When Johnny Loses a Finger

Warning: This post may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. But since the vast majority of our readers are mothers, many of them mothers of boys, we’ll bet you can handle what’s to come.

We don’t like to fall into the gender stereotype trap, but 99% of the time it’s the boys who arrive at the office or the emergency room with frantic moms (seriously, why would you show up at the doctor’s office?) missing part of a finger. Or a toe, or a handful of teeth. We’ll stop there.

Severed body parts are truly among the scariest things a parent will face, so here’s a short, but useful lesson on what to do, what not to do, and how to do it. Ready?

True story: Our friend Elizabeth was at the supermarket with her two active boys who were 3 and 5 at the time. After a typical hair-raising trip through the aisles where she deflected impassioned pleas for this sugar-loaded cereal and that empty calorie snack, they finally landed at the check-out.

As she unloaded the cart, watching carefully for smuggled goods, the boys busied themselves wrestling and taking turns hanging from the edge of the moving belt contraption whatchamacallit. Just as the last item passed the scanner, and Elizabeth was swiping her credit card, she heard an awful sound. It was something like a tearing, crunching, thumping, mechanical squeal, followed closely by screams from her youngest.

She looked down and — you guessed it — the whatchamacallit had eaten her kid. Surely it was a close match, but the result was lots of blood and a solid half inch of index finger on the counter waiting to be bagged. What followed was a chaotic rush that ended in the operating room, finger re-attached, and frankly, Elizabeth doesn’t remember all those details too clearly. But here are the perfect world steps to take if this ever happens to you.

First: Control the bleeding. We emphasize this because it’s tempting to turn your attention to the severed piece of flesh, but it’s more important to stem the flow of blood from the part that’s still attached. Put direct pressure on the wound or use a tourniquet made from clean cloth or sterile gauze. If possible, elevate it above the heart to put gravity on your side. If bleeding is uncontrolled, call 911 immediately.

Next: Gently rinse the severed piece with clean water to decrease bacterial contamination. DON’T rub, or you could damage delicate flesh.

Then: Dampen a clean wash cloth or bandage material with cool water and wrap the body part loosely. Place the wrapped part in a plastic bag, and place the bag in ice water. Do not use ice in direct contact with flesh because it can cause freezer burn. This goes for teeth too, which should be placed in cold water, not milk, and kept moist.

Transport: The child (or whoever) and the part should stay together on the way to the emergency room. If the child arrives and the part is stuck in traffic, there’s not much doctors can do.

Somewhere between controlling the bleeding and tending to the body part, comfort your child and reassure that all will be well. In almost all cases the part can be re-attached. And it makes a great story when they get to elementary school or summer camp.

Parenting: It’s not for sissies.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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2 responses to “When Johnny Loses a Finger”

  1. Lori Landau

    as a mom who has been through this (short version: five year old son at the time got his thumb caught in a very heavy door and severed the top of it), I have a few things to add that might help moms get through it like I did:
    1. call ahead to the hospital. when we went we waited, and waited, and waited for a specialist (and yes, you want a hand surgeon/plastic surgeon). we ended up leaving the hospital and going to another ER that had more compassion, and more staff.
    2. If at all possible, literally sit on the operating table with your child while he’s having the surgery, talk to him calmly during it distracting him with meditation techniques (it’s helpful to know some ahead of time, this will pay off in other situations too).
    3. don’t look. (really. trust me on this). you don’t want to become another patient.
    4. know that contrary to what you may think, you could end up being calmer than your spouse in this situation. I didn’t think I would be, but I was. The nurse and I had to tell “dad” to calm down.
    5. make sure you have pain medication phoned in for immediate pick-up before you leave the hospital. the last thing you’ll want after going through this is to have to wait (and wait) for a prescription to be ready.
    6. if a sibling was involved in the accident, take a moment to assure him it wasn’t his fault and let him (notice I say him, not her) know that everything will be okay.
    7. last, but not least, expect some residual emotional trauma and be prepared to help your child–and you–process it.

  2. Rachel Zahn

    Thanks, Lori! Excellent and much appreciated additions. And we noticed you said ‘him’, not ‘her’.

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