ALMA CENTER, Wis. (WEAU) -- “I just realized it and went ‘Oh, God. I cut my hand off.’”
This was Alma Center Lincoln student Jerry Verhagen’s first reaction after seeing his left arm lying on the ground – completely severed below the elbow and unattached from the rest of his body.
This subdued analysis may sound unusual for anyone who just saw an appendage being violently ripped from their body.
That’s just Jerry.
Jerry Verhagen’s life is active like many teenagers growing up in a rural community.
“He’s a good kid. He’s nice,” Jerry’s mother Rebecca Hulett said to WEAU 13 News. “He has a nice personality. He cares about others. He’s just fun to be around.”
His fun personality transitions into his world at Lincoln High School, where Jerry is a member of the Hornets’ football team.
“Jerry is a quiet kid who isn’t too outspoken. Doesn’t say a whole lot, but he has always been a nice and respectful kid,” Alma Center-Humbird-Merrillan school district superintendent Paul Fischer said. “He’s a very quiet, young man.
“But, at the same time, he’s very respectful and very nice to his teachers and the teachers have commented that he is just a good kid to have in class, because he’s always very respectful, listens and does a nice job here at Lincoln.”
It’s a community Jerry enjoys growing up in, as he works through his agriculture classes with hopes to attend Chippewa Valley Technical College.
“It’s nice. Simple. There’s not much to it, really,” he said.
“MY HAND WAS OFF.”
It was just like any other Saturday for Jerry Verhagen. He was spending the day at his father’s house, operating a saw in a barn on the property.
“I was just cutting 3-by-3s on the miter saw,” Jerry said. “My sleeve got caught in the blade and it just pulled it out.”
The sleeve pulled Jerry’s left arm into the blade of the saw and severed his left arm so quickly, he didn’t immediately know what happened.
“It took me like 5 seconds to realize that my hand was off,” he said. “I just ran to the house basically to get help. I just had all of the adrenaline going and I couldn’t feel anything.”
When Jerry’s father called his mother, he couldn’t comprehend what he was hearing.
“Initially, I really thought ‘I heard him wrong.’ I thought ‘He’s mistaken. It’s a bad cut. It’s just a bad cut,’” Hulett said. “I had a friend over at the time and we drove over there – and it was not a bad cut.”
The girlfriend of Jerry’s father, who is a certified nursing assistant, took the unattached limb, cleaned it and kept it preserved until medical crews arrived. It was an unimaginable task, out of the realm of possibility until just moments before.
“When I initially saw him when he had the accident, it’s very hard to wrap your head around that 20 minutes ago, your child had an arm – and now they don’t,” Hulett said.
While everyone waited for medical choppers to reach the scene, Jerry was more worried for everyone else.
“He kept saying ‘I’ll be OK, mom. I’ll be OK,’” Hulett said. “He kept telling myself and his dad and his sister, who was also home at the time, kept telling them ‘I’ll be OK. This will be fine.”
Jerry had one overriding thought on his mind.
“Don’t pass out,” he said. “I was trying to keep myself awake. I just had all of the adrenaline going and I couldn’t feel anything.”
Even with his left arm wrapped up and not attached to his body, Jerry was trying to tell jokes.
“He handled it very, very well,” Hulett said. “He took it all in, understood the seriousness of it and he kind of goes with it.”
Said Jerry: “I remember checking the time a lot to see what time it was.”
Medical helicopters arrived 30 to 40 minutes after the accident … and that was when the community of roughly 500 people in Alma Center started to know something bad had just happened on this mid-November afternoon.
“When you see a helicopter fly over in small town Alma Center, you realize that probably something major is going on,” Fischer said. “I remember that sinking feeling of that helicopter flying over. You just don’t know who it is, but knowing that it had to be serious.”
Jerry Verhagen was airlifted to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where Dr. Brian Carlsen of orthopedic surgery was called in to perform what he described as “complicated.”
“My recollection is that, despite him being a distance away, he was going to get here very quickly,” he said. “My first concern was I have to get to the hospital quickly and I want to meet him.”
Carlsen would not be able to see Jerry until he was actually wheeled into the operating room for the surgery. Despite the gruesome nature of the wound, Carlsen was confident.
“I guess that’s one of the nice things about working at Mayo Clinic – the good and bad things,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that I like to do. Being who we are and where we are, we do get to see some pretty bad injuries.
“I have not seen an amputation at this exact level – and this level is complicated for a few different reasons, just because of the relationship between the muscles and tendons. It was right at where the muscles and tendons meet in the forearm, which makes it a little more complicated. At that level, there’s just a lot of structures to put back together.”
This operation involved reattaching the major bones in Jerry’s lower arm – the radius and ulna – as well as the muscles, tendons and blood vessels. The procedure sounds like a far-fetched one – but not for Dr. Carlsen.
“Once it’s amputated, if you can save it, to put it back and save it – that’s great,” he said. “I get a little adrenaline rush and I am excited to do it, but when it’s a 16-year-old kid and if you think about what it means to him and what it means for the rest of his life, it makes you a little bit nervous for him and nervous for his future and raises the stakes to do the best that you can to save the hand.”
Carlsen maintains saving the hand was never a guarantee in Jerry’s case.
“That’s always the goal and he had a couple things going for him,” he said. “It was a fairly sharp amputation, which is favorable … but no. We are never sure if we can save the limb.”
This was the concern for Jerry going into the tricky surgery.
“He was a brave kid. When he went off to sleep, he just wanted to know ‘Are you going to be able to save the hand?’ That was his big question,” Carlsen said. “I just told him that we were going to do the best that we could. I just remember how brave he was in the operating room, going to sleep.”
