About 30,000 people accidentally lose a finger every year, mostly while using power tools or knives. Because I’ve been a mountain climber and a rodeo rider, I have known a disproportionately large number of people who have lost fingers to frostbite and ropes. I have never heard of anyone who amputated a finger while surfing. But that’s what happened to me two and a half years ago.
I was out with my friend Sarah on Venice Beach, where I live, on a chilly fall day. The waves were small, but the undertow was especially strong. We had been in the water for about an hour when it happened, enough time for my hands to become numbed by the cold. I rode a wave into the shore, jumped off, and turned the nose around, in position to paddle back out for another wave. Standing on sand in hip deep water, with my hands grasping the rails, I steadied myself to hop on the deck. But at the moment when I unweighted to make the jump, the undertow suddenly tugged the board from my deadened grip. At risk of losing control of it, and knowing the likelihood that the next wave would toss the 10-foot plank back on top of me if I did, I attempted to catch the slippery board by its leash, at the point where it is fixed to the deck with a little piece of thin, strong, nylon cord.
I remember thinking that sticking my finger in that little loop was not a great idea, but it seemed like a better option than getting hit in the face by a loose board. And maybe it was. But in a heartbeat, the distal phalanx of my left index finger had been severed clean. Fish food.
The good news is that my hands were so cold, the amputation neither bled or hurt. Even better news was that Sarah was an orthopedic surgeon doing her residency at the nearest hospital. We ditched the surfboards with the nearest lifeguard, and within an hour, in bathing suits still dripping wet, she and the doctor on duty had the little stub sewn closed. Within two hours, we had invited enough friends-with-tequila to drop by my house that the onset of pain in my finger was delayed by several days.
It took about a year before the swelling went down. But I started looking for prosthetics within a week. Most finger prostheses are cosmetic: latex false tips that are affixed to the stub and totally convincing to everyone but the person wearing it. And there are some amazing robotics made for people missing more of their fingers and hand than I lost. But, after scouring the Internet, I found a bio-mechanical device which was originally made out of small spare bicycle parts by a handy guy who lost a finger tip to a hedge trimmer.
Mine is rendered in military grade Kevlar and has an external tendon which allows it to open and close with a high degree of control and nuance. With it, I can do just about anything I could do with a real finger, from picking up a potato chip (which I don’t do) to grasping a kettle bell (which I do, a lot).