The Gift of a Hand


It was the Sunday before Christmas, and Dale Fonnesbeck was at the organ, concentrating on doing his best as he accompanied the ward choir’s Christmas program. His wife, DeAnn, and their five children sat on the front row in the Kaysville Utah Seventh Ward meetinghouse. Neither he nor his family suspected at that hour that this might be Dale’s last performance at the organ.

The next day, after dinner and family home evening, Dale hurried to his garage workshop. This close to Christmas, every evening hour was important. His gifts for the children must be completed. Their bedrooms were crowded, with storage space at a premium, so Dale was crafting sets of drawers to slide under bunk beds.

He drew guidelines on a plank, marking dado slots for the drawers. Suddenly he realized that his new dado blade shouldn’t be mounted on his circular saw. (A dado blade is shaped like a windmill, with sharp carbide tips on the end of each blade.) He shrugged, knowing he had to use that blade tonight to keep on schedule.

A strong impression came, warning him not to use the blade. Dale reasoned with himself, promising he’d be careful. Holding the saw trigger in his right hand, he held the plank firmly with his left hand to control vibration. When the saw had cut halfway down the plank, his eyes shifted to the end of the board. In that instant, the saw blade caught the sleeve of his sweatshirt. For some unknown reason, the blade stalled.

Dale glanced down to see why. The blade had carved a half-inch groove halfway across his hand, between the lower thumb joint and the wrist joint! Somehow he remained calm and didn’t jerk back. Pulling back would release the stalled blade and amputate his hand. The amount of blood pumping from his hand told him the main artery was severed. His thumb collapsed in the cut palm of the hand and the index finger hung down over the thumb, both lifeless.

With incredible calm, Dale released the saw from the incision and grabbed his left hand with his right, pressing hard with his thumb against the severed artery. How could there be no pain?

He ran into the house as the clock chimed 9:30 p. m. All five children were safely in bed and DeAnn sat in her rocker reading a book.

Dale remained calm. “I’ve cut my hand, DeAnn. Call an ambulance.”

Without questioning, DeAnn quickly dialed the emergency number. “How badly is it cut?” the dispatcher inquired.

For DeAnn, realization was setting in. “Dale, how bad is it?” She hardly dared ask—but Dale seemed so calm.

“Halfway through my hand. Tell them to hurry!”

DeAnn almost collapsed. Still calm, Dale grabbed a towel from the bathroom, wrapped his hand, and lay down on the floor to forestall fainting.

Next DeAnn dialed her parents’ home, a full fifteen minutes away. They arrived in less than ten minutes—as quickly as the paramedics.

Siren sounds routed the sleepy children from their beds. They huddled in the doorway, too frightened to crowd in. Neighbors congregated outside, curious, wanting to help.

Vic Sorensen, a neighbor and member of the bishopric, followed the paramedics inside. While paramedics surveyed the situation and set up communications, Brother Sorensen and DeAnn’s father, Floyd Stenquist, quickly administered to Dale, feeling prompted to promise him proper care.

Communications bristled on two-way radio as paramedics debated about a hospital. Obviously Dale needed the best possible hand surgeon. They decided to call Life Flight and airlift him to St. Mark’s Hospital, some thirty miles away in Salt Lake City.

One paramedic commented, “How lucky could we be? We’ve been totally fogged in for two weeks around here, and tonight the fog has cleared!”

It’s a blessing, Dale thought as he lay there.

The helicopter had no trouble landing in the street in front of the house. At 10:00 p. m. they pulled the stretcher from the house. Dale could see the twinkling stars overhead. No fog. He still felt no pain, yet no medication had been given.

As the helicopter rose into the air, DeAnn’s father sped her to the hospital. Her mother stayed with the children.

Upon Dale’s arrival at the hospital, he was immediately wheeled into the surgery area and prepared for surgery. When DeAnn arrived, she sat nervously holding her father’s hand. A man in street clothes clumped toward her, wearing heavy open shoes, the kind a patient wears following foot surgery. His eyes were black and blue, and she wondered if he had been in a fight. This man looks far worse than Dale, DeAnn thought.

“I’m Dr. Ream,” the man said quietly. “Don’t let my appearance jar you. This happens to be my first shift on duty for a while. You see, I stand so long working that I had to have my feet fixed. And I have naturally droopy eyelids, so I had them worked over so they won’t interfere with microsurgery. But don’t you worry, young lady. I’m all right, and your husband will be all right, too.”

“I’ll be praying for you,” DeAnn said, her eyes brimming. At that moment, she felt great peace, and she knew Dale was in the best possible hands. One of the hospital staff told her that Dr. John R. Ream was perhaps the foremost hand surgeon in the western United States.

Back in Kaysville, Joe Gilmore, a neighbor, knew that cleaning up the scene after an accident can be traumatic to the victim’s family. He reasoned that was probably the best way he could help. He entered the garage and, noticing there wasn’t much blood, recognized that Dale’s quick thinking had prevented greater loss of blood.

Before grabbing a broom, Joe searched carefully for anything the paramedics might have overlooked. He discovered bone fragments and called the hospital. When hospital staff assured him that the fragments would be needed in order to reconstruct the bone of Dale’s hand, Joe rushed the bone fragments to the hospital.

When Brother Gilmore arrived, the fragments were rushed into surgery and were found to be indispensable in the hand reconstruction, because bone from the donor bank was not adhering properly.

Behind the closed doors, Dale dozed intermittently on the table, medicated with only local anesthetic. It took eight hours for Dr. Ream to rebuild Dale’s hand and repair its blood vessels.

“As they were working on me,” Dale recalls, “I remember thinking that I might have to change my life-style. Could I still work as an engineer? Do carpentry? Play the organ?”

Following surgery, the hand was put in a cast, with fingertips barely showing. Is there any movement? Dale wondered. Very carefully he tried to move his fingertips. They actually moved!

“They’ll be all right,” he sighed, relieved.

Dale was scolded for moving his hand so soon after intricate surgery, but fortunately nothing was damaged.

The next day, many ward members joined the Fonnesbeck family as they fasted and prayed for Dale’s recovery.

On Christmas Day the children were allowed to visit their father briefly at the hospital. It was a day of quiet gratitude rather than the usual Christmas exuberance.

Although Dr. Ream had predicted that Dale’s hand would be in a cast for three months, he removed the cast in three weeks. Dale missed only two weeks of work.

“So many miracles,” Dale recalls. “And I know they all add up to answers to prayers—and blessings because of that priesthood administration. I have asked myself, Why did the dado blade stall instead of completely amputating my hand? Why did I remain so calm so I could seal off the artery? How did Dad get to our house so quickly? Why was Vic there immediately to help administer to me? Why did the fog clear—that night? If Joe hadn’t cleaned up the workshop and found bone fragments, my hand would have been damaged permanently. And how blessed I was that Dr. Ream recovered from his own surgeries sufficiently to be on duty that night.”

With subsequent therapy, Dale has restored his hand skills for the most part. “I still haven’t recovered my whole hand span for my music, but I can reach an octave plus two.”

Easter Sunday. Only four months after the accident, Dale slid onto the bench and played the organ for Easter services—grateful for the gift of a hand.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Dora D. Flack is a member of the Bountiful Twenty-fourth Ward, Bountiful Utah Heights Stake.