SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Jeff Sleeper felt the bones snapping in his left hand, but it happened so fast, there was nothing he could do.

He had turned off the jammed snowblower. He stuck in his hands to clear the blades. Once they were clear, the rotors still had enough torque to spin a few more times.

Sleeper broke bones in his hand and in three fingers, and had a gash requiring more than 20 stitches.

“The only reason I didn’t lose my whole hand was because I had heavy gloves on,” said Sleeper, 19, who had been using the snowblower to clear the driveway of his family’s Jamesville, N.Y., home in December.

It’s snowblower season, when neighborhoods hum with the noise of the machines and hospitals prepare for casualties.

Nationally, more than 5,300 people end up in emergency rooms each year because of snowblower accidents, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Injuries include amputated fingers, cuts and broken bones.

“We see some very complex injuries,” said Dr. John McCabe, chairman of emergency medicine at University Hospital in Syracuse, the continent’s reigning snowiest city. “Any time there’s a fresh snowfall, you can count on it.”

Syracuse got 140 inches of snow last winter, tops among North American cities with population of 100,000 or more.

Several hundred thousand snowblowers have been recalled in the past eight years, but most are for defects involving fuel lines and fuel tanks, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

That means injuries are more the result of operator error than problems with the machines, McCabe said.

Typically, the accidents happen in one of two ways, he said.

• Users try to clear packed blades with their hands. The stored pressure from the jam releases once the blades are free, causing them to spin rapidly, McCabe said.

• Some use branches, broomsticks or shovel handles to try to free the blades, but they can be quickly ground down and the hand holding them is often pulled in, too.

One of the most common contributing factors in the injuries is an assumption like Sleeper’s: that once the motor is shut off, the blades aren’t dangerous.

“Never, ever, ever put your hand in, no matter what,” said Dr. Michael Nancollas, an orthopedic surgeon at Syracuse’s Crouse Hospital who specializes in hand reconstruction.

He deals with about a dozen finger amputations from snowblowers each year.

One of them was Lisa Santoro, 42, of Lysander, N.Y.

Santoro was trying to clear her driveway last March when slush jammed the blades of the snowblower. Her kids were coming home from school, and she was in a hurry. Santoro now can’t remember if she turned off the machine. Moments later, the freed blades grabbed her right hand and mangled two fingers.

Bleeding and in shock, Santoro ran up and down the street, trying to get the attention of her neighbors, but they were all snowblowing, too, she said.

“No one could hear me, so I finally flagged someone down passing by in a car,” Santoro said.

The motorist called for an ambulance and neighbors ran to the driveway to clean up the blood before Santoro’s youngsters got off the bus.

Her middle fingertip was gone, down to the first knuckle, and the nail on her ring finger was missing.

“Everyone asked if we had to look for the tip and take it to the hospital to be reattached,” she said. “But it was so shredded they couldn’t save it.”

A right-handed graphic designer, Santoro had to go through physical therapy to relearn lifelong skills, such as tying shoes, brushing her teeth and typing.

“Bowling is the only thing that’s easier,” she said, because the shortened middle finger helps her get a better grip on the ball. “That, and my kids think it’s cool. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it. And I will never snowblow again. I didn’t even mow the lawn this summer.”

RB END PORTER

(Sue Weibezahl Porter is a staff writer for The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y. She can be reached at sweibezahl(at)syracuse.com.)

2008-01-28-SNOWBLOW-INJURIES

AP-NY-01-29-08 1033EST


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