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Surgeon Sews Climber's Charred Thumbs To Her Arms

By Kathy Walsh

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4)- An elite rock climber, nearly electrocuted in an accident at her Estes Park home, thought she would never climb again.

Six months later, Melissa Strong is crediting her surgeon at the University of Colorado Hospital with saving her badly burned hands.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

Strong, 44, actually had her thumbs sewn to her forearms. Plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Ashley Ignatiuk used a technique that's not new, but it is pretty uncommon. So far, it's working.

(credit: CBS)

When CBS4 Health Specialist Kathy Walsh met Strong, she was having laser hair removal on her hands at CU Plastic Surgery. That's because her hands are now a patchwork of skin from other parts of her body.

(credit: CBS)

"Unfortunately, one of the side effects is that she has hairy palms now," said Ignatiuk.

Strong is not complaining.

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Melissa Strong (credit: CBS)

"It's amazing," she said. "I never thought I would have fingers or thumbs."

On April 2, the elite rock climber was restoring old chairs to use in a restaurant she was opening with some partners.

(credit: Melissa Strong)

She was using what is called the Lichtenberg technique, burning tree-like figures into the wood using high voltage electricity. Strong accidentally picked up the live leads.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

"I was in big trouble," Strong said. "The electricity had taken over and I was completely stiff, everything went dark."

The circuit breaker in her home tripped and kept her from dying. Strong came to and screamed for her husband, Adam.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

"I held my hands up in the air and yelled, 'Hospital,'" Strong said. "They (hands) looked like melted wax."

Strong was treated at the University of Colorado Hospital.

university of colorado hospital uch
(credit: CBS)

"I didn't know if there was much that we could do, especially for her thumbs," said Ignatiuk.

But the surgeon pricked her thumbs and found blood flow. Then he tried an "old school" solution, a pedicle flap.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

"Initially, I called it the "I Dream of Jeannie" pose," said Strong.

Her charred thumbs were sewn to her forearms with blood vessels connected.

"To continue to introduce them to good blood flow and keep them healthy," said Strong.

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CBS4 Health Specialist Kathy Walsh interviews Dr. Ashley Ignatiuk (credit: CBS)

"In order to provide new tissue to resurface the thumbs," explained Ignatiuk.

For three weeks, Strong stayed busy around the hospital with her arms crossed, even pedaling a stationary bike daily. When her hands were finally freed, Ignatiuk used the skin and tissue from her arms to rebuild her thumbs.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

Six months later, Strong is, "Thrilled to death or to life," she said laughing.

"She's far exceeded my expectations," said Ignatiuk.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

So much so, that Strong has started climbing again on a wall in her home.

"I wish all my patients were this good," said Ignatiuk.

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(credit: Melissa Strong)

Strong will need more laser hair removal, but hairy palms seem a small price to pay for hands that work.

Strong says she is stubborn and determined.

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Dr. Ashley Ignatiuk (credit: CBS)

With help from her business partners and friends, she recently opened a restaurant, Bird and Jim in Estes Park.

She is thankful that at the UCH she was in good hands.

Kathy Walsh is CBS4's Weekend Anchor and Health Specialist. She has been with CBS4 for more than 30 years. She is always open to story ideas. Follow Kathy on Twitter @WalshCBS4.

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