By Mercy's Jeff Raymond
Dr. Erin Campaigniac typically tells her patients that the thumb does about 70 percent of the hand’s work.
Hershel Williams, of Vanoss, thinks it’s more like 99 percent.
The Pontotoc Technology Center agriculture teacher, rancher, all-around cowboy and nationally ranked team roper lost his thumb in August 2013 while practicing for a meet in Texas. His thumb’s reattachment, and his subsequent recovery and return to silver buckle glory, demonstrate not only the power of modern medicine, but also his deep faith and Oklahoma grit.
Williams’ team won $25,000 in the World Team Roping Association finals in December in Las Vegas.
“We had a real good finals and I’m just as thankful as I can be for Mercy and thankful for Dr. Campaigniac, but I’m most thankful for my Lord and Savior,” Williams said, reflecting on how close he came to ending an activity he has participated in for four decades.
A surprisingly common injury
Any old hand who has tried his luck at corralling a steer while riding a galloping horse can tell you about buddies who have lost a digit from the sport. It usually happens when the heeler — the person who lassoes the back legs of the steer and subdues the animal — has a taut rope and is reaching for the horn of the saddle, called dallying. The rope coils collapse around the thumb and can yank it off.
Williams has spent most of his career as a header, who ropes the front of the steer, but he was heeling when the accident happened. Like most rodeo-related thumb amputees, he didn’t feel any pain. He saw no blood, only cartilage. He noticed his thumb in a glove 40 feet away. Ever the tough cowboy, Williams went to pick it up and had a friend drive him to Mercy Hospital Ada. Doctors called Campaigniac, a Mercy hand surgeon, who determined that he needed to be flown to Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City and prepped for immediate surgery.
All-night operation and prayers
Campaigniac didn’t know much about team roping – or rodeo in general – when she came to Oklahoma City after growing up in upstate New York and completing a fellowship in hand surgery at the University of Massachusetts. She was quickly introduced to it that Tuesday evening when Williams was rushed into the operating room.
Thumb reattachment is complex and tricky, and the perception that surgeons can fix any amputation these days is false. Only about half of similar thumb injuries are repairable, said Campaigniac.
“They’re really hard to deal with because it pulls the thumb off; it’s not like a laceration or a guillotine-style amputation,” Campaigniac said. “The vessels are in horrible condition; the nerves are in bad condition.”
As Williams’ surgery dragged into the early morning, Campaigniac began to wonder whether she would successfully reattach the thumb. After Williams’ digital artery wouldn’t pump blood, her team took a short break to figure out what to do next.
Around this time, Williams’ wife felt the urge to pray for him. When Campaigniac and her team returned, blood flowed through the artery again. Williams attributes his unlikely turnaround to prayer.
“It was just a neat experience from the get-go,” he recalled, still clearly in awe.
Learning to rope again
Even when surgeons successfully reattach thumbs, they often have limited mobility. Williams has recovered about 50 percent of his thumb’s use. After nine days in Mercy’s Intensive Care Unit, leech therapy and two months of rehabilitation, he was back out in his ring re-learning the quick, highly accurate throws required of team ropers.
“It was like learning how to walk all over again, and I’ve been swinging a rope for 50 years,” he said. “It was like I’d never had one in my hand.”
Campaigniac called Williams “quite a remarkable man” and said she isn’t at all surprised that he has been able to resume competing at the highest level.
“He was just so calm and pleasant,” she said.
She has even had Williams speak to her staff about the impact a hand surgeon can have on patients’ lives.
Williams feels the same way about his physician.
“I can’t praise Dr. C more,” he said.
Rodeo riders Campaigniac has treated understand the odds of not being able to ride after losing a thumb, but the wider public often doesn’t. She said most people are surprised at the importance of thumbs.
Williams’ wife allowed him to return to team roping, with one caveat – he can’t be the heeler.