Triumph over tragedy
The greeting on Doug and Mary Gustafson’s front door says, “Happy everything.”
That’s the way Doug was feeling last week: elated, happy, thankful for just about everything. Doug Gustafson is glad to be alive because he came mighty close to a grisly death.
Gustafson lost his right hand the night of Feb. 5 at the Tower Automotive assembly plant in Corydon, but he could have been killed if it weren’t for the quick action by a maintenance man he was working with, Doug Totten of Mauckport.
Gustafson, 34, a night shift maintenance supervisor who’s been with Tower for 10 years, and Totten, had been working most of the night on a large, three-story transfer machine that moves Ford Explorer frames from one area to another on a huge, automated assembly line. The machine hadn’t been working properly all night. Ironically, about 2 a.m., Gustafson said, a safety mechanism or “hard stop” on the machine came down on his hand and pulled it into a cylinder.
It lopped off his hand on the diagonal, leaving only his pinky finger attached to his wrist. His palm, thumb, index finger, middle finger and ring finger were inside the machine.
Totten realized Gustafson was caught and being pulled over a guard rail. He grabbed Gustafson from behind and pulled him away from the machinery. They were about 30 feet up on a metal catwalk. Totten immediately called for help from first responders, who’ve been trained for such an event, and made Gustafson lie down. Totten applied a tourniquet on Gustafson’s right arm above the elbow.
“He saved my life,” Gustafson said last week. “I credit him for that. If Doug hadn’t grabbed me, I wouldn’t be here talkin’ to ya.”
The first responders came running and treated Gustafson for shock. They put him on a backboard and carried him down from the catwalk.
“It was unbelievable how these people came together and helped,” Gustafson said.
The Wisconsin native was taken directly to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, where he was examined by surgeons connected with the world famous Kleinert and Kutz hand specialist team.
Gustafson’s associates turned off the transfer machine and with some difficulty retrieved his “parts.” They were taken to Jewish, and during a 20-hour surgical marathon, three doctors reattached his palm, thumb and fingers.
Gustafson said before the surgery began, one of the doctors asked if he smoked. Gustafson said yes. The surgeon told him he would have to choose between smoking cigarettes and having his fingers because nicotine would thwart the healing process.
“It wasn’t too hard to figure that one out,” Gustafson said Friday at his comfortable home in Homestead Manor, where he’s recuperating with his wife, Mary, a manager at Maurice’s near Wal-Mart, and their child, Breyana, 12, and their big brown lab, Kelly.
On Friday, Gustafson had feeling in his pinky finger, but not in his other fingers. One of the first things Gustafson asked the doctors after the surgery was whether he would still be able to ride his Harley-Davidson.
“I’m really grateful for everyone who helped” – Doug, the first responders, the doctors, he said Friday.
When he was hurt, Gustafson’s colleagues at Tower started a fund for him, and it totaled $600 before the ambulance left the parking lot. However, he is completely covered by insurance, and he plans to go back to work at Tower as soon as he can. He’s been at the Corydon plant for just over two years. (He worked at Tower’s Rockport, Ill., plant before coming to Corydon.)
Gustafson got some bad news Monday. His doctors examined his hand and said he may lose the thumb. They will wait about a week before making a decision. “I’m OK,” he said Monday. “I’m just glad to be here.”