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Former CNN Anchor Loses Arm After Freak Accident Complication

Image: Miles O'Brien in 2011.
Miles O'Brien, shown here in 2011, said Tuesday that his left forearm was amputated after emergency surgery following an accident this month. Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images file

Former CNN anchor Miles O’Brien revealed Tuesday that his left forearm was amputated this month after a freak accident led to emergency surgery for a potentially life-threatening condition called compartment syndrome.

O’Brien, 54, a PBS science correspondent, said in a blog post Tuesday that he was packing up after a reporting trip to Asia on Feb. 12 when a heavy case fell onto his left forearm.

Emergency doctors said that he suffered an unusual complication of an injury more often seen after traumatic car accidents or earthquakes.

“It think that’s probably a very rare case,” said Dr. Jessica Osterman, an assistant professor of emergency medicine with Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California. “But any severe crush injury has the potential to cause compartment syndrome, so it’s possible.”

O’Brien detailed the ordeal in piece titled “Just a Flesh Wound.” He said he was stacking TV gear onto a cart:

As I tried to bungee cord them into some semblance of security for movement, one of the cases toppled onto my left forearm. Ouch! It hurt, but I wasn’t all “911” about it. It was painful and swollen but I figured it would be okay without any medical intervention. Maybe a little bit of denial?

Two days later, O’Brien wrote, he was admitted to a local hospital with acute compartment syndrome, an injury in which pressure builds dramatically within a muscle compartment, cutting off blood flow, usually in the arm or leg.

The most common treatment is a fasciotomy, a gruesome procedure in which the flesh is slit to relieve the pressure. But when he began to lose blood pressure, the doctor “made a real-time call” and amputated O'Brien's arm, he wrote. Compartment syndrome can turn bad quickly, said Dr. Jay Doucet, medical director for the surgical intensive care unit at the UC San Diego Health System.

“If all the muscle in an extremity dies, it has consequences,” he said. The limb can become infected and gangrenous. Or a patient can develop kidney failure when toxic proteins spill from the damaged muscle.

O’Brien said he’s dealing with phantom pain and getting used to life with one hand. “But I am alive and I’m grateful for that,” he wrote.

“Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt you. Actually, I would love somebody to deal me another hand right about now — in more ways than one.”