OFF BY A DIGIT - Major severs ring finger during mission in Rwanda

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet
  • Torch Magazine
Maj. Sang Kim rang in the New Year in atypical fashion ... by losing part of his ring finger.

On New Year's Day 2009, Kim, a C-17 Globemaster III pilot, flew from his home station at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, en route to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda in eastern-central Africa. He and his crew had been tasked to prep and load Rwandan Defense Force maintenance vehicles and other various cargo and haul them to war-torn Darfur, Sudan.

After arriving in Rwanda and loading the vehicles, three aerial porters began working on some U.N. water buffalos that also needed to be shipped.

"One of the porters asked me if I could find a pair of scissors," said Kim, 570th Global Mobility Squadron operations officer at Travis. "I remembered seeing a toolkit on top of a water purification trailer, so I decided to check there."

He couldn't reach the toolbox so he stepped on the bottom edge of the trailer's platform, which was about a foot off of the ground. He opened the kit. It was empty.

As he shut the lid, his left ring finger got caught in the latch. At the same instant, he slipped off of the trailer.

"I heard a loud snap," he said. "And then I felt a little tingling sensation in my hand."

Kim looked down at his left mitt.

The top third of his ring finger was missing!

As his severed digit spurted blood, the major looked up at the latch and found the top of his finger still dangling there.

"So I stepped back up on the trailer, and grabbed it," Kim said.

A Rwandan soldier who had witnessed the mis-hap ran to the major's aid. He guided Kim into a vehicle and drove him to a nearby military clinic. Inside the dilapidated infirmary, two doctors were performing surgery on a boy who appeared to be about 10 years old.

"I walked in as they were operating on this boy, and it just didn't look like a very sterile environment," Kim said. "The whole setup seemed pretty primitive -- very Third World."

Despite his trepidations, the medical personnel there cleaned and bandaged the wound as best they could.

Meanwhile, the three aerial porters he'd been assisting got wind of his plight and rushed to his side. They called the embassy and contacted the main hospital in Kigali to coordinate the major's arrival. They also tracked down an ice chest to help preserve the detached appendage just in case there was a chance to reattach it.

On the way to the hospital, Kim's driver sped through the busy city streets, knowing the clock was ticking. After 20 minutes of agony, the C-17 pilot arrived at the emergency room hoping doctors there would be able to put him back together.

But there was nothing they could do.

"They simply didn't have the capability to reattach my finger at that facility," Kim said.

Doctors administered pain-killing injections into his hand. They then told him he had about a six-hour window in which to save his finger. The problem was there was no such location in the country capable of performing such a tricky surgery.

An embassy nurse arrived, and they started discussing his limited options.

While medical facilities in Germany or South Africa would have been ideal, there simply wasn't enough time to make that happen. Ultimately, they decided on a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, which was only a short one-hour flight away.

The embassy arranged for his transportation, and had him in the air only 45 minutes later. After the hour flight, a driver met him at the airport and rushed him to the hospital in downtown Nairobi, which was only 15 minutes away.

"When the doctor took a look at my injury, he felt that there was only a small chance of successfully reattaching the finger," Kim said. "He explained that it's a complex surgery, especially trying to reconnect the nerves."

But as the medical team rolled the major into the operating room, he remained hopeful.

After awaking from the surgery, however, doctors gave him the bad news.

They couldn't reattach the finger.

"It wasn't a big shock, and it really didn't bother me that much," he said. "My main focus was getting back to my guys and successfully completing the mission. There were a lot of atrocities being committed in Darfur, so it was really important for us to help ensure the U.N. peacekeeping efforts continued. Everything was secondary to that, including my injury."

A day after his surgery, the major rejoined his crew and finished the mission.

When he returned to his home station, however, he was immediately removed from flying status, pending the outcome of a medical review board.

"I had to prove that I could still fly -- push all the buttons, operate the stick and throttles," he said. "I was able to do that with no problem."

So the medical board said he could return to what he did best -- flying the C-17.

Other than a couple of months of suffering from "phantom finger" -- the sensation of still having his digit -- Kim encountered no long-term pain.

"I couldn't type as good as I once did, but that was about my only limitation," he said.

His wife, Megan, hasn't seen any change.

"It hasn't slowed him down at all," she said. "I was scared when I first heard about it, because you, of course, want your husband to come back home in one piece. But it hasn't affected his ability to be a good pilot, or a good husband and father. He still gets down and wrestles and plays with the kids just like always."

Nevertheless, their two children, 5-year old twins Noah and Mackenzie, were a bit traumatized by the wound.

"After the accident, our son was doing an arts and crafts project at preschool and got a little cut on his finger," Megan said. "He cried and told his teacher he thought it was going to fall off, just like his daddy's. Seeing their dad hurt really frightened them. But now they are used to it, and our daughter even likes to put his prosthetic on for him.

"They're still aware that their daddy was in an accident and is missing part of his finger, but it's no big deal anymore. That's just a part of who he is now."