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Memoir: Cutting trees helps man to full recovery

By Erika Kurner, Point Park News Service:

I have a very vivid memory from a very unclear day. It was October 2006, a Thursday after a rainstorm. I was a kid, standing in my room, when I heard the phone ring. Before my mom even answered, I had the sudden feeling something was wrong. My mom gasped and began to cry, solidifying my suspicions that something bad had happened to my dad, Jeff Kurner. 

Earlier that day, Kurner had received a call from a childhood friend. The storm had knocked a tree onto some phone lines, and he wanted Kurner to help him remove it as well as some other damaged limbs from trees in his yard. After a couple hours of cutting limbs down and clearing debris, there was one tree left with limbs to cut. 

Photo credit: Erika Kurner, Point Park News Service

Kurner climbed up in the tree, and cut the first limb; it landed just where he wanted. He started cutting the second limb. The branches hit the ground and sprung the limb back up into the air, into the tree, squarely into his knee. The end of the limb, about a foot in diameter, caused a snap in his kneecap, audible even over the roar of the chainsaw. 

“All I could think at the time was, it’s still coming; I gotta get out of the way,” Kurner said. To avoid the limb knocking him out of the tree, he jumped, a 6-foot fall, and landed on both feet. His knee was bent sideways. In the shock of the moment, he didn’t feel any pain, but still immediately realized how serious the injury was. 

When doctors initially examined his x-rays at Wheeling Hospital, they determined that his fracture was so bad he would have to be transported to either Ohio State University in Columbus or Morgantown, where medical professionals would be better equipped to handle his injury. 

Kurner had an external fixator placed in his leg, consisting of two pins drilled into his femur and two into his tibia sticking out of his leg, connected with a long rod, designed to stabilize his leg in a straight position until inflammation went down and implant surgery could happen. 

A month later, Kurner had a surgery that put two plates and 16 screws into his leg. 

“I’ve had broken bones, torn ligaments and sprains and stuff when I was younger, so I didn’t really think much of it, but this was something much bigger than I’d ever had before,” Kurner said of his initial reaction to his injury’s diagnosis. “I still thought I was gonna recover pretty quickly, because I’d recovered from so many other injuries without much effort or rehabilitation.” 

This injury, though, would require a lot of both effort and rehabilitation. Two weeks after his first surgery, he began physical therapy. That would continue for 18 months total, far longer than he ever expected. 

After six months, he returned to work—still on crutches. 

“I remember at one point, while I was at work, breaking down in tears because I didn’t think I was ever actually gonna be able to walk again.” 

Photo credit: Erika Kurner, Point Park News Service

Not being able to walk again would also mean not riding his motorcycle, or running, or playing drums again—all things he loved and did regularly before the injury. He became frustrated with how slowly recovery was coming along. 

At that point, his knee was unable to bend far enough for full functionality. His orthopedic surgeon told him that one needs at least a 90-degree range of motion to do things like get in and out of a car and climb stairs. His knee was stuck at 47 degrees until a procedure pushed that number to 78 degrees. 

By May of 2008, he was able to “amble around” without the assistance of a cane or crutch. He was in the backyard, cutting a limb off a tree, ironically—this time from the ground, using a saw on a rope slung over the limb. The ground behind the house is almost entirely a slope, scattered with rocks. His right foot stepped on one and it slid down the slope; his left leg bent forcibly, tearing the scar tissue that had prevented him from the 90 degrees of range of motion he needed. 

A trip to the emergency room, and one to his surgeon, confirmed that the scar tissue had been torn and his leg was now able to reach the range of motion he needed for full functionality.

Cutting a tree limb caused the worst injury he’d ever experienced, and cutting a tree limb again pushed him to full recovery.

This piece is part of a project on Apocalyptic writing. It will be featured in a print magazine that will be presented at the 8th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, April 21, 2017 in the Center for Media Innovation on Point Park University’s campus. 

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