As he lay bleeding on his kitchen floor in Bedford, the snow blower that lopped off the tips of three of his fingers still sputtering outside, the same question kept rattling around in Murray Daniels’s head: Will I ever play piano again?
It was the question he asked his wife as she frantically called 911, the paramedics as they rushed him to a nearby hospital in an ambulance, and the doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital when they tended to his injuries. As a pianist at his church for two decades, and an important member of his band, it was all that seemed to matter in that moment.
“I play piano,” he told everyone that morning, before pleading with them: "Please, you’ve got to make it so that I can play piano again.”
Now, more than a year after the harrowing accident, and with winter once again upon us, an almost-fully-recovered Daniels has decided it’s time to share his experience with others. The 65-year-old retired engineer, who endured surgery, went through extensive hand rehabilitation, and was fitted with prosthetic fingers so he could once again tickle the ivories, is doing it for two reasons, he said.
“I would like to help other people avoid doing what I did,” said the soft-spoken Daniels. “I would also like to give some hope to people who might find themselves with a similar kind of injury, and let them know that they can move on with their life and hopefully regain as much of it as possible.”
Murray’s journey from a potentially life-altering hand injury to reclaiming his role as a church pianist and band member began in his Bedford driveway on Nov. 16, 2018.
The first real snowstorm of the season had just swept across the region, leaving in its wake the heavy, wet, slushy snow that is difficult to shovel.
After the weather settled, Daniels fired up his snow blower — an older model — and began the arduous task of clearing his driveway. But before he could finish the job and head back inside for the day, the machine suddenly jammed.
“I took my hands off the controls thinking that would be sufficient to disengage the moving parts,” said Daniels. “Then I used my right hand to try to clear away the top part of the snow, which I thought wasn’t anywhere near the moving parts.”
He was wrong.
In an instant, the inner mechanics of the machine kicked back into gear. Daniels, a pianist in an old-timers rock group called Highway 49, said the tips of his three middle fingers, between his thumb and pinky, were crushed.
“I remember that I screamed out the word ‘No!’ as soon as I looked at my hand and saw what had happened,” he said. “I ran into the house, and the second thing I did was yell my wife’s name.”
As his wife, Karen, called for help, Daniels laid down on the kitchen floor. His mind raced, haunted by thoughts of a life where he would never be able to sit down on a bench and play a piece of music the way he used to.
After help arrived, Daniels was first taken to a local hospital. Later, he was transferred to see specialists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, including a traumatic injury hand surgery team and Dr. Lydia Helliwell, a plastic, hand, and reconstructive surgeon.
“She was the person on call who took care of my situation,” Daniels said. “She took a look at my fingers, and there was one they thought that maybe they could save, but it did not look like it was salvageable. And the other two, the ends were completely gone. Basically, she cleaned it all up and made it all nice and reasonably attractive looking."
Helliwell said Daniels was just one of three patients she saw that day for similar snow-blower-related injuries. She said those types of incidents typically spike at the start of the snowy season, and then taper off as winter progresses.
“There is something about the first snowstorm of the year,” she said.
Helliwell said the injuries that someone can sustain from a snow blower can vary in terms of how damaging they are. The complexity of the operation, she added, can change based on that.
“The shorter the fingers get, the more difficult it is to perform certain tasks” post-surgery, she said.
In Daniels’s case, he was as lucky as someone in his situation could be. While he lost the tips of three fingers down to around the second knuckle, his thumb and pinky finger had been spared.
“People think the small finger is the least important, but actually it’s quite important for grip,” Helliwell said.
When performing surgeries on these types of injuries, there are two main goals, Helliwell said: get the wounds closed and stable, so the patient still has feeling in his or her fingers; and maintain as much length as possible, to allow for the mobility to function somewhat normally — or do things like play the piano.
Doctors at the Brigham were able to patch up Daniels during a surgery that lasted two to three hours, said Helliwell. But in her opinion, that was just the beginning of the longer journey ahead.
“The surgery is an important part, but it’s a small part,” she said. “You’re always trying to think about what’s next for the patient. So much of the recovery process is how soon they can start therapy and start moving" their fingers again.
Daniels started occupational therapy after an initial period of healing. And soon enough, he got motion back and began making good progress. He was able to slowly re-approach playing the piano, and, eventually, appear at his church.
Daniels said he vividly remembers the first time he sat down at the bench at the Church of Our Redeemer, in Lexington, to perform, prior to getting prosthetics. Despite his injury, he felt he had to get back in the saddle and “just prove to myself I could do something that people wanted to listen to."
The piece that he played that day was relatively simple. When he finished, he was flooded with emotion.
“To be honest, I wept tears of joy," he said, "and I felt a great deal of hope.”
While he was able to play again, Daniels still had difficulty doing so at a level he had hoped to achieve. He couldn’t reach some of the piano keys as easily, and the incident hindered his ability to attempt to play most of the songs he used to perform.
“It was still not terribly satisfying," he said.
That’s when, four months after surgery, Helliwell referred Daniels to the Hangar Clinic, which specializes in prosthetic and orthotic care. It was there that Daniels was fitted with silicone extensions to slip over his three injured fingers, allowing him to play the piano almost the same as before. Since then, he’s been picking up charity gigs with his band, filling in at his church when needed, and entertaining his family and friends.
He even sent Helliwell and doctors at the Brigham a video of him back at it. The clips were a reminder of why Helliwell chose her profession in the first place.
“It’s one of the most satisfying parts of being a hand surgeon. You see your results physically right away, and you develop long-term relationships with patients,” she said. “To see someone put in as much hard work as he did and recover as much as he did, it makes my work ...worth it.”
As for Daniels, he’s not completely out of the woods just yet. His fingers are still a bit sensitive, and they get cold easily. He also has to do another procedure with Helliwell to address a nerve issue. All things considered, though, he’s doing just fine, he said, and is feeling grateful.
With the worst behind him, Daniels said he recently went out and purchased a new piece of equipment.
It wasn’t a piano, however. It was a new snow blower.