What happened

I was turning an end grain hollow vessel from a short segment of a badly cracked mesquite log. The final form at the time of the accident was about 10 inches in diameter at its shoulder and 6 1/2 inches tall.

I knew it was a dangerous piece of wood from the beginning, and I had been treating it as such. The only reason I was turning such a dangerously cracked piece of wood was to fulfill a specific commission that called for a lot of stone inlay.

I had turned down the exterior and shaped it between centers, including cutting a tenon to chuck it for hollowing, at speeds ranging from 150 to 450 rpm. I had wrapped the exterior with duct tape at the shoulder and along the taper before beginning to hollow. (With 20/20 hindsight, I would instead have swaddled the piece in plastic wrap.) I had hollowed the vessel at varying speeds up to 550 rpm. I had deliberately left the walls very thick, an inch and a quarter to more than two inches thick, out of caution because of the cracks. After hollowing about as much as I planned to, I turned up the speed to close to 1200 rpm to make a couple of clean-up passes on the interior. Note that when I was making these interior cuts at the high speed, I was positioned out of the line of fire, should the vessel have broken at that time. Although I normally dial my speed up from and down to zero, in this case, after I found a nice fast speed without vibration that allowed me a clean cut on the interrupted interior surface, I hit the power button to stop, check my cut, and restart for another cut or two. I stopped and restarted in this way once or twice, possibly three times.

Then I stopped to answer a phone call.

Without the interruption, what would likely have happened next, based on previous practice, is this: I would have felt the interior surface, sucked the shavings out, taken a last look, and, deciding to call it quits on the interior, I would have reached over at that point to turn the speed dial back to zero without turning the lathe back on. That would have completed the rhythm of that sequence.

Answering the phone call interrupted that sequence. Further, it changed the protection I was wearing. Up until that point, I had been wearing my half-mask respirator, my glasses, and a full faceshield. I took off my faceshield and dropped my respirator to answer the phone. After hanging up, I pulled the respirator right back up, out of habit. Instead of putting the faceshield back on, however, I used the opportunity to take a careful look at the vessel.

I had cut as much as I dared from the interior. I saw that the exterior curve near the mouth wasn’t quite what I wanted. I repositioned the tool rest from inside the vessel to parallel to the top, and I pulled the power button on. I wanted to look at the vessel spinning so that I could see beyond the duct tape to see if I wanted to make any other cuts before calling it quits for that stage of the turning.

Now, despite what I just implied a couple of paragraphs back, I can’t really blame the interruption for what happened. Interruptions happen, and I knew from previous experiences the danger of turning on the lathe when it is already set at a high speed. I have in fact been trying to train myself to habitually and automatically check the relative position of the speed dial before turning the lathe back on after any interruption. This I plainly failed to do, and I have to take full responsibility for my failure to do so.

When I did turn the lathe on, the high speed didn’t trigger any alarms for me. I often turn at high speed, because I normally turn much smaller, more delicate pieces, often with interrupted surfaces. And I was only looking, after all. I confess I always thought of faceshields as protecting my eyes from flying chips, not as protecting my head and face from random missiles.

The irony is that my next step would have been to turn the lathe off. I have a clear image of the piece as I was last seeing it. I couldn’t have touched up the surface I was dissatisfied with even if I had wanted to: the duct tape was in the way. I would have turned off the lathe and waited till a later stage to touch up that curve. Although I had a tool in my hands, it wouldn’t have been the appropriate tool for such touchup, and I didn’t have it raised for use. If I had, my forearm might have provided some defense. As it was, I was just looking. I may have even been leaning in to look. It was a peaceful, unthreatening, undangerous moment.

Until it wasn’t.

My general condition

I’m not in pain: regular medication keeps any discomfort at bay. I think I am benefiting in this respect from damage to the nerve to my face—which I can appreciate and not rue, since, as of this morning, I don’t think it is permanent.

I keep my left eye covered under a loose moist dressing. As long as it’s covered, I look pretty normal. I even wear my glasses over the dressing. Without the dressing, I’m a distressing sight.

My unhurt eye gets tired pretty quickly, so I have very limited periods of normal clear sight. I can read or look at a computer screen for only a few minutes at a time before the letters blur on me. I have to blink a lot to read. [These limits make it challenging to keep up with emails, so please be understanding if I don’t respond individually to all of your lovely notes of support.] I can watch TV or look at people longer because I don’t have to keep details in focus.

I can converse easily. I can eat—soft food only to avoid pressure on the broken bone above my teeth. I can’t open my mouth very wide. My top lip is still partially numb. The numbness left my bottom lip a few days after the surgery, so I quit dribbling, thank goodness. My mother and older sister have been cooking delicious, comforting food for me. And I just now managed to scramble a couple of eggs for myself for dinner (hurrah!).

Fatigue hits me hard and fast. At some point every day, even when I think I’ve been taking it easy, I discover I’ve overextended my energy and have to collapse. I constantly underestimate the energy required to heal. I need to sleep and rest more.

For 48 hours after the surgery, I had to have my dressing changed, and usually medication put in my eye, every half hour around the clock. The first night we had the help of the wonderful nursing staff at St. Joe’s. They sent us home the day after the surgery though (!), and since then my partner, with help from my sisters, has done an extraordinary job of taking care of me. [My sisters arrived to look after me within days after my accident.] I (and my caregivers) have seven medications to manage now: four drops and an ointment that go into my eye, and two pills. This is complicated, as they all must be administered at different frequencies and none can be given together. My partner and I have finally got a system worked out, and using two alarm clocks, I am now able to keep track of the schedule pretty well myself. I cannot administer the eye medications to myself though, so I need help at least every two hours, and every fifteen minutes for an hour and a half at the beginning and end of every day. And I have beaucoup doctors’ appointments: four this past week; one with each of three of my doctors (surgeon, ophthamologist, and retina specialist) next week. These visits can really throw the medication schedule off.

