So far our 2017 fishing season had been up and down, but we were still catching fish and making enough to cover the broken parts and new engines etc. (read part I here ) But then God had different plans for our season and things were drastically changed.
We were seining in Dog Fish Bay around mid July and it was a pretty awesome day. Everything had been going smoothly and we were having a decent day as far as catch goes. If you have no idea what seining looks like, click here for a video by Daniel Stafford- a friend of ours who hales from Homer. (His video is a lot more entertaining and nicely put together than anything I could ever conjure up. Thanks Dan!) We had over 20,000 lbs on board of Chum Salmon if I remember correctly. Our last set was for about 5000 pounds, so naturally we were going to try "one last set". This is something you never do apparently... call the last set. That's when things go wrong.
So my job on deck is to stack leads or corks on deck (that day I was stacking leads). Then when we get about half way through the net we stop hauling the net on board and continue pursing- closing up the bottom of the net so all the fish are in a nice "satchel" as Ashton likes to call it. At this point I come forward and plunge to keep any fish from swimming under the boat while we are finishing pursing up. Once the purse rings are all up, I will then grab what is called the ring bar (big steal hook looking thing attached to a crane and shove it through all those rings. This picture of Loki watching the net come in shows the ring bar and purse rings up.
It takes a little bit of finessing to get it in and not wrapped around the purse line (that blue line coming out of all the rings is the purse line).
So on this particular set we had more slack in the line hooked up to the ring bar than normal because we had just split a large bag the set before. I noticed all the slack when we were heading back and thought, "I should suck that up so someone doesn't trip on it." But the hydros were off and Ashton had just decided we were going to make one more set so I didn't bother. Naturally you know what comes next. I was putting the ring bar in and some how got my forearm wrapped in the slack of that line. When I had everything hooked up I looked and saw it and started to say "hold on" but Ashton was already lifting the net.
I will never forget the sound of the winch sucking up the net and the shooting, electric pain that went from my arm to my finger tips. I think I jumped up on the gunnel as my arm was being pulled up but that didn't make a difference. The pressure was from a crane lifting around 8,000 lbs of gear and my arm was caught in the middle in a loop. Jumping up with it just kept me from dangling as well. My "hold on" went to yelling and Ashton reversed the lever on the crane and the line gave slack and released my arm. I stood there for a second not sure of the damage and Ashton told me to go sit down while they continued hauling the net on board. I thought I was going to puke so I just hung out near the side of the boat on my knees. I wasn't crying or anything I was just thinking, "I just destroyed my arm in 2 seconds. How am I going to be able to fish anymore?" Some curse words may or may not have been muttered between the pain and thoughts of what damage might have just been done. But honestly the one thing I kept thinking was, "Women have babies all the time. That has to be worse than this. You can handle this." I just took a lot of deep breaths and tried not to panic.
We had James and Shannon Reid on board with us that day and Shannon had just finished her EMT 1 training. She looked over at me and thought my hand was blue. But it was just aluminum dust from the plunger pole because I don't normally fish with gloves on. So she told me I should go inside to try and get warm. She said she was really worried when she thought my hand was blue already! We had some hydrocodone on the boat for emergencies and Ashton dropped a few in my mouth. I then started to worry I was going to get sick between the pills, the rolling seas and all the adrenaline. Shannon checked my pulse and my movement in my fingers and everything seemed to be okay. I didn't have any broken skin but a dent in my arm where the line had squished the muscle tissue. Not really sure how bad it was, I laid down in my bunk with two packages of frozen moose meat sandwiched around my forearm and tried to sleep the 5 hour trip back to Homer.
Once we got to Homer, I was in shock. The pain had gotten a lot worse, I couldn't sleep anymore and I was shivering and sweating. I thought about going out on deck and telling someone I needed to go to the hospital but I didn't want to get in the way or anything (how stupid is that!) In my mind it was either broken or not and waiting wasn't going to make it worse. Shannon and James went home when we got to the harbor at midnight. Shannon came in and checked on me before she left but again no one really knew the severity of the injury so I chose to just wait. Around 2 AM when Ashton was coming in from delivering and dealing with everything else, he thought we would just sleep on the boat but I told him I needed to go to the hospital because the pain was too much and I couldn't sleep.
When they told me it wasn't broken I was so relieved because the thought of them having to squeeze my bones back into place sounded less than pleasant. So I thought, "Sweet well load me up with some pain killers and send me on my way." The ER doctor said he was going to call in the specialist because he thought I might have compartment syndrome. That was the first time I had ever heard of this term. Basically it is when there is internal damage and bleeding which causes swelling within the fascia layer (which doesn't stretch) so circulation to muscle and nerves is cut off and things start to die. Essentially what the meant was, while I was being Miss Stoic waiting for the fish to be delivered because I didn't want to bother anyone, I was losing my hand and tissue was dying.
