It seems he had been hunting deer out at a commercial apple orchard where he worked. He'd seen a deer; he had a .50 caliber muzzle-loading rifle lying on the front seat of his truck, and reached it to get it—you guessed it, he had the thing charged and capped—and he PULLED IT TOWARDS HIMSELF BY THE MUZZLE.
The gun discharged. The ball tore across his right hand, creasing the base of his thumb; then struck him squarely in the upper arm, blowing it to pieces. "I could see my arm sorta danglin' and swingin' around," he said, "and there was this big pool of blood, I almost bled to death. I knew I'd shot my arm off. I never really felt it. I knew I'd been shot, but it never hurt much. I could see a big chunk o' meat blown out the back, but I didn't really feel it." I suppose that he didn't at the time—I'll bet he did later—was some sort of comfort.
The ball tore his right biceps clean away, shattered 6" of his humerus to fragments and "...my arm was held on by about a inch and a half of skin..." as he put it. He showed me the place on his leg where the surgeons had excised a 6-inch piece of bone to graft into the missing part of his arm; then he showed me the sites of the skin and muscle grafts taken from his shoulder, thigh, and back muscles to fill in the hole where the biceps had been. The surgeons were "artists" of a sort: they took pieces of his leg that had tattoos, to try to match the colors of the ones that had been blown off.
Amazingly, he was actually able to wiggle the fingers on his right hand. Though he told me he had feeling in them, he had no remaining arm function, in the sense that he couldn't raise or lower it—because of course the muscles for movement were gone. The muscle and skin grafts had no neural control, they were just there to "fill in" for cosmetic reasons. The brace he wore was necessary because his arm would have hung at his side without it. Apparently he would wear this brace for the rest of his life.
That he has an arm at all is a tribute to the skill—and perhaps the hubris—of the surgeons at Roanoke Memorial Hospital and the University of Virginia. Ten or even five years ago they probably would have finished the job the bullet started, and amputated the stump without a second thought. But given what I know of surgeons, they probably regarded his injury as a challenge, one not to be rejected.
You hear about this sort of accident and you wonder how anyone could be so incredibly stupid as to yank a loaded gun towards him by the business end, but the sad fact is that it happens every day. He'd probably performed this same act a thousand times without any repercussions. Then BOOM! his arm and his life were blown to pieces. If he'd been standing a little farther to one side the bullet would have hit him in the chest and killed him outright. He might have been better off.
God knows what this accident must have cost someone: easily half a million dollars in hospital charges and fees, rehab therapy, helicopter evacuations, etc., etc., etc., probably more, and all of it paid by someone else. This guy was obviously not "in the money" and I doubt his job came with anything like that level of insurance coverage. His wife (who looked to be about 19) and his 4-year-old son were with him. They too paid and continue to pay a price for his carelessness, a price not measurable in dollars. To give the man his due, he was matter-of-fact about the accident. He was in the shop checking on a pistol he'd ordered for one-handed deer hunting, so the disaster didn't break his spirit, at least. Or perhaps he needed the meat.
Those of you who are Hunter Ed instructors, please feel free to use this account as a cautionary tale. It's something that can happen to anyone who gets careless or casual about the rules. If he'd obeyed Rule #1, and had the muzzle pointing in a safe direction, if he'd just gone around to the other side of his truck and picked it up by the butt the worst that might have happened would have been a hole in the door of his truck. If he'd obeyed the law that says you have to uncap the gun when you carry it in a vehicle, it wouldn't have happened at all.
Most importantly, if he'd just THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT HE WAS DOING I wouldn't be writing this account of a chance meeting that shook me up me more than a little bit. I wish I knew his name, I’d have him come into my Hunter Ed classes as a “visual aid.”
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