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Cold weather, cool head, good luck intervene for Uniontown man

| Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 1:07 a.m.
Mike Brunton of Uniontown (right) has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving — including his hand therapist Dennis Martin. Martin, who lives in Scottdale, is director of hand therapy for UPMC’s Center for Rehab Services based in McKeesport. He travels to UPMC’s Uniontown office weekly to assist Mike, who severed his left hand last December. Submitted nov 2012
It’s hard to see the scars left by the reattachment of Mike Brunton’s severed left hand. His recovery was facilitated by a great surgical team, great luck — and the fact that he is right-handed. Laura Szepesi | for the Daily Courier nov 2012

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, the real scoop about the Bruntons' “most thankful” Thanksgiving.

Early in December, Mike Brunton of Uniontown was eager to try out his new miter saw. It was his day off from Home Depot, and he looked forward to putting the finishing touches on his latest remodeling project — renovating the kitchen of his sister-in-law, Charlotte Saylor of Lemont Furnace.

Mike's wife, Sandy, had also taken the day off from her job as a paraeducator at Laurel Highlands School District. It was getting close to Christmas and she was way behind. The Uniontown couple's four young grandchildren and her full-time job had kept her stepping lively. She hadn't even had a chance to put up the family's Christmas tree.

Sandy was doing just that — sorting the ornaments and untangling lights — when Mike walked past her carrying his new saw, still packaged in its box.

“What are you doing today?” she asked.

“Making the molding,” he replied.

“You should finish the floor first,” she chided, knowing full well that her husband was always excited to try out a new power tool. Mike had plenty of practice; he'd been a do-it-yourselfer for more than 40 years.

“I can still see him going out the front door carrying that miter saw on his shoulder,” Sandy said. “I had a funny feeling, but I've always been a worrier.”

Lady Luck arrives

Cold weather, a cool head and good luck intervened that day to save Mike Brunton's life.

Arriving at his sister-in-law's house, he was greeted by his niece, Kimmy Saylor, who often assists him on remodeling projects. However, that day a neighbor needed Kimmy's help with housecleaning.

“I told Kimmy, ‘Sure, go ahead. I'll be fine,'” Mike recalled.

In retrospect, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Mike had set up his work table outside for practical reasons; it was on ground level and meant fewer steps to the kitchen.

It was cold that December day, and Mike was wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt — a carpenter's nightmare.

His new saw never cut a single miter that day. Instead, it snagged the left sleeve of his sweatshirt and severed his left hand, leaving it attached by only a narrow piece of skin.

“It happened in the flash of an eye,” Mike said. “I thought, ‘Man, I really did it this time!'”

He saw the stump lying on the worktable. “Blood was spurting everywhere. I closed my eyes and prayed, ‘Please, God, don't let me pass out or I'm a dead duck.'”

Survival instinct kicked in.

Struggling, Mike lifted the saw. With his right hand, he picked up his severed left hand and held it high against his chest.

Dialed 911

There was no one home to help him — a no-no for construction workers. He ran into the house, got his cellphone and dialed 911. When he went outside to wait for the ambulance, he realized his identification and health insurance cards were in his truck. So — still holding his left hand against his chest — he went to the truck, opened it and retrieved the information.

“I knew if I didn't have an ID the ambulance driver wouldn't know who I was if I lost consciousness,” explained Mike, who then called 911 a second time.

Several minutes later, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics went to work, immediately packing Mike's left hand and arm in ice. They sped to Connellsville Airport, where a helicopter was waiting.

“They asked me what hospital I wanted,” Mike said.

There was only one choice: UPMC's Presbyterian in Pittsburgh — for a most precious reason.

Halfway to Pittsburgh, Mike told the pilot to ask for the orthopedic surgeon on call: his son, Dr. Lance Brunton, whose specialty — as luck (and fate) would have it — is hand surgery.

‘Stay Awake'

Mike struggled to stay awake on his brief helicopter flight. When he was whisked to the emergency room, Dr. Brunton was waiting.

“The last thing I remember was seeing Lance's face,” Mike said. “I knew if I could see my son's face that he would take care of me.”

Twenty hours later when Mike awoke from surgery, Lance was by his bedside — and has guided and advised Mike's rehabilitation ever since.

Luckily, Lance didn't have to perform Mike's operation. Mike's hand was reattached by Lance's senior partners, Dr. Robert Goitz and Dr. Robert Kaufmann, and another UMPC surgeon, Dr. Lance Tavana. The operation took seven hours.

Mike had a few rough weeks afterward, convalescing at Lance's home near Pittsburgh to be close to the hospital. Doctors predicted that he would be off work for at least six months and were uncertain how much feeling or movement his reattached hand would have.

Infection never plagued Mike like it does many other accident victims. He believes it's because his miter saw was brand new. “It never cut wood — only meat,” he laughed. He's also convinced that having a sense of humor about his bad luck has hastened his healing.

Amazing recovery

Less than a year since his mishap, Mike can bend his fingers into a near fist. Getting feeling back is taking longer, but Mike and his therapist, Dennis Martin of Scottdale, director of hand therapy for UPMC's Center for Rehab Services based in McKeesport, are optimistic. His ring finger and pinky never lost feeling.

“The ulna nerve (which provides feeling for those fingers) was not severed; it was in the little flap of skin that held my left hand on when it was cut,” Mike explained.

Mike could have bled to death; he was given more than six units of blood at the hospital. However, luck again intervened. He had been on an aspirin regimen, which thins the blood, but had taken himself off it because he was scheduled for a colonoscopy and his doctor had so advised. The cold weather that day also was a boon because cold slows blood flow. Plus, Mike believes that he somehow kinked the blood vessels when he held his hand against his chest while waiting for the ambulance.

Currently, Mike goes to therapy twice a week. “Dennis (Martin) comes to Uniontown all the way from McKeesport. I can't tell you how thankful I am for that,” he said.

Back to work

Doctors were wrong about his six-month recovery. In February, Mike went back to work at Home Depot in Uniontown — although his co-workers jokingly forbade him proximity to the power tools. He's worked there for seven years and, at age 69, has no intention of retiring.

“I'm working as long as I can be helpful to customers and employees,” said Mike, a millwork specialist who designs special doors and windows. “I love going to work and helping people. My manager, Lisa McGovern, and my fellow workers have been very supportive.”

He credits good fortune, a positive outlook and his family and friends for his recovery, especially Lance, who once upon a time as an undergraduate student toyed with the idea of changing to a less rigorous major. His father, who has a terrific sense of humor, was dead serious that day. “I said, ‘No way, buddy. You're staying right where you are.'”

Mike describes his accident as predestination.

“How could I ever have guessed that I'd do something so stupid to myself and that my son would be a hand surgeon, of all things? It's a miracle!” he declared with tears in his eyes.

This Thanksgiving, Mike Brunton feels like the luckiest man on Earth despite what he has been through.

He's married to his high school sweetheart, Sandy, who turned 70 in September. His son Lance and Lance's wife, Robin, have given them five grandchildren in the past nine years.

“Every time I hold my grandkids, I just can't believe it,” Mike said. “I am so thankful to be alive and celebrate Thanksgiving with my family — and that this didn't happen to me 10 years ago. I wouldn't have made it.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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