Just a flesh wound
February 26, 2014 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Science journalist and NOVA correspondent extraordinaire Miles O'Brien was working on a story in Japan and the Philippines when a piece of luggage fell on his arm causing minor swelling. The next day his arm was amputated due to Acute Compartment Syndrome. He recounts his experience with as much humor and grace as one can muster.
posted by ghostpony (41 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Well, something else to worry about. Thanks!
posted by leotrotsky at 8:53 AM on February 26 [13 favorites]

Well great. One more thing to worry about.

This is the kind of article some of us read in lieu of watching horror movies or riding on extreme roller coasters.
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:53 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]

I don't think I've seen that episode of "Deep Space Nine".
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 8:56 AM on February 26 [30 favorites]

How often does it get serious enough to amputate? One of my legs was "asleep" when I woke up this morning. Happens a few times a year, usually with my arms. Freaked out now.
posted by mantecol at 9:01 AM on February 26

Things like this remind me what a fragile species we are and how easy it is for a bizarre and sudden event to change (or even end) our entire lives. I'm constantly amazed that any of us make it to old age unscathed.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:01 AM on February 26 [14 favorites]

"Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt you." Well played. Scary situation, and I'm glad that he is still around to joke about it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:03 AM on February 26

I just read this. I was amazed at how levelheaded he could be explaining a thing that I would think would be incredibly traumatic and upsetting. Apparently he is known for having a really good sense of humor generally and I've been enjoying watching some of his appearances on vimeo. I wish him luck on his recovery and am wondering in true internet-person fashion whether he was left- or right-handed.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]

This is one of those scary things that has symptoms that resemble non-scary things. Stress fractures and compartment syndrome are two possible causes of calf pain for runners. Stress fracture being far far more likely but there is still always that nagging possibility...
posted by srboisvert at 9:07 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Oh, wow. That's incredible.

I think part of the reason this feels weird to me is that I have only ever known (or known of) amputees after the fact. This is the first person I'm familiar with to whom the event has happened during the time I've been aware of them.

I hope he recovers quickly and well.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:07 AM on February 26

I was in a rollover accident in 2001, in the middle of nowhere Alaska (on Old Richardson Highway, to be more specific) and was airlifted to Anchorage from the closest reservation clinic due to compartment syndrome. They saved my hand and I have full functionality due to the awesome doctors who I don't remember at all due to being completely drugged up. Compartment syndrome is super scary and while I wasn't completely freaked out about losing my hand, mostly, I didn't want to think that I would never be able to knit again.
posted by Sophie1 at 9:07 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]

One of the first things I thought of when I read about this is that he's a licensed pilot. I'm sure he will eventually fly again with adaptive controls, but I'm curious how that would work. Perhaps certain models of airplanes are easier to fly with one arm.

I wish him well.
posted by bondcliff at 9:11 AM on February 26

Compartment syndrome is distinct from an arm or leg falling asleep. That feeling is typically caused by nerve compression which recovers when you shift or move (when you sleep this is one of the reason you roll over). In compartment syndrome blood is cut off due to inflammation within a distinct anatomical compartment surrounded by tough fibrous fascia which resists changes in volume. When this happens, muscle tissue and nerves begin to die off due to lack of blood, and this is why amputation is often needed. If you didn't amputate, the byproducts of muscle death become toxic and can lead to kidney failure and potentially death.
posted by ghostpony at 9:13 AM on February 26 [10 favorites]

Here's a better explanation than what I linked to on wikipedia.
posted by ghostpony at 9:15 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]

I met Mr. O'Brien briefly once. He's a truly nice guy. Horrifying and frightening that this happened to him, but man, so relieved for his sake that he's okay.
posted by zarq at 9:17 AM on February 26

One more thing to worry about.

Don't worry too much. Annual incidence of acute CS is something like less than 10 people in 100,000. Most of those cases (>50%) are complications from fractures in the legs or arms, and a halfway decent doctor will keep an eye out for the symptoms when treating a break.

The four or five cases left over might stem from blunt trauma, pinning or constriction, or, as srboisvert mentioned, chronic injury incurred while running or biking. If a limb registers pain, swelling, tingling, and/or numbness that seems all out of proportion to recent injury, then run it by your doc.
posted by Iridic at 9:20 AM on February 26

This is one of those scary things that has symptoms that resemble non-scary things. Stress fractures and compartment syndrome are two possible causes of calf pain for runners. Stress fracture being far far more likely but there is still always that nagging possibility...

It's not that bad. Running will only induce chronic compartment syndrome as far as I know, which can really screw up your training plans but does not carry any risk of amputation. And from personal experience with both issues, I certainly didn't find them hard to differentiate - compartment syndrome is a muscle pain that occurs during exercise, usually towards the top of the shin and goes away some time after you stop (as in hours), stress fractures are bone pain, usually in the lower and inner/front of the shin that (if you keep training on it) persists without attempting to exercise (weeks) and is tender to the touch (or poke, to be more accurate). Both usually present in the shin, not the calf, is that what you meant?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:21 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

the fuck this is something that happens
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 9:21 AM on February 26 [5 favorites]

on post: well, that's interesting. Iridic, what would cause acute CS to occur simply from training?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:22 AM on February 26

So apparently he had his arm off on the 14th but didn't tell his girlfriend until yesterday, as per Xeni Jardin's twitter. That struck me as odd.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 9:25 AM on February 26

I should say that, first off, I ain't no doctor. I've just read, and I can't immediately remember where, that chronic exercise-based CS can sometimes progress to acute CS.

