UT Southwestern orthopaedic trauma surgeon
re-attaches teen's arm after boating accident
DALLAS – March 18, 2010 – Kristen Kilpatrick could see the whirling propeller approaching after her fishing boat lurched forward, plunging her into the cold lake.
“The motor creates this weird funneling and it just sucks you in. I just curled up into a little ball,” the Texas Christian University sophomore recalled. On a May 2009 weekend whim, she and friends had gone to the lake on her family’s ranch near Hico, located southwest of Stephenville.
The engine was brutally unforgiving.
“It was like a huge freight train coming at you. I thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to die at age 18,’” Ms. Kilpatrick recalled.
The collision shot her to the lake’s bottom before she resurfaced. The prop had torn through her right arm, which hung limp, barely attached.
Friends – including a nursing student – dialed 911 instantly. They then stopped the bleeding and wrapped her injured arm as they waited for help to come for the 100-mile flight to Dallas.
“I heard the paramedics report ‘amputee.’ At this point I’m crying, ‘I’m not going to have an arm,’” Ms. Kilpatrick recalled. “As I go into the operating room, I repeat to every person I see, ‘Please tell me I’m going to have my arm.’”
Dr. Joseph Borrelli, chairman of orthopaedic surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center, was waiting for her to arrive by medical helicopter.
“We couldn’t have picked anyone better,” Ms. Kilpatrick said.
Dr. Borrelli, who holds the Doctor Charles F. Gregory Chair in Orthopaedic Surgery, specializes in orthopaedic trauma and recently spent time in Germany treating wounded American troops. Ms. Kilpatrick’s wounds proved as horrendous as the worst battlefield injury.
“The propeller cut through the skin, muscle, tendons and bone and had removed portions of the bone,” he recalled. “Basically, she had severed her arm, and it was attached only by some skin, tendon, nerve and artery.”
After four hours of intense reconstruction, Ms. Kilpatrick emerged from the operating room.
“When I came out of surgery, they had all my friends there,” Ms. Kilpatrick said. “Two hours after surgery, my friend said, ‘See if you can move your fingers.’ So I did.”
Thanks to critically successful irrigation efforts, no infections resulted, and her bones – merged together with two plates and nearly two dozen screws – have healed nicely.
“I feel great. Surprisingly I can do almost everything,” Ms. Kilpatrick said, although many wondered whether she would make it back to TCU mere months after the accident. “The first day of class, I came back. I said, ‘Of course I’m here. I had the greatest doctors ever.’”
Betty Kilpatrick, her mother, said Kristen’s can-do attitude has been an inspiration.
“Kristen continues to amaze me with her positive outlook on such a life-changing accident,” Mrs. Kilpatrick said. “She chooses to cling to her faith that all things can work for the good, and we have certainly seen her live that out daily.”
Rehabilitation therapists at UT Southwestern helped Ms. Kilpatrick, who is right-handed, learn to use her left hand, but she has since regained many abilities with her right hand, including writing.
“I was in a lecture and I was so bored I could not stand it, so I pulled out my pen to doodle and I instinctively put it in my right hand. It was a spontaneous thing, and I got movement back enough to write,” she said. “It was like a light switch went on. After that, things just kept progressing.”
Her ability to grip is among the most important skills she regained.
“I used to be a very competitive horseback rider, and I thought I was just going to have to absolutely drop that: There was no way I was going to be able to grip the reins. But I’ve been able to ride. In fact, it’s been very therapeutic to be able to ride,” said Ms. Kilpatrick, who has since celebrated an extra-special 19th birthday. “I haven’t been back out fishing yet, but I’m going to … and I’m going to catch the biggest fish ever.”
Visit www.utsouthwestern.org/orthopaedics to learn more about UT Southwestern’s clinical services in orthopaedic surgery.
Media Contact: Russell Rian
To automatically receive news releases from UT Southwestern via e-mail,
subscribe at www.utsouthwestern.edu/receivenews