A Sisters High School student is suing the school district and his shop teacher for $6 million, alleging unsafe equipment and inadequate supervision contributed to his nearly losing his left hand in a table saw mishap.
Josh Ward, now 19, was a junior serving as a teacher’s aide in a freshman wood shop class in December 2012. The teacher, Tony Crosby, asked him to cut some pieces for a separate class that was making guitars.
As Ward tells the story, he was passing a roughly 2-foot-by-2-foot piece of wood through the saw with both of his hands about 10 inches from the unguarded, spinning blade. The thin board bound on the blade, lifting up the edge farthest from Ward and pulling his left hand into the teeth.
Ward said he didn’t realize what had happened until another student noticed he was bleeding.
“It happened so fast I was unaware I was injured,” he said. “I was worried someone else might be injured, because there were students all around me and the board went flying.”
Ward said he made a conscious effort not to panic, sitting down and lifting his arm with an improvised bandage around it to quell the bleeding. When a teaching assistant suggested they apply a tourniquet, Ward attempted to remove his own belt with one hand.
“Even though I was wanting to freak out, for everyone else’s sake, I needed to stay calm,” he said.
Ward’s mother, Angela Ward, arrived at the school just as medics were getting ready to load her son into an ambulance.
“We kept counting fingers trying to figure out if we had them all, and I remember thinking, oh, I haven’t counted his fingers since he was a baby,” she said.
In the ambulance, the pain spiked, and the realization of how seriously he’d been injured “came down like a brick,” Ward said. On the ride to the hospital, Ward’s mind wandered to whether he’d ever be able to play lacrosse again, he said, and whether he’d be able to pursue his goal of becoming a firefighter/EMT.
At the emergency room, doctors used more than 1,000 stitches to seal Ward up. The tip of his pinkie finger was lodged inside the saw and was never reattached. Doctors were able to reconnect his ring finger and middle finger, both of which were hanging on by the skin on the top side of his hand, though the reattachment of the ring finger didn’t take, and it was later amputated.
Ward said the damage to his hand has left him susceptible to infection, as it doesn’t receive enough blood to heal properly.
Early last year, Ward received a small burn on the tip of the index finger on his injured hand. The wound was slow to heal. Over nine months, he went through multiple courses of antibiotics, had a quarter-inch of the finger removed when the infection spread to the bone, and underwent 45 2½-hour treatments in an oxygen-saturated hyperbaric chamber before the burn was healed.
Though Ward has recovered some function in his left hand — he is right-handed — fine motor skills such as tying his shoes, buttoning a shirt or typing still elude him. Turning a doorknob is a struggle, he said, and he’s learned he has little ability to distinguish between hot and cold.
Ward’s father, Steve Ward, said it’s been difficult watching his son struggle through routine tasks.
“Everything we take for granted, normal, everyday things, he can’t do it or needs assistance,” Steve Ward said.
Attorney Tom D’Amore, who filed the suit on behalf of Ward on Thursday, said beyond securing the funds to cover Ward’s medical costs, he would like to see the suit serve as a wake-up call for schools and businesses using older table saws.
Many schools and shops have switched over to saws produced by a Tualatin company, SawStop, D’Amore said, which uses the human body’s electrical conductivity to identify when the blade is in contact with flesh. According to the company’s website, such contact activates a brake that stops the blade within five-thousandths of a second.
D’Amore said it appears many schools in Central Oregon are using such saws, including Sisters High School, which installed a new saw roughly a month after Ward was injured.
Sisters School District Superintendent Jim Golden did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.
Now a senior, Ward has rejoined the Sisters High lacrosse team. He said he’s definitely lost a step since he last played during his sophomore year, but two games into the season, he’s feeling as though he can still contribute to the team.
Ward said his dream of becoming a firefighter may be out of reach. Therapists have cautioned that overly physical work probably will always be difficult and will likely wear out the artificial joint in the middle finger in his left hand. Ward said although he hasn’t yet given up on firefighting, he’s been studying up on nursing programs and other fields that could allow him to do something similar.
“I’m still not sure what I’m going to be able to do and what I’m not going to be able to do,” he said. “But I’m going to do it until I can’t.”
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