It took Dr. Carlsen nine hours to perform the surgery – and Jerry knew what was ahead when he woke up.
“For it to get working again, it would basically take a miracle,” he said.
Miracles were on Jerry Verhagen’s mind after the surgery to reattach his previously-severed left arm.
“To see it again reattached was really an odd feeling,” Hulett said. “I mean, it was a great feeling, but it was really hard to imagine that this happened – that it was off and they were able to put it back on.”
It was the same body part which was reattached, but Jerry knew it was not the same arm he had before the accident.
“I just thought that it was going to be gone,” he said.
After spending 10 days at the Mayo Clinic, Jerry was moved to the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, Minn., to begin months and months of therapy. Hulett stay with her son for most of his time there.
“For the next five weeks, I believe it was, he was doing intensive therapy twice a day, where he would go see a physical or occupational therapist, she said. “He would do a 1-hour session in the morning and then one in the afternoon.”
After about a month of work, Jerry was able to go back to Alma Center. He only missed a few weeks of school and was back at Lincoln High School after the holiday break.
“When he was sitting in the chair at the office on his first day back, I just sat there in amazement, thinking ‘He’s back!’” Fischer said. “When we first heard of the injury and how severe it was, we didn’t know what the road to recovery would look like. Even after that first couple of weeks, to hear the progress that was being made with Jerry, we were just incredibly surprised.”
Jerry’s guidance counselor, Shannon Schulte, said her main role is to make sure Jerry is adjusting well in his return to Lincoln High School, but understands this is an event which has not been limited to Jerry and his family.
“I think he has handled this very well,” she said. “Jerry is very mature, which is wonderful to see. “We’ve been flexible here at school, because this isn’t something that we’ve ever had happen before. So, we just kind of have to take things day by day and I think that’s what he does.
“If he has that attitude, he’s just going to keep progressing at a very fast rate.”
Nearly two months later, Jerry’s arm is in a sling and would appear like he simply broke it – rather than the gruesome truth.
“For this, I just put my splint on,” he said. “I don’t put any Band-Aids or anything like that on it. It’s all healed up around it. It’s just the bone, the movement and the nerves around it have to get back to it.”
That fast progression eventually brought Jerry Verhagen to Marshfield Clinic’s Physical Therapy Center in Eau Claire. When therapist Sara Meyer first met Jerry, she was quickly filled with many surprises.
“I’m a hand therapist, so we see all kinds of hand trauma,” she said. “But one where the arm is amputated and then reattached, it’s not one that I’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen finger amputations, partial hand – but not ever an entire forearm amputation.”
Meyer said each case of rehabilitation is unique, but Jerry’s unique injury meant she had to do some extra studying on his case and develop new methods of therapy she hadn’t tried before.
“When you get a case like this, they do generally come with pretty specific orders as to what to do and to follow the protocol,” she said. “So, knowing what to do, you just start with the basics – what’s his feeling like, how much motion does he have – and then you just build on what he has and try as best as possible.”
Jerry began therapy right before Christmas and Meyer said she “was actually amazed the first time that I saw him.”
“I was expecting him not to have as much motion as he did,” she said. “He amazed me from the start that he could move the hand as well as could and have some motion with his fingers. I was really expecting him not to have much of any return. So, it was pretty amazing since day one.
Eight weeks after having his left arm cut off, Jerry is able to move his wrist and is working on moving his fingers. Therapy sessions involve attempting to pick up objects with a pair of plastic pinchers and dribbling a large rubber ball, twice the size of a basketball.
All of this physical accomplishment is even catching Jerry by surprise.
“The fact that it was off entirely and now my fingers are moving, I’m kind of amazed by it still,” he said.
Almost everyone connected to the accident – including Jerry Verhagen – knows recovery in all facets will take time.
“Given the level of the injury, he’s progressed better than I would have thought in my mind,” Dr. Carlsen said.
There is no percentage placed on how much productive use Jerry will get back into his damaged arm, but Meyer said it will likely not ever again be 100 percent.
“He probably won’t get full nerve return – for whatever he gets – within a year,” she said. “Then, we’ll know how much of his hand will fully come back. Again, he is young and very healthy and very determined. So, we’re going to hope for the best and he’s going to keep working at it.”
With each therapy session, Jerry gains more strength in the reattached arm – and also, impresses people in his abilities with it.
“We were in a grocery store a couple weeks ago and a lady said ‘Can you reach some soda for me?’” Hulett recalled. “He went to go reach and she said ‘Oh, you broke your arm.’ He told her what he did and she was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ He just moves on like it’s not a big deal.”
Recovery is not just measured in physical accomplishments – but also, in terms of dollars. Several fundraising campaigns were organized by the Merrillan and Alma Center Lions Clubs to help Jerry and his family.
At Lincoln High School, the staff organized a “Go Green For Jerry” night at a basketball game this past season – green, being Jerry’s favorite color. Along with other campaigns, roughly $1,500 was raised.
“That’s what this community does and we rally around each other. It was an outpouring,” Fischer said. “A couple of weeks ago, we had a welcoming back when he did come back. Just a little small gathering, but a lot of people showed up for that, too.
“It’s just amazing. Everyone wanted to do what’s best for Jerry.”
“It was unbelievable,” Hulett said for the outpouring for her and her son. “You know, it’s hard to miss that much work and be away from home when you have other children. I mean, the amount that people helped us was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
Jerry is back walking the halls at Lincoln High School and has no outward appearance of what happened in November. It’s not until he removes his splint and bandage that the wound is evident.
Even then, it doesn’t bother Jerry.
"I don't know. I'm kind of used to it now," he said.
That’s just Jerry.