His words will return to me for a long time. I first heard them a week ago, when Luis recounted his experience at the accident site. Trapped inside the wrecked car, bleeding from his face, air-bags still inflated, Steven held up his mangled, bloody right hand and said: My hand. Look at my hand. They took my fingers.
I heard them for myself a week later at Blake Hospital, room 477B. We were visiting Steven a week after the accident, more out of obligation than friendship, but we were there nonetheless. His face was still bruised and swollen. He sat on the edge of the bed, a partially-eaten meal on the tray in front of him. His right eye was closed, the left open but still full of blood. It looked shiny, alien-like.
Then his right arm. We’d heard that they couldn’t save the fingers. From Luis’s first-hand description, we guessed there were no fingers.
“I could only see from the wrist down. Everything else was gone. A finger was hanging by a piece of skin. The bone was exposed. He was bleeding heavily.”
“He was still trapped by the seat-belt and the fact that the doors were jammed. He held up his arm and said, My hand? Where’s my hand?”
First-responders requested a helicopter, and their first choice of hospital was Tampa General or Bayfront in St Pete. Thunderstorms in Tampa prevented that, so he was taken by road to Blake. Helicopters tell me how unwell he was, and so it turned out. Steven was resuscitated at least twice after he’d been extricated from the wreck. My guess is that blood-loss was a big factor, but the impact of stopping in a few feet from 60 mph to zero gives the body a lot of reasons to quit.
One week later, last Thursday, we walked into that room. His first question was “What happened?”
We were unable to say anything. You ran into the back of a semi-trailer. There were no signs of braking. Somehow you survived. Your hand and right forearm were brutally traumatized. What words are there?
He expected the car to save him. That’s a misunderstanding of the system, which leads to a wider question of whether we all have a false sense of security about the level of safety in these cars. The cruise-control was on, he said, set at 60. The truck had no side-running lights but the reverse lights worked. One wonders how he remembered such specific detail.
And then there was his arm. The forearm was pared diagonally from below the elbow to where his palm would have been. It was partially dressed in surgical gauze, partially in cling-wrap. A line emerged from near the elbow to drain fluid. At the end was a thumb. His thumb, the only digit the surgeons could save.
It wasn’t as shocking as I’d thought, probably because I’d knew the story. He held his right bicep with his left hand across his body, rocking back anf forth. It hurt. Bad. They took my fingers, he said.
Later, I wondered who “they” were. Luis tells me he meant the surgical staff, but I think it was a more general blame. He was vaguely articulating “the world” or “the universe” or “the bastards”. Someone who wasn’t looking out for him.
But someone was looking out for him, because he was alive: maimed and with an altered life ahead, but alive.