A sober assessment

After two doctor visits yesterday, I have a sobering, realistic assessment of where I stand. This isn’t going to be a miraculous sprint to a triumphant recovery. Rather, it will be a long, uncertain, prayer-filled crawl to recovery.

My surgeon says I will need at least one more surgery to get my face right, possibly more. My lower eyelid, at least, isn’t going to make it intact. I hadn’t understood that my “soft food” diet instructions were not just about comfort: the bone above my teeth on the left side is fractured, so I can’t be applying any pressure there. I really did a number on my face; I’m lucky the surgeon was able to piece it together as well as he has. There is damage to at least one of the nerves to my face. This morning, though, I am able to report that the damage isn’t permanent! I woke up with diminishing numbness where there had been no feeling at all! It will be these tiny shifts that will mark the path to recovery.

My retina is still obscured by hemorrhaging inside the eyeball, and there appears to be hemorrhaging beneath the retina as well. It will likely be weeks of waiting and watching before we can know what’s what.

My approach is going to be cellular: focus on every little cell getting healed and building from there.

On the plus side, my Halloween costume this year ought to win some awards!

The immediate aftermath

I heard the wood give, and then I felt a blow to my face. I stepped back off of my platform and dropped to my knees. I could feel blood begin to flow from my face. I was extremely dizzy and felt I might pass out.

I pulled my respirator mask off and dropped it, then stood up. I looked at the garage door and assessed the likelihood of my reaching it and wresting it open as poor. I took a few steps to my tool chest, turned off the radio, and groped for the telephone. I took the few steps back to my original spot and collapsed back to my knees. I felt strongly that I might pass out. If I called 911 and passed out, EMS would have difficulty locating me and getting in to me. My partner works a mile away. I dialed her number, and to the woman who answered, I said very clearly and forcefully, “Tell Karen to come home right now,” and hung up.

I stayed down for a moment trying to collect myself. I saw my glasses lying next to where I had dropped my respirator. I picked them up and stood up, made my way to the doorway, turned out the lights, locked the door, and crossed the back porch to the kitchen door. I stopped there, turned around, and went back to make sure I had locked my studio door. As I was walking back I noticed blood drops on the porch floor, so I picked up the end of my apron to catch the blood as I entered the kitchen. I locked the kitchen door behind me, walked to the refrigerator, and grabbed a dish towel, holding it to my face, still clutching the end of my apron. I passed into the living room, picked up my purse with my identification, and went out the front door. I had just turned to lock the front door when Karen pulled into the driveway.

I walked to the passenger side, opened the door and got in, and told Karen to go lock the front door, which I had to repeat, because she didn’t understand. She did so, got back in, backed out, and drove. I did not attempt to buckle my seatbelt. I collapsed into a huddle in the seat, clutching the door arm rest to keep my balance as we drove. I could hear Karen asking me or debating herself which hospital to go to. I couldn’t answer. Karen thought that I had passed out. I heard us pull in, heard her leave to get help. Someone opened the car door, and people helped me into a wheelchair. Total elapsed time: seven or eight minutes.

An accident

I had a terrible accident with my lathe last Friday afternoon, September 21. A large (10-inch-diameter), heavy, partially hollowed mesquite vessel came apart while rotating at about 1200 rpm (too fast, I know). I knew the wood was cracked, and I had wrapped the outside with duct tape, but apparently not enough to hold it together. I didn’t even get a catch, wasn’t even touching a tool to the wood: the crack just gave. The vessel broke into three pieces; I think one piece split when it hit the wall. The piece that hit me weighs a little over a kilogram. I had removed my faceshield, so only my half-mask respirator and glasses (with polycarbonate lenses) were between me and the wood. Pretty much all of the bones in the left half of my face were fractured. My jaw doesn’t seem to have been injured. My eyeball did not rupture.

Surgery the following day repaired the bone damage. I lucked out in having as a surgeon one of the doctors who pieced Gabrielle Gifford’s eye orbit back together. He used four titanium plates to reconstruct my face, and he also stitched my eyelids back together. I’m told I look “100% better” than before the surgery, so he did a great job. And he did the surgery through the roof of my mouth, so there won’t be any scarring apart from my eyelids. Remarkable! The ophthamologist who saw me presurgery and two days after was astonished at how good I looked. He had expected me to be swollen to the size of a watermelon, based on my presurgery state. I can talk and eat soft food with small bites, and my energy level is good and improving daily.

I’ve since learned that the lens in my left eye has been displaced, which will require surgery to correct. The real question is whether the retina and optic nerve are damaged, for concussive damage to them would not be reparable. There is still too much blood in the eye to see what’s going on, so it may be a few weeks before I know if my vision can be restored. I am hopeful, because when the accident first happened, I couldn’t see anything. After the surgery, I could see some light, and by the next day, I could detect motion as well, with a black hole in the center of everything; that’s the holding status of my vision for now. So, please, concentrate any positive thoughts you want to send me on my having an attached, intact retina and healthy optic nerve; this will offer me the best chance at full recovery.

Thank you so much for your prayers and positive wishes. Your individual and collective support means so much to me. I have high hopes for full recovery, thanks to all your good wishes.