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TGH treating man whose hand was severed by allligator

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:50 PM
TAMPA -

Chances are slim that a surgeon can successfully reattach a limb severed by the jaws of an alligator.

Gators clamp down like a vise, shake violently while ripping flesh and leave jagged wounds, said Alfred Hess, an orthopedic surgeon at Tampa General Hospital. The damage is severe.

"It's difficult and near impossible," to rejoin torn limbs, Hess said.

The team working on 63-year-old Wallace Weatherholt was hoping to beat those odds.

Weatherholt, an airboat operator whose hand was gnawed off by a gator Tuesday as he guided tourists through the Everglades, was being treated at Tampa General, said Hess, who was not part of the team. Attempts to reattach his hand were unsuccessful.

Hospital officials, citing medical privacy laws, declined to comment on his condition. Weatherholt has declined interview requests.

The attack came as Weatherholt was feeding an alligator, witnesses said. The reptile almost climbed into the boat, said Judy Chroniak-Hatt, a tourist from Indiana who was on board with six of her relatives.

"The gator had his front feet in the boat," Chroniak-Hatt said. "The gator tipped the boat quite a bit."

Weatherholt put his boot on the reptile's snout and pushed it back into the water, said Chroniak-Hatt, 73. Then he dangled fish above the water in front of it.

"I think it's all for show," she said. "He kept say-ing he could make it jump out of the water waist-high."

In a split second, the maw of the 9-foot gator clamped around Weatherholt's hand and part of his forearm, tearing it off, Chroniak-Hatt said.

"There was just bone and skin hanging down," she said. "It was awful."

Collier County authorities released recordings of the 911 call Wednesday.

The caller exclaimed, "It looks like he lost his hand."

State wildlife investigators are looking into the claims that Weatherholt fed alligators, which is against the law.

"It is both illegal and dangerous to feed alligators," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "When you do, gators learn to overcome their natural wariness of humans and start associating humans with food."

Wildlife officers were able to track the alligator that attacked Weatherholt because another airboat operator was nearby and kept his eye on the animal.

The gator was caught and euthanized, then brought ashore. It was cut open and Weatherholt's hand was retrieved from the reptile's stomach, Segelson said.

The hand was flown to Tampa General Hospital with Weatherholt on Tuesday night.

Hess, the surgeon, specializes in injuries to upper-body limbs and said there is a small window to reattach body parts.

"We are racing against the clock," Hess said. "After two hours, there is a breakdown of muscle. We have to reattach limbs within two or three hours."

Rejoining a severed hand is more challenging than reattaching a finger because there are more muscles, arteries, tendons and nerves to be mended, Hess said.

An alligator bite presents additional challenges because of bacteria.

"We're in a swamp, in murky water," Hess said.

And when gators chomp on limbs, "stretch injuries" to skin, blood vessels and muscles occur because the reptiles clamp down, shake and pull, he said.

Regardless of the severity of an attack, surgeons always try to repair severed extremities.

"There's always an effort to save the limb," Hess said.

A trauma surgeon at Tampa General for 21 years, Hess said he's seen dozens of alligator bites but knows of only one surgery where a limb was successfully repaired.

"It was a thumb," he said.

Chroniak-Hatt said she doesn't think she'll ever forget the attack, which occurred about 4 p.m. Tuesday near Everglades City. The day started as a family outing, she said; her children and grandchildren have never seen the vast swamp before.

"We thought it would be fun," she said. "It was fun, until that point. I never want to do something like that again."

The attack is still vivid.

"It was such a shock to me," Chroniak-Hatt said. "There's some parts of it that I can't wrap my mind around."

She said she did her research afterward and learned that an alligator's bite packs 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch.

"I can tell you now what 2,000 pounds of pressure looks like," she said. "It is horrendous."

Alligator attacks

335

alligator bites reported in Florida from 1948-2011

22

fatal bites

202

major bites which required medical care beyond first aid

111

superficial injuries that required no treatment or only first aid

1.3

million alligators are estimated to live in Florida

6.7

million acres are considered suitable habitats for alligators, which are found in all 67 Florida counties

Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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