Memorial Day weekend 2017, Justin Babineaux was competing in team cattle roping in his hometown of Sulphur, Louisiana. He and his horse were a powerful duo on the verge of a winning streak. But unfortunately, rodeos are a fast-paced, unpredictable sport where anything can happen in just a matter of seconds and, as Babineaux went to “dally” or wrap his rope around his saddle horn, an accidental slip of the lasso trapped and completely amputated his right thumb.
“The other guy roped the steer and turned him,” Babineaux said. “I roped two feet and went to dally. I think the coils out of my left hand slipped over my right hand and immediately pushed it against the saddle horn. As I did that, instantaneously I said, ‘My thumb is gone.’”
Half the white glove he wore on his right hand to avoid getting rope burn had come off, revealing only a bony stump protruding from his bottom knuckle. The rest of his thumb still filled out that finger of his glove.
Calmly, Babineaux handed off his horse and exited the arena. He remembers the blood dripping on the concrete as he walked to his wife’s car. She drove him to the nearest hospital, but it was 10:00 p.m. on a holiday weekend, and surgeons were few and far between by the time they got there.
“Now, I’m still holding my thumb in my hand at this point,” Babineaux said. “There was a tendon somewhere in my arm that had broken, but the tendon was still sticking out of the end of my thumb. My entire thumb down to my bottom knuckle, I’m holding it.”
The surgeon on duty evaluated his injury but told Babineaux that he wouldn’t be able to put it back on. Having roped in professional rodeos since high school, Babineaux had met many before him who’d had their thumbs accidentally amputated and re-attached and was eager to see the same results with his injury. However, to get his thumb re-attached, Babineaux was told he would have to be transferred to Mississippi, where Dr. Derek Culnan, Burn Medical Director of Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America (BRCA) at Jackson, MS, was the only one to accept the challenging task. By 6:00 a.m. the following morning, Babineaux was in Mississippi being prepped for surgery.
“When Dr. Culnan came in that morning to perform surgery, he had said that he would do his best to put it back on,” Babineaux said. “I just remember looking at him and saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to put it back on, and it’s going to work. It’s going to work. It’s going to work 100%.’ Because he was talking about if they put it back on, there may not be enough blood flow, it could turn black and they could have to cut it back off again.”
Twelve hours later, Babineaux woke up from surgery to find his thumb had been successfully re-attached using a skin graft and veins from his foot. To ensure the digit remained free of complications, Dr. Culnan kept Babineaux in the hospital for a week to keep an eye out for infections or loss of circulation and tissue death.
“I felt comfortable, and it just really worked out that he was the right guy to do the surgery,” Babineaux said. “The hospital was great. Everybody was very helpful to me.”
The first thing Babineaux did when he got discharged from the hospital was rope a dummy steer at his home in Sulphur to see if he could still do it after suffering such a traumatic injury to the thumb of his dominant hand. Fortunately, his skills had not deteriorated with the injury and, with a little more time to heal, he would be back on top of the rodeo circuit.
Over the following weeks, Babineaux attended occupational therapy appointments to work on the flexibility and function of his hand. Due to the tightness that had built up from the skin graft between the web of his thumb and pointer finger, he would need three more surgeries to supplement the ongoing therapy. While he could’ve gone to a doctor closer to home to continue reconstructing his hand, Babineaux instead decided to travel the three hundred miles to Mississippi to see the same doctor who gave him back his finger and the hope of returning to professional cattle roping.
After a complete amputation, multiple rounds of surgery and occupational therapy, it would take Babineaux upwards of a year or more to completely heal from the accident. He didn’t see or feel the total extent of his recovery for a long time but was able to appreciate the process as he worked towards getting back on his horse and back into the rodeo circuit.
“As of today, I’m working every day,” Babineaux said. “I’m still competing in rodeos. The only thing I’m limited to today is grabbing big items, like grabbing a big glass. Other than that, I have full function with it. I can do pretty much anything.”
Traumatic hand injuries can happen anywhere at any time. It’s important to know what to do and who to call if one ever occurs to ensure the best outcome possible. If you or someone you know suffers a digit (finger or toe) amputation, take the following steps:
- Control the bleeding by wrapping the injured appendage in a sterile cloth. Avoid napkins or paper towels that may leave debris in the wound bed.
- Keep consistent pressure to slow the bleeding.
- Put the amputated digit on ice and bring it with you to the emergency department.
- Call 911 or have a responsible adult drive you to your local hospital.
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