It had been a night at work like any other for 17-year-old Brett Bouchard. There was kitchen equipment to be cleaned, washing and drying to be done, as Bouchard’s shift at Violi’s Restaurant in Massena, N.Y., drew to a close.
He turned his attention to the restaurant’s industrial pasta maker, which needed cleaning.
“My arm got caught,” he recalled Friday. “It got severed.”
What followed was a story of moxie and medicine that led from near the Canadian border to Massachusetts General Hospital, where Bouchard was recuperating three weeks after the accident, his arm surgically reattached.
“He’s so resilient, and positive, and he has just bounced back,” said one of his nurses, Michele Maheno. “It reinforces why we’re here, and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Bouchard’s odyssey began in the basement of the restaurant.
In a rush of adrenaline after the accident, Bouchard wrapped a tourniquet around his right elbow, picked up his detached limb, and ran upstairs to call for help. He was taken to the nearest hospital, and then flown by helicopter more than 300 miles to Boston.
‘I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve been very optimistic about it. That’s all you can do.’Brett Bouchard
“He was very quick-thinking and able to prevent a lot of his own blood loss by retrieving the limb and tying his arm off,” said Dr. Curtis Cetrulo, one of the Boston surgeons who operated on the teen. “It seemed like he was really calm and cool and collected in that very traumatic situation.”
Twenty minutes after being hoisted out of the helicopter, Bouchard lay on an operating table at Mass. General.
Doctors worked feverishly to reattach his right arm. The operation lasted 10 hours.
“Our biggest concern was, do we put this kid’s life at risk to save his dominant right hand?” said Dr. Kyle Eberlin, another of Bouchard’s surgeons. “At the same time, he’s a young, 17-year-old kid, and we think that we have the tools to do that successfully and safely, and that’s why we elected to proceed.”
In the weeks following the accident, Bouchard endured four surgeries, totaling nearly 40 hours. His doctors said he will need at least one or two more operations in the near future.
“With any operation like this and of this magnitude, there are a number of things that can go wrong,” Eberlin said. “But we’ve been fortunate to not have any major complications throughout this whole process.”
Cetrulo described the third surgery as possibly the most complex.
“It’s what we call a free-flap,” he said. “It’s to transplant tissue from one part of his body to another, and that was to get the skin and soft tissue from his back to cover some of the critical structure of his arm.”
That surgery took about 15 hours.
For most patients with severed limbs, reattachment is not possible, surgeons said. But Bouchard’s doctors and nurses said the teen’s youth and positive attitude helped make the operation a success.
Sitting next to his hospital room windowsill, crowded with get-well cards, bouquets of flowers, and a Bible, Bouchard reflected that positivity.
“This is a great thing that’s happened,” he said, his eyes watering as his mother, Rebecca Martin, squeezed his knee. “I mean, I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’ve been very optimistic about it. That’s all you can do. You’ve got to get through it.”
Bouchard recently underwent a minor operation to clean wounds on his arm, and he is expected to be discharged from the hospital as soon as Monday. He will remain in Boston for another month for rehabilitation, and is expected to undergo another operation in four to eight months to add tendons to his arm.
“It’s changed my life, and it’s given me a different outlook,” Bouchard said. “I appreciate things a lot more.”
His mother, who has been at the hospital every day since the accident, agreed.
“I’m just so thankful for my son,” Martin said. “The people here at the hospital have done so much, and it lets you know that there’s hope for mankind.”
Despite the long recovery ahead, Bouchard spoke little of the accident. Instead, he focused on his passion for hunting and hiking, and his love for his girlfriend, Tawnee. The couple celebrated their one-year anniversary Friday.
His experience has helped Bouchard develop an affinity for Boston evidenced in his Celtics T-shirt, which had been cut apart and safety-pinned together to accommodate his large metal and plastic cast.
“I can’t wait to go on a duck tour. I’m definitely a Celtics and a Bruins fan, and I might switch over to the Red Sox, too,” he said, looking out of his 14th-floor window at the Charles River and Cambridge. “I just want to go outside and feel the breeze.”