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Surgeons repeat warnings about sticking hands in snowblowers

When there's snow there are patients at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital's Curtis National Hand Center. Some come with traumatic fractures from falls, but many more have snowblower injuries.

On Tuesday there were six snow-related patients, on top of several over the weekend when Baltimore was socked with a record-breaking snowfall, the hospital reported.

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"Every time it snows," said Dr. Ryan Katz, an attending surgeon, who spent Tuesday repairing three severely fractured and shredded fingers on a patient injured by a snowblower and a thumb partially torn off by a leash when the man's dog was hit by a car.

The American Society for Surgery of the Hand reports that hundreds of people are seriously injured annually by snowblowers, commonly losing their fingertips.

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MedStar's hand center typically treats the worst injuries from a multi-state region, and this storm has surgeons working hard to save and reconnect people's fingers, which sometimes arrive in sandwich bags on ice. They are reattached during lengthy surgeries using microscopes, Katz said.

The hand center has a good track record, Katz said, but sometimes the surgeries aren't successful. Hands can become infected, lose blood flow or just not work well. He said patients usually have reasonable expectations after talking to an experienced doctor.

Snowblower accidents are tough because the propellers are thicker and blunter than kitchen knives that cause neater injuries. Katz said accidents often happen when the machines get jammed and people reach into them and the blades lurch after they're unclogged.

The hand surgery society advises people with clogged snowblowers to turn them off, disengage the clutch, wait until the blades stop rotating and use a stick or broom handle to clear snow.

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With a bit of exasperation, Katz added that people should never put their hands in a snowblower.

He also said to keep children away from snowblowers, as well as treadmills, lawn movers and cabinet doors that also frequently claim fingertips.

Hand center surgeons are ready, but Katz said, "We hope you don't need us."

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