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Nurse Karen examine's Jill's hand
January 16, 2020

Personal growth: a new hand and a fresh perspective

If you ask Jill Wilson about the bandage she wears on her right arm, she’ll eagerly tell you she’s growing a hand. The inside joke she’s developed with her friends and care team at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) isn’t a complete fiction. She’s working with a surgeon, and the amputee rehabilitation team to extend her bones and tendons so she can do more with what’s left of her hand. She’s good natured about it, and uses humour to explain her complicated story. But that wasn’t always the case.

Five years ago, Jill developed Strep A pneumonia and sepsis. Despite her best efforts to seek treatment, the infection got out of control. She went to the emergency department at West Lincoln Memorial hospital, and they immediately recognized she was in grave condition. She was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre straight away. For two weeks, Jill was unconscious in the ICU. Her kidneys were failing, and her body struggled to fight the infection. Ultimately, her right hand had to be amputated.

“I didn’t know how I was going to live with these changes,” recalls Jill.

Rebuilding confidence in herself, and the healthcare system

After her condition stabilized, she was referred to Dr. Sharon Grad, who specializes in amputee rehabilitation at HHS’ Regional Rehabilitation Centre.

“I remember Dr. Grad came into my room, and first looked at my foot,” says Jill. “She was the first person who didn’t beeline for my hand. I liked her right away.”

Despite her instant connection with Dr. Grad, Jill was traumatized by her infection and amputation. She was hesitant to continue treatment.

“I was a key player on the team”

“My perspective shifted when I met with Dr. Grad in the amputation rehab clinic,” says Jill. “The approach was so collaborative. I felt like I could advocate for myself, and I was a key player on the team. They really made me take charge of my patient journey.”

During her first several months as a patient in the clinic, Jill faced hours of pain as nurse Karen Najev carefully removed her bandages and treated the (infected) skin wounds beneath them. The time they spent together helped to rebuild Jill’s trust in the healthcare system.

“It takes a while to build trust and rapport when someone is in that kind of pain,” says Karen. “We let her take control. She would take breaks, and take the lead when she needed to.”

Surgery to “grow” new digits

After almost a year of caring for her wounds, Dr. Grad proposed Jill consider another surgery. Jill worried about what could go wrong, but ultimately decided to move ahead. She met plastic surgeon, Dr. James Bain, who explained how he hoped to deepen the cleft of her thumb so she might be able to pick up small objects. Jill began to see the possibilities ahead of her and agreed.

close up of Jill's hand with screws and plates in it

Since then, she’s had several more surgeries and has gained two centimeters of length in her thumb. She works with the amputee rehabilitation team during her surgical recovery. Ultimately, she hopes to use a prosthetic hand to compliment the dexterity of her “regrown” digits. She meets with HHS’ Prosthetics & Orthotics team regularly to explore her options.

“Jill has an attitude and persistence to make the best of any reconstructive procedures we offer and to challenge us to push beyond convention, and help us to help her,” says her hand surgeon Dr. Bain. “Even the inevitable difficulties are faced head on. She is an inspiration to all of us.”

“I’m drawing on everyone’s strengths,” says Jill. “I take their advice, but I also push them to explore different possibilities. Ultimately, I make the decisions, but we are a team and when we move forward it has to be a good decision for everyone.”

Now that Jill is comfortable with her hand, she doesn’t hesitate to show people her hardware, and tell them her ‘war stories.’ She has joined Hamilton Health Sciences as a volunteer patient advisor, and lends her expertise to the Infection Prevention and Control Team. Her positive outlook and ability to find lightness in a difficult situation inspires everyone who works with her.

“When we see Jill, there is always laughter and lightness,” says Dr. Grad. “That has been part of the healing process.”

Jill laughing with Nurse Karen