Jennifer N.’s story is part of UNC REX Healthcare’s Brand New Day patient story series. After an indoor rock climbing accident, Jennifer nearly lost her left arm. But with Rex doctors and nurses by her side, she never lost hope.
My name is Jennifer Nicely and I am an athlete. I am a surfer, a runner, a swimmer. Most of all, I am a rock-climber. And three months ago, I almost lost my arm. I was bouldering at my gym late Wednesday night on April 4. In this form of climbing, when you fall, you land on a crash pad. I have taken falls countless times before. Falling is a very common part of climbing, and bouldering specifically. Unfortunately, what happened to me on this night can be considered nothing short of a freak accident. I took a bad fall essentially from the top of the boulder. When I came down my fall was uncontrolled and I had my left arm hyperextended in front of me. I landed on my hyperextended arm and basically bent it 90 degrees the wrong way. It was immediately obvious that I’d severely dislocated my elbow, but the internal damage would not be discovered until hours later, on the operating table. Nobody was anticipating the damage I had just done.
In the emergency room at Rex, they worked quickly, efficiently. They set my arm. Afterwards they called in the orthopedic doctor on call to check on everything and he arrived shortly thereafter. When he walked in the room I was happy to see a familiar face. I smiled at Dr. Callaway, an orthopedic doctor who’d treated a minor injury of mine in the past, and said, “Dr. Callaway, I was hoping it would be you!” He smiled and told me it was nice to see me, but he wished it was under better circumstances. He, too, was happy with how my x-rays looked. But he was concerned that they still could not find my radial pulse. He asked me to squeeze his hand. I squeezed and three of my fingers squeezed with me. Two of my fingers, however, didn’t move at all. This was the first moment I became very scared. He explained to me that this could potentially mean I’d torn something and there was a block. He said he was bringing in the vascular surgeon on call. Eventually that surgeon walked in- Dr. Mendes. He changed my life. They all did.
When Dr. Mendes came in, he did the same checks. He asked me about climbing, tried to my find my radial pulse, and then asked me to squeeze his hand. When my fingers still refused to respond, he said to me, “Now, I know you’re a rock climber. So something tells me that you should be able to squeeze my hand a lot harder than that. I’m pretty sure if I asked you to squeeze me with your right hand it would feel very different.” I said, “I’ll squeeze with my right hand!” (Eager to prove I was still strong somewhere.) My friend Bill, still with me in the hospital, said, “Don’t hurt him, Jen.” Dr. Mendes laughed and wouldn’t actually let me squeeze him with my right. Instead he explained that most likely there was a partial tear and with blood thinners they could rebuild the flow to my hand. But if the tear was more severe, they would have to operate. Even with this potential domino effect of events about to occur, everyone seemed pretty sure that if there was a tear, it would be minimal, reparable, and nothing to get too worked up over. I was scared, but also very comforted by the support I had around me. I knew I was in good hands and the confidence I had in my doctors provided me with an immediate and undying source of comfort for anything I was about to endure.
They immediately conducted an angiogram and not long after, I woke up to Dr. Mendes’ voice telling me, “We’re taking you to the O.R.” I started crying. I was having trouble wrapping my mind around everything. How would my parents find out? How bad was this? I can’t…climbing. Climbing. Dr. Mendes and a team of nurses called my parents to tell them they would be operating. They explained to my father that there was a block and chances were it could be surgically repaired. Dr. Mendes also told him that if the damage was severe, they might have to bypass a vein from my leg to repair the injury. Then Dr. Mendes passed me the phone so that I could speak with my dad. I really just blubbered out mumbly sobs that probably only a parent can decipher. He told me I was in good hands and that he was proud of me. He put my mom on the phone and she told me she loved me. I passed my phone onto someone else and when I looked up, all three nurses were crying. They told me they would be my moms for the night and that they would take care of me.
I looked at Dr. Mendes and I asked him how long the surgery would be. He told me probably about two hours; maybe 3 to 4. Over seven hours later, I woke up in the ICU. I glanced down and saw my arm. I saw my hand. I saw all five fingers. My arm was completely covered in half hard-cast, half heavy-duty gauze, and wrapped in ace bandages from shoulder to wrist. My fingers and hand were very swollen. But I looked down at them and they were there. Everything was there. And I could move them. Just barely- only wiggling. But I could move them. The night before, when they opened me up on the operating table, I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the damage I had done. From what I hear, it was astounding. When they cut open my arm, they didn’t just discover a tear. I had severed everything but my nerve. Including my brachial artery. I lost a pint of blood in my arm and the clock was racing in regards to what part of my arm, hand, and fingers would be saved. They removed the biggest vein that runs in your leg from my left groin and bypassed it into the major severance of my artery. An entire vascular team and orthopedic team had to tend to my injuries and I am incredibly lucky and grateful for their fight. It is because of them that I have my arm.
When Dr. Mendes visited me in the ICU the next morning, he walked in, looked at me and said, “You are a fighter…the first thing you asked me when you woke up was, ‘When can I climb?’ and I looked at you and said, ‘Girl, I just saved your fingers!’” We laughed. He looked at me, and he said with full honesty, “There is no reason that you can’t make 100% recovery and lead the same active, healthy lifestyle you do now…I look at you, and the fight I see in you, and there is no reason you can’t make a full recovery and climb again.” I cried.
It has been over three months since my accident which means I’m that much closer to my full recovery. I have had monumental days, and very hard ones. I still have moments where I can’t help but just break down. Usually when I do, it’s because I’m so grateful, I don’t know how to handle it. It’s hard to explain. Perhaps if you’ve ever almost lost a limb, you know what I mean. I have amazing doctors, incredible family and friends, and so much fight. I feel immeasurably lucky for everything. My life these days consists mostly of rehab. I spend a lot of my time safely re-stretching my arm, and slowly strengthening all of the muscles I severed. Because of the nerve damage, I have to re-teach my hand what textures and temperatures feel like. I still can’t feel water on my palm, and the pain in my hand is best described as a very constant burning and tingling. I had a “robot arm” for 2 ½ months. A full arm hinge brace that I’ve just recently started to phase out. I gather a lot of stares and inquiries. I don’t mind. I tell my story often and when looks turn from curiosity to horror to pity I do what I can to reassure the questioning mind- “I’m fine. I am very, very lucky. I have my arm. I have incredible doctors. I have strength, love, and so much support. And I can’t wait to climb again.” I have a long road ahead of me and although the struggles have been—and will be—many, the laughter is many more. I do everything I can to celebrate the small successes. I cried when I tied my own shoelaces for the first time. When I was allowed my first jog, I lasted barely a mile. And still afterwards, I silently clenched my right hand into a fist and swung it in the air, in proud triumph. I can swim now, and I do so often. My stroke is crooked. But it is mine, and I am grateful. It’s amazing what you take for granted. But it’s even more amazing what strength you find to fight with when you use your heart and the encouragement of those around you.
I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the incredible support of my family and friends, the extraordinary courage and fight from my doctors, and the tenacity and hope that they all instill in me. I have my arm. I have the drive and determination for a full recovery. I have me. And I am grateful every day.