Published June 10, 2010
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Jonathan Metz had been trapped for two days in his basement with his left arm stuck in a broken furnace. Smelling rotting flesh, he decided that amputation was his only hope.
So the 31-year-old fashioned a tourniquet near his shoulder and began cutting. He made it almost all the way through, but wasn't able to free himself.
He was rescued Wednesday after three days in his West Hartford basement when worried friends called police, and firefighters cut the furnace apart.
Doctors gave the account of Metz's harrowing experience at a news conference Thursday. They said the attempted self-amputation probably saved his life, preventing the infection in his gangrenous arm from spreading to the rest of his body.
"There was a little bit of fat that remained and he was in and out of consciousness," said Dr. Scott Ellner, Metz' surgeon at Hartford's Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center. "It sounds like maybe there was a nerve there that prevented him from completing the amputation."
Metz, who lives alone, had been working to replace the boiler fins on his furnace Sunday when his arm became trapped, officials said.
A friend, Luca DiGregorio, told reporters Wednesday that he and other friends grew worried when Metz did not show up for work and missed a Tuesday night softball game.
Metz also did not answer the doorbell when DiGregorio stopped at his home Wednesday, where he said he saw Metz's beagle, Porsche, "yipping at the back door." DiGregorio called police, who found Metz in the basement.
"I was a little worried, especially when the first cop showed up," DiGregorio said. "Then more showed up, and then the ambulance showed up, so it got a little nerve-racking."
Firefighters ripped apart the furnace with heavy tools, including a spreader normally used to take the door off a car, West Hartford Fire Chief Matt Stuart said.
Once they did so, the arm "just gave away, because his arm was already infected and the tissue was nonviable," Ellner said.
Officials didn't know what type of tools Metz used to attempt the amputation. He was mumbling during the rescue operation, officials noted.
Ellner said Metz drank some of the water that had leaked from the furnace to help him stay alive.
Dr. David Shapiro, a trauma specialist who also worked on Metz, said he could not have lived much longer.
"I've never experienced somebody who had the ability to go through something like this," Ellner said. "He provides a lot of inspiration for myself, not just as a physician but as a human being."
Shapiro said Metz was not out of the woods. Infection remained a concern, but Metz was expected to survive. He will have to undergo more surgery to prepare the arm for a prosthetic, Ellner said. That will involve removing more tissue that may not be healthy, and then grafting skin and muscle onto the remaining bone, he said.
"We basically told him that he's going to go back to doing the things he did before, his athletics, his woodworking, his job," he said.
Metz's family lives in North Carolina and were en route to the hospital on Thursday, the doctors said.
Neighbors describe Metz as a quiet, friendly man who helps them shovel out from storms. They said they were caring for his dog until he comes home and were visiting him in the hospital.
His case evoked memories of Colorado climber Aron Ralston, who cut off his arm with a dull blade after getting trapped under a boulder in a remote Utah canyon in 2003.
He twisted his arm against a rock to break the bones, cut through his flesh, then wrapped the stump in a makeshift sling. Then, he rappelled down a 60-foot drop and hiked six miles through the desert for help.
Later that year, an Australian miner amputated his arm below the elbow with a short-bladed craft knife when he was pinned under an overturned tractor carrying more than three tons of limestone dust.