Dr. Adcox showed up and told me he thought it was compartment syndrome and because it had been 8 or 9 hours already he was surprised how much movement I still had in my fingers. He told me most people at that stage in the injury would have had their arm amputated. He said this was a possibility for me but highly unlikely given the range of motion I still had. I was going to go into surgery right then and have both sides of my arm cut open to relieve the pressure. He could be wrong but was 90% positive I had compartment syndrome. He would rather give me a few ugly scars and find out I didn't need to have had the surgery after all than to not and loose my arm. I didn't really care about getting scars but I was still not quite grasping the fact that I was going into surgery right then.
After they cut open my forearm on both sides, they removed a substantial amount of muscle tissue that had died. I have photos below if you are brave enough to look. Its the dark tissue in the surgery photos which was herniating out of my arm that was removed. It is amazing how you can see exactly were the line squished my arm. The incisions were left open for 3 days with a wound vac attached so the blood and fluid could drain. As the swelling went down, they would then try to close up the incisions. I had 4 surgeries total throughout this experience and each time I can always remember getting on the cold operating table for them and talking to them. I never wanted the anesthesia to set in and they would have to tell me to start breathing deeply as they counted back from 10. (PS it is very unpleasant that you have to be completely naked just to have surgery on your arm.) I spent 7 days in the hospital and near the end they said they were going to have to do a skin graft on my inner forearm because it was too swollen and leaving it open longer would risk infection.
I had 3 different surgeons who worked on my arm too so I got a variety of personalities. The skin graft guy didn't really get my sense of humor when I told him I would sign his form to okay a skin graft if he promised he would at least cut a heart shape from my leg and put it on my arm. He didn't think that was that funny. It probably wasn't. But turned out, Dr. No-Humor was okay because he pulled it off without having to do a skin graft! What a guy... I stayed one more night and then went home the next day.
Ashton had been kind enough to stay while I was in the hospital. He was in and out though as he had fishing a few days I was in there. But he took me home, got me in bed and kissed me goodbye before he left to go out across the Inlet for an indefinite amount of time. I didn't get to talk to him for several days either because he didn't have service on his SAT phone. That part sucked. I was coming off of all these crazy drugs they had me on and antibiotics that wrecked my system- I was not as stoic anymore. I was an emotional wreck for no reason. I knew my hand and everything would be fine, but sometimes a girl just needs her Fella when she is hurting.
I had pretty intense physical therapy for a while and now I have everything back mostly. My grip strength is around 100 lbs in my right arm (the good one) and my left is at 75 lbs or so. The Average for a woman my age is 68 and 78 pounds for left and right respectively so I'm doing better than your average bear! Thanks to all those buckets of water I have to haul to my animals! Oh and Adcox said because I had so much forearm tissue, that also helped protect me that day. Shout out to my dairy cow Feta for helping me there!
I am so thankful for everyone's prayers and God's amazing grace and protection over me. I am still not sure why God allowed this to happen but I know that He uses everything for good. I was so upset at first because this summer was supposed to be "our summer" where Ashton and I could actually spend some time together and go exploring across the Inlet on our off days etc. But I was humbled through this whole experience and realized how much God gives us that we take for granted on a daily basis. Not just physically but spiritually. God extends His hand to us each and every day. He is always there waiting for us even when we get distracted with life. No matter how many steps we take away from Him, He is always just one step away. It takes being very broken and venerable sometimes to realize this for some of us (namely ME). And yet I have been through almost losing my arm, had a full recovery and I still find myself taking Him and the gifts He has given me for granted. Maybe my miss-shaped and gnarly scarred forearm can be a reminder to me of the lessons I learned through that experience when I begin to get cocky and think I can do things on my own.
This all sounds like a scary situation but all in all it wasn't that big of a deal and could have been much worse. But I will say, deck safety should be a top priority for all captains out there. And also, never let the injured individual make the medical decisions! That person is in shock and not thinking clearly, or is just an arrogant "tough guy". Take all injuries seriously and never delay medical attention!!
So yeah - Fishing is not for the faint of heart. It's not for everyone. People will get into it for the dream of being an "Alaskan Fisherman", but the seas, the lifestyle and the skill required to be successful quickly weed out the ones who are not cut out to be fishermen. It takes a strong man, and dare I say, a strong woman.
To all the women out there married to fishermen, raising children on their own half the year. Supporting them during late nights and boat repairs and all the while maintaining the finances and keeping things in order at home. You are the reason this lifestyle works for families. You are the glue that holds it all together while your men go out there and capture their dreams and make a living doing what they love. And to the men who risk it all, sacrifice time with their families and run on little to no sleep, no breakdown stops you, nothing stands in the way of getting back on the water and making it happen- you are a rare breed and we are lucky to have hard working men in our lives in a world where hard work is becoming a thing of the past.
Thank you for you interest in our story and sometimes entertaining lives. God has blessed us BEYOND BELIEF and I am humbled to be able to TYPE this and share this story with you all today.
Here is a slide show of some gnarly surgery and scar photos.. If you are curious you can scroll through but I don't recommend it if you are squeamish.