A limb was lost; a new life was born

Self-amputation is a tale of hope

Staff WriterNovember 12, 2005 

Aron Ralston snapped two bones in his right arm, sawed his forearm and hand off with a pocketknife and saved at least 11 lives.

One was his own.

Ralston survived six days in Utah in 2003 with his hand pinned under a boulder before mustering the strength to perform the surgery that freed him.

The other 10 lives are documented in letters Ralston has received from people contemplating suicide. Each told him his story gave them hope.

It's one reason that Ralston, 29, keeps telling his story in speaking engagements and a new book, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." He spoke Friday at a convention for A4 Health Systems, which offers software for electronic storage of medical records.

In fact, The Story is his full-time job.

"I run the business of the intellectual property of this story," he said.

Ralston found a receptive audience in Chapel Hill, signing autographs with his left hand, a process that's still new to the former righty.

"He showed that every crisis that comes up gives you a chance to improve how you do things," said Daoud Abudiab, a conference attendee.

Ralston had already etched his epitaph in the boulder that had trapped him when he had "the greatest idea I'd ever had."

He had realized earlier that his dull knives wouldn't saw through his arm bones. The epiphany was to jump and throw his body up and against the giant rock.

Like a 2-by-4 stuck in a vise, his bones gave under the pressure. He spent the next hour severing his hand. The pain was excruciating, but he said the grisly act didn't take courage.

"When I was cutting my hand off, I was smiling," he said. "I was ecstatic to be doing what I was doing, because it meant I was free."

What took courage, he said, was resisting the urge to kill himself about Day 3. He had recorded a last will and testament to his family on a camcorder he had with him. He wasn't sure he could endure a slow death. "I prayed over that," he said.

"I had to find the courage to face the pain and misery. That was a key turning point."

After freeing himself, he rappelled down a cliff and hiked five miles before being rescued.

Ralston left Blue John Canyon a new man.

"There's a lot of ways it's been the best thing that's happened to me," he said. "I know what's valuable to me more than I ever did before. If I can do what I did, I can do anything."

Living without a hand, though, has taken adjustments.

It has been replaced with a plastic claw that closes as he moves his arm forward. He had to get used to holding things without feeling them. A Styrofoam cup poses a challenge. "If I oversqueeze, I break it," he said. "If I don't grip hard enough, I drop it."

His sense of humor has sustained him. But he gets serious when he talks about the more important thing he misses about his missing hand.

"When I hold my girlfriend, I could have twice as much sensation," he said, "and it's not there."

But the injury hasn't kept him from outdoor adventures.

Just last weekend, Ralston said he and a friend scaled a monumental rock formation. He's able to continue such feats with the help of a hard rubber prosthetic that Ralston said looks like armor.

"I get to share something that's meaningful and touches people," he said. "I wouldn't trade that just to have my hand again."

Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 932-8760 or matt.dees@newsobserver.com.

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