After a bit of fact-checking: the progression seems to be possible, but rare.
posted by Iridic at 9:29 AM on February 26

Favorite line: "It was getting real."
posted by mantecol at 9:34 AM on February 26

I saw this linked on twitter a day ago and it seemed like a fairly generic medical-trouble-wth-a-happy-ending story until I got to the part where they amputated his arm. And I said "HOLY SHIT" out loud and almost stood up out of my chair. O'Brien comes off as more sanguine than I would in the situation.
posted by GuyZero at 9:35 AM on February 26

That struck me as odd.

At a gut level, I agree, but this experience is so foreign to me, was clearly so sudden, and is so hard to imagine that I literally have absolutely no idea what I might do and what might motivate me to do something different from what I'd expect to do.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 9:37 AM on February 26

Wow. Just this morning I listened to David Rakoff on This American Life tell his story of dealing with his nerve-servered arm, a complication from the cancer that killed him a few months later. Here's a video.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:43 AM on February 26

I've never heard of Acute Compartment Syndrome and, as a clumsy person, I wish I'd remained ignorant. (Also, poor guy.)
posted by sfkiddo at 9:45 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

That struck me as odd.

Not going to speculate beyond this: maybe she was under some sort of time crunch last week, and he delayed the news until she was in a better space to receive it. I imagine this is the kind of thing that is even more distressing for loved ones than it is for the person who got the amputation.
posted by mantecol at 9:46 AM on February 26

Given that apparently almost nobody knew about this until yesterday*, and there appears to be some question as to where he is right now, I'm guessing that this is probably a lot more complicated situation than his breezy (as breezy as you can be about losing half an arm) update suggests.

*I saw AP break it on Twitter, so they didn't know until yesterday either.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:50 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

I'd love to see a Nova about what happened, and some really cool robotic prosthetics he can get.

Get well soon! I await your bionic forearm!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:18 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Not to add to the worry, but you can develop Rhabdomyolysis from a simple muscle injury as well as from compartment syndrome. I found out when a friend pulled his back lifting weights and ended up spending a week in the hospital.
posted by tommasz at 10:33 AM on February 26

He is scheduled to host an event tomorrow. I wonder if he is still up for it.
posted by leviathan3k at 10:38 AM on February 26

Oh, man. I'll take "Things Anxiety-Prone Hypochondriacs Should Not Click On" for $1,000, Alex.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:44 AM on February 26 [7 favorites]

All Mileses (Milies? Milices? Miles's?) O'Brien must suffer always suffer.

I'm glad they caught this in time to save his life. It sucks that it happened.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:15 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]

I'm with JoanArkham. As someone who suffers from health anxiety (now, doesn't that sound more respectable than old-fashioned hypochondria?), I am making a point to stay away from every single link on this page.

Good luck to this poor guy. Glad he survived. Will just creep past this item as quickly as I can.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:48 PM on February 26

Miles is a professional acquaintance of mine. I wish him the speediest of recoveries.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:02 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]

Someone I knew in college lost their leg below the knee due to this - he'd broken the leg in a rugby accident if I recall correctly & the hospital either didn't catch it in time or were simply unable to save his leg regardless.
posted by pharm at 3:01 PM on February 26

In college I fell while working on stage, and hit my knee on a riser. I didn't see a doctor until the next morning, when I found a fist-sized lump on the side of my knee. The doc told me I had a deep-tissue bruise, including bleeding into my fascial compartments. I never knew until today how close I came to losing the leg. Scary stuff.
posted by I've a Horse Outside at 3:05 PM on February 26

I knew someone who had an arm amputated before I met her. She frequented the same parties as me, and she was always "working the room" with her truncated extremity -- walking up to people she didn't know and interrupting conversations by shoving it against their faces, making lewd references (such as comparing the texture to a ballsack.) She would volunteer grandiose and ever-changing stories about how it happened to anyone within earshot. I really wanted to treat her like any other person there, I grew up around lots of people who had mental or physical concerns of some severity. so I don't really care -- but I just couldn't, even though I suspected she behaved this way to keep people from pitying her or pretending she wasn't there. The end result was that her arm was no big deal, but people were repelled by her personality, and soon she wasn't coming around any more.

Her, contrasted with this guy: a wonderful illustration of how the person you are is so very very much more important than the state of your body. I hope he stays the course, and even though it has been years since I've seen that woman, I hope she found her way to a better place.
posted by davejay at 9:32 PM on February 26

Holy shit, that poor guy. I'm glad he's dealing with it as well as he is.
posted by homunculus at 10:13 PM on February 26

Get well soon! I await your bionic forearm!

I hope he can get one of these. It sounds amazing.
posted by homunculus at 11:32 PM on February 26

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