Every fall, thousands of king salmon make their run through Lake Michigan and its tributaries in southern Wisconsin. And every fall, 63-year-old Mike Eck of Trafalgar, Ind., makes his pilgrimage north to join hundreds of other fisherman who hope to snag their share of the salmon bounty.
Although Mike enjoys his job as the maintenance supervisor at Shares, Inc., a company that employs and provides services for people with disabilities, he looks forward to getting away to test his skill—and cast his luck—against nature. However, it’s not a week full of relaxed dozing between tugs on his fishing line.
“Catching a king salmon is a lot of work,” says Mike. “You’re casting a lot, they’re an extremely powerful fish and they’re hard to catch.”
It’s those physical demands that put Mike’s annual trip at risk in 2011, while he was still recovering from a catastrophic injury he sustained from his other hobby—shooting cannons.
“I own six or seven cannons that I shoot,” says Mike. “I bought my first one at a flea market 10 or so years ago.” He says scouring flea markets is just part of the fun for him and a friend.
“They’re fun to shoot and it’s fun entertaining people,” Mike says. “I have one I call a smiley because every time I shoot it, the loudness, all the smoke … it makes people smile.”
But this life-long gun enthusiast who’s a stickler for safety, says his injury in December 2010 was a reminder how dangerous his hobby can be.
Bad timing hands Mike an unwelcome shot
Mike and his friend were out on an 800-acre spread where they shoot their cannons four to five times a year.
Mike was reloading the cannon they were shooting that day, using a ramrod to push the ball into the barrel. Suddenly, the cannon went off, with Mike’s hand less than a foot from the end of the cannon’s barrel. The blast spun him around and knocked him to the ground.
“I looked at my hand and saw a two-inch wide hole all the way through between my thumb and pointer finger,” remembers Mike. “My pointer and thumb wouldn’t move.”
Mike’s friend called an ambulance, which took Mike to Indiana University Methodist Hospital where he learned the extent of the damage: numerous bones in his pointer finger blown out, torn tendons, a shattered wrist and burns.
“It was my fault,” says Mike. I didn’t clean out the barrel before the next shot and there were burning embers left at the bottom. The embers set off the black powder too soon.”
The next day, Mike underwent surgery. Given the damage, his hope was that the surgeon could save his thumb. The surgeon did Mike one better. By reattaching tendons and using numerous pins, he saved Mike’s thumb and the pointer finger, and believed Mike would have a well-functioning hand.
A team effort and hard work gives Mike a hand
Mike went home with a portable wound VAC (vacuum assisted closure), which drains fluids to promote healing, and returned three times a week to the IU Health Methodist Hospital Wound Center for outpatient therapy.
“Beth and Anita took care of me,” says Mike of the physical therapists he saw who specialize in wound care. “Beth would check to see how I was healing and change my wound VAC, then I would see Anita in therapy,” often a grueling part of his healing process, Mike admits.
“I told her I wasn’t afraid of pain. I did everything she told me; I had to if I was going to get back to work,” he says. “It was humbling to be working to open something like a clothes pin, and not be able to do it.”
But Mike credits the people at IU Health Methodist Hospital for making “a bad experience good.”
“When you’re in a situation like mine, you don’t know what your future is; you’re scared,” he says. The therapists and I pretty much laughed our way through therapy. We’ll be friends for the rest of our lives.”
Just over two months into therapy, Mike had a skin graft to the back of his hand, using skin from his thigh. Stitches closed the opening in his palm. After three months, Mike was back to work.
“They called me ‘Healer of the Year,’” Mike says.
Although he was finished with rehabilitation, his hand and fingers continued to improve and his confidence grew. Mike says his annual fishing trip played a part in more ways than one.
“That first fall after the accident, I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle fishing because I’d have to hang on to the rod with my right hand and reel with my left,” he says. “But I caught a fish and it really gave me confidence about what the hand could do—I called it my fishing therapy. It was a turning point for me in realizing how far it could go.”
Today, Mike says he has good strength and few limitations. “I’d gotten used to not using my pointer finger much, but I’m ‘inviting it back to the party,’ to be part of the rest of my hand again,” he says. “I don’t baby it much anymore; the way they put it back together and the care I received gave me confidence.”