How I Learned to Climb Again After Nearly Losing My Thumb in a Car Accident

Hands are integral to climbing, so when they’re injured, it takes a lot of getting used to.
Hands are integral to climbing, so when they’re injured, it takes a lot of getting used to. Maggie Slepian
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Chalk dust filtered through the empty bouldering room, highlighted in shafts of spring sunlight. I tugged the splint off my hand and tentatively flexed my thumb, the worm-like scar stretching and pulling. No pain, just stiffness from scar tissue massed over what had once been a working joint. I pulled up and swung toward a large hold, but my damaged thumb slid clumsily off the rounded edge, and I landed with a thud on the mat, chalk dust rising in a cloud. I yanked off my climbing shoes and fled the gym before bursting into tears.

Five months earlier, I’d gone out for drinks with a friend I’d been crushing on for months. One drink turned into many, and I dropped my keys into his hand as we left the bar. “I’m too drunk to drive,” I mumbled as I buckled into the passenger seat of my low-slung, turboed Saab.

“How fast do you think your car can go?” he’d asked, grinning. I was drunk, giddy to be heading home with him and blithely, idiotically unaware of what was about to happen.

We wrecked going more than 100 miles per hour down a two-lane road.

The car clipped a curb, sailed through the air, and landed upside down in a twisted tangle of glass and metal. As I raised my hands to protect my face, a jagged piece of roof slashed through the extensor tendons of my left hand, nearly severing my thumb. Snow packed us into our seats, essentially cementing us in place as we slid upside down through a field. That, plus the car’s “safety cage” frame, kept us alive as we hit the ground three times before smashing into a telephone pole.

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My scar progression over the years, from left to right: January 2013, June 2014, and December 2017. Maggie Slepian

I lay screaming in the snowbank, clutching my shredded hand and drifting in and out of consciousness. The paramedics cut off my clothing and prepared to backboard me; it was the worst crash they’d ever seen where both people survived. I was lucky to have escaped with a concussion and a mangled hand.

The weeks and months following the wreck were one of the most challenging times of my life. I lost my job, my car was totalled, and the bills piled up—medical expenses and insurance co-pays drained my savings. To make things worse, I couldn’t climb, and depending on how my hand healed—60 percent of its mobility was lost—there was a chance I’d never be able to regain the skills I’d had before.

Instead of pulling on pinches and inching onto crimps, I was asking for help with buttons, closing Ziplock bags with my teeth, and unable to put my hair in a ponytail. I was a bitter, resentful patient in my twice-weekly occupational therapy appointments, seething over my immobilized thumb as I fumbled and cried and felt sorry for myself.

I should have been grateful to be alive, but my hand was all I could think about. Before the wreck, I had been a confident, dedicated climber, spending weekends traveling to crags all around the West. Climbing was my social life, my source of pride, my passion.

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Coercing my “bad hand” into putting stabilizing pressure on the system-board hold took some practice. Maggie Slepian

My climbing crew offered a seat in the car as they headed south for a bouldering trip. “You can hang out with us,” they said. “It will still be fun even if you don’t climb.” But I stayed home, popping pain pills, half-heartedly doing my therapy exercises. I became obsessed with my lost muscle tone, watching my lats collapse like folded wings, my shoulders shrink, and the corded muscle in my forearms vanish.

The scar tissue from the healing process had essentially “frozen” the metacarpophalangeal joint in place. Unless I opted for another surgery, I would never have full use of my left hand again, with almost no proximal strength in my thumb. It was clumsy, weak, and lanced with pain from damaged nerves. But by late spring, my long-suffering occupational therapist told me that if I wanted to, I could try climbing again at the most beginner level.

I didn’t have much choice as far as “beginner level” went—getting back into climbing was harder than I anticipated. After my meltdown on the V0, my roommate, friends, and climbing partners told me to snap out of it, work harder at my OT exercises, and find ways to occupy myself as my hand continued to heal. I’d always have to adapt with that hand, but I hadn’t been killed, paralyzed, or injured any worse in the wreck. It was astonishing, really, and it took their tough love to pull me out of my pity party. I was lucky to be alive, and I had to move on from there.

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Climbing 10 Sleep in Wyoming in June 2017 with friends, everything was in working order—except pesky left-hand pinches. Maggie Slepian

There were more tantrums in the coming months, frustrations at the limitations of my busted hand. But things got better, as they tend to do, and five years later, I've come a long way—and I'm happy to report that climbing is still a huge part of my life. When I’m confronted with a move that utilizes a hold from which I can’t generate, I find a way to work around it. It’s called adapting, and I wish I had done it earlier.

Injuries are extremely challenging, especially the ones that prevent you from doing the things you love. Whether you were in a car wreck or other accident or are suffering from an overuse injury—it all sucks. However, letting a physical setback destroy your life doesn’t make anything better, and while I’m not the poster child for Staying Sane While Recovering From an Injury, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that have made a big difference in finding a new normal.

Accept what happened.

Constantly lamenting about your injury or situation is damaging to your psyche, prevents you from moving forward, and will certainly not make you the lift of the party—just ask my friends circa 2012. The faster you accept what happened and how it affects you, the faster you can start staying occupied with other things, and (hopefully) get on the path to recovery.

Stay busy doing something.

Even if you can’t be athletically busy, keep yourself occupied. Instead of obsessing on what you’re missing out on, find something else to occupy your body and brain space—bonus points if it’s a new hobby. New skills can give you some much-needed confidence, and if they involve other people, it will help snap you out of your solo pity party. Join a book or knitting club. Try baking bread. Volunteer. Whatever it takes to get you off the couch and into a new mental space—find it and do it.

If you can be active, find another sport to tide you over.

I had a friend literally throw a pair of snowshoes in my face and tell me to go in the woods and stomp around for a while. Did I enjoy snowshoeing? Not at all. But it was a distraction, and it was something I could do while I waited on my hand. What kind of energy were you burning with your activity? What can replicate that while you wait? You might discover another adventurous outlet—and maybe even a newfound passion—that you would have never considered otherwise.

Be productive in your recovery.

Figure out how can you help the healing process, and stay committed to doing it. Is it simply staying off the injured body part? Should you be working on physical therapy exercises? Channel your pent-up energy into doing them on a regimented schedule.

Remember something your parents always told you.

It should go without saying: Never get in the car with a drunk driver, and don’t ever be the drunk driver. If you live in an urban area, you probably have public transportation—use it. Or take advantage of ride-share services like Uber, Lyft, and other ride services that are cropping up in more and more locations, arrange a DD to bring you there and back, or pay for a cab. Having a plan in place before you go out will help you avoid making bad decisions later.

Give yourself permission to process for a long time.

The takeaways from my injury and subsequent recovery came in waves. The fury at being unable to climb was intense almost to the point of absurdity. In some ways, I think my brain was trying to avoid processing how close I came to dying. The fact that it wasn’t a freak accident—that my life could have ended from the choice I made to get in the car with a drunk driver—still haunts me to this day. I was given a second chance, and that impacts so many decisions every day, from when I get into a car to when I check my anchor before lowering off a climb. And I never forget to stay grateful.

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