HARWINTON, CT – This riding season is unlike any other. By this time last year there had already been a three-day trip to an antique motorcycle show in Pennsylvania. This year, operating a motorcycle for even a few miles has been thwarted by an injury.
While I routinely put my motorcycles away for winter in early December and get them out of the garage in early March, the only excursion so far has been a 15-foot wobble in the driveway to an outside electrical outlet to add air to the tires of the 2014 Triumph Bonneville.
The 1987 BMW R 80 RT hasn’t moved from its slot in front of a work bench, nor will it until my left hand heals a bit more. I did sit on the BMW a month ago and tried the clutch lever, but found it too stiff to operate comfortably. The Triumph’s clutch lever is much easier to pull.
My lack of riding is due to a gruesome accident in mid-February. A sizable portion of my left thumb was ripped off by a log splitter. The mental image of the wedge on the splitter shearing the pulp from tip to base still sometimes flashes through my mind. Yes, I screamed and I get shivers on the replay.
There’s no doubt that I will ride again thanks to two determined doctors. It’s the “when” that’s undetermined.
A friend quickly rushed me to Charlotte Hungerford Hospital in Torrington, CT in my pickup when the accident happened. I listed to port in the passenger seat on the verge of passing out. At the emergency room, Dr. Michael Grant examined my wound, stanched the bleeding, and began searching for a surgeon to address my stump.
It’s my understanding that Grant tried first in Torrington but the local surgeon was away. He then called other Hartford Healthcare hospitals in Hartford and Bridgeport that Saturday but found no one willing or able to attempt to save the thumb. The only offer was to amputate. Knowing how life-changing an amputation would be, he doggedly kept pursuing a better outcome and reached Dr. Angie Paik at Yale New Haven Hospital.
Paik does reconstructive surgery and is experienced in hand and microsurgery. I went by ambulance to New Haven, along with the severed tissue that was found inside my work glove in the cab of the truck. It was preserved on ice inside a plastic bag and looked like a lump of putty.
The next day, Dr. Paik performed an intricate five-hour operation. She harvested and repurposed skin from my index finger, fashioning a replacement thumb. The pulp from my original thumb was deemed too mangled to be reattached. The opening atop my index finger got plugged with another graft from my lower abdomen.
My new thumb made me recall the Sissy Hankshaw character in the Tom Robbins novel “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.” Dr. Paik’s handiwork was superb and the result is a slightly bulbous facsimile of the original.
While there’s also been persistent scar tissue tenderness and determined digit rigidity that has required physical therapy, the experience has been free of intense pain. The soreness, stinging and occasional “electrical jolts” as grafted skin melds with existing skin and scar tissue breaks down is frustrating and tedious. The ibuprofen bottle stands ready on the kitchen counter.
There is also constant wondering about when riding will be possible. The index finger and thumb need to be sufficiently supple to wrap around the left hand grip and sufficiently healed to endure repetitive use of the clutch lever. The replacement thumb has no feeling, at least not yet, so that will require some adapting.
After a followup visit to the surgeon last month, I stopped by Libby’s Motoworld in New Haven. Salesman Dan Coppelella rolled out a 2022 Honda NC750X DCT model for me to sit on. “DCT” is an abbreviation for “dual-clutch transmission.” It’s basically an automatic transmission, a feature not found on most motorcycles. Most riders view DCT to be as appealing as pineapple on pizza.
The DCT option does have me pondering whether it might it be wise to sell my two bikes with conventional transmissions and replace them with a DCT model? Doing so would eliminate the need to operate a clutch lever with my recovering left hand.
Coppelella said that if I give him a bit of warning and come back, he can put a dealer plate on the NC750X and let me take a test ride. It’s tempting, although I’m sure I’d miss the fun of ripping through the gears. Getting an electric model is another option.
In nearly 20 years on two wheels, I’ve had some minor accidents. Nothing, though, has come close to having a chunk of thumb suddenly torn from its foundation. Such sudden disfigurement impacts mentally as well as physically.
I’m not complaining. My injury is pesty when compared to horrific injuries soldiers and civilians suffer in war. Whining would insult the many health care workers whose paths I crossed. One floor nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital told me she was just back at work – after two years of volunteering on the front line in a swamped hospital in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s heroism.
It’s certainly true in life that there are always others who are facing greater physical challenges and pain, and always others who are much braver, dedicated and giving. I will be back to riding (and log splitting) very soon.
I’d love to give a “high five” to the two doctors to whom I’m indebted. Without them, only a “high four” would be possible and riding a motorcycle might be impossible ever again.
(A version of this column appeared in the “Republican-American” newspaper on April 30, 2022.)
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