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A Painful Miracle: Arsenio Matias' Story

9/26/2005


Arsenio Matias does everything slow, from eating breakfast to pressing the small buttons of his television's remote control. Getting dressed is a chore he can't complete without his wife's help, and driving his blue van is out of the question.

Still, the 49-year-old father of eight considers his life easy, because, "when you think it's easy, it makes everything easy."

For now, nothing comes easy for Matias. His day-to-day struggle is to heal himself while gradually piecing his life back together.

In February, Matias' hands were severed at his job by a thermoformer, a plastic forming machine, at Ultimate Display International, in Bay Shore.

"I saw the hands on the floor ... the blood," Matias told reporters four days after the accident. "I thought, 'My life is going.'"

Co-workers rushed to Matias' aid, placing his hands on ice until paramedics arrived, using a belt to make tourniquets on his wrists and helping him keep his arms raised.

What happened next, many doctors said, was a miracle: In an 11-hour procedure, a team of five surgeons at Stony Brook University Hospital reattached Matias' hands. It is believed to be the first time two hands were reattached simultaneously in New York State.


'Reaching the milestones'

Five months later, he is progressing on a journey of patience and persistence. A journey dotted by small victories: He can form his swollen hands around a sandwich and feed himself. And defeats: He still can't give his young children piggyback rides.

"It's going to take time - a year before his maximum recovery," said Dr. Alexander Dagum, the lead surgeon for the hand surgery. "He's reaching all the milestones very well. ... He'll get feeling back, how much we don't know yet."

As part of his recovery, Matias' severed bones and tendons must heal, and his nerves, cut during the accident but reconnected during the surgery, must regrow from his wrists to his fingertips - a process that typically happens at a rate of one inch per month.

Matias has learned to be patient, toiling two hours every day at Stony Brook University Hospital's Hand Rehabilitation Center; living with intense swelling in his hands; and coping with the pain that erupts as his nerves regenerate.

Laura Conway, supervisor of the East Setauket rehabilitation center and Matias' occupational therapist, said his "attitude is one of his greatest assets in his recovery."


Healthy dose of optimism

For Matias, getting better is his only focus.

"I don't say this was a big accident, I don't think about it," Matias said. "All I think about is my recuperation. In a couple of days, maybe I'll be able to do everything. I don't think back, I think all the way front."

Before the accident Matias worked 15- to 16-hour days, five days a week, at the purchase display manufacturer. Still, he said, he was never too tired to run to the store and buy his 4-year-old identical twin daughters, Kimberly and Kelly, their favorite snacks, milk and salami.

The night of the accident, Matias' wife, Rubenia Guerra-Matias, said Kimberly and Kelly could not sleep without their father at home. They stood in the doorway of their Wyandanch home, crying: "Daddy come back, what happened to daddy?"

At the same time, Matias suffered alone in the hospital, plagued by dreams of the accident. It took him one month before he could watch television, turning his head any time he saw a bloody scene.

"This is why I don't want to remember," Matias said. "Maybe I'll take therapy later."


Suing the manufacturer

Matias and his wife have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, said Joseph Dell, of Garden City, Matias' lawyer. They are suing Lyle Industries Inc., a manufacturing company based in Beaverton, Mich., the maker of the thermoformer machine that cut Matias' hands off.

The claim, filed June 17, says the company failed "to provide proper instructions or warnings; in designing, manufacturing and placing into the stream of commerce, an inherently unreasonably dangerous product."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Ultimate Display International for 17 alleged serious violations, including limited training for "employees who's [sic] duties require periodic servicing of manufacturing machinery," and six other-than-serious violations, said agency spokesman John Chavez.

The proposed penalty for the violations is $31,500. Chavez said OSHA is negotiating a settlement with the company.

Bonni Valinoti, co-owner of Ultimate Display International, declined to comment on the OSHA settlement until it was complete. She did, however, say the company's employees took a collection for Matias after the accident and look "forward to seeing him as soon as possible."

But Dell, Matias' lawyer, said that day may never come.

"A lot of his fine motor skills and sensory sensation, that's gone forever," Dell said. "The reality is that, from a legal standpoint, he's not going to work again."

Yet Matias still wakes up at 5:15 a.m., just like he used to. He waits patiently for Rubenia to get their 8-year-old son Moses ready for school. Then he showers and dresses with her help.

Matias can do few things for himself. He has to take a cab to the self-service laundry, the grocery store and the pharmacy. Rubenia has to accompany him so she can grab money or identification from his pants' pockets.

Bearing marks of his injuries

Though Matias' mind has moved past the accident, his arms will always carry physical reminders of what transpired - thick dark scars encircle his wrists and a jagged skin graft encompasses his lower right arm.

He stopped having manicures after a nail technician at a local salon saw his hands and said she could not work on his fingers. So Rubenia began weekly manicures, soaking her husband's hands in warm water and salt and applying clear polish.

Matias still shudders when he thinks about what happened recently: While saying goodbye to his 26-year-old daughter at Kennedy Airport, he couldn't find a co-ed bathroom to accommodate both him and Rubenia. So he waited two hours until he reached home before using one.

Added to the family's challenges: a lack of health insurance for the children - gone now that Matias does not work - and a loss of income after Rubenia quit her job as a cleaning woman to care for her husband. Matias gets worker's compensation, but he said it is small compared to his $800 weekly pay.

"I have to do everything now," Rubenia said, adding they can no longer send money to her family in Honduras or Matias' family in the Dominican Republic. "It's just difficult."


Doing his time in therapy

During an April therapy session, he picked up 11 stacked plastic cups, one by one.

Working diligently, he used his left hand to clumsily slide two cups stuck together to the edge of the table and lift them with his right hand - thrusting his body forward as he tried to shake the cups apart. Relying on his eyes, with still no feeling in his hands or fingers, Matias started re-stacking the cups.

One month later, he entered therapy with a lot of pain, because, Conway said, "everything is waking up."

As she moved Matias' right wrist and hand, he winced and he moved forward on his chair. She asked him for a "nice big squeeze" around her own hand and counted to three before Matias' fingers produced little movement, but on his face there was great strain.

"When this happened, a lot of people said I'm a strong guy," Matias said. "I never feel anything because my body is very strong."

Matias said he recently dreamed his hands were back and he was playing his favorite sport: baseball.

At home, one rainy afternoon, he sat down at the kitchen table to eat a snack. Slowly, he slid a plantain off the plate, onto the table, into his fingers and then his mouth. He dropped a slice of salami onto his white pants and quickly stood up. The family stopped eating, unsure of what to do. He awkwardly pushed the meat back onto the table and then into his mouth while still standing.

Matias' son, Moses, said he longs for his father to once again take the family to the park and the beach.

Dagum said Matias will need surgery later this year around the scar tissue in his hands, to improve his strength and the motion in his fingers. He estimates Matias will probably not be able to drive until March, but Matias predicts an earlier return.

"I think in three more months, I'll be driving," Matias said. "Maybe late September, I think so because I have to think forward." Milestones for Matias Feb. 28, 2005: Matias undergoes an 11-hour surgery to reattach both hands.

March 29:Discharged from Stony Brook University Hospital.
March 30:Matias' first day of rehabilitation.
April 9:When his hands are removed from their splints, Matias can move his fingers with small wiggles.
April 21:Pins, holding his bones together, are removed because his bones have fused.
May 5:Matias can eat a sandwich and drink from a cup on his own. He is starting to feel sensation near his wrists and palms.
June 30:Matias can complete daily hygiene tasks. Sensation has progressed into the fingertip of his left pinky.
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