My name is Jennifer Nicely and I am an athlete. Most of all, I am a rock-climber, and in 2012, 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 hyperextended my left arm almost 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 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.
When Dr. Mendes came in, he did the same checks. 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? Dr. Mendes and a team of nurses called my parents to tell them they would be operating. 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.
I have a long road ahead of me and although the struggles have been—and will be—many, the laughter is many more. 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.