Pianist loses fingers in snow blower, lives to play

6:55 PM, Jan 21, 2013   |    comments
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. - Ask anyone at Eau Claire's annual Ragtime Festival and they'll tell you the magic is in the pianists' fast moving fingers.

The founder of the event is aware of that too -- painfully.

"You can see the angle of the blade, right there," says Jim Radloff, revealing the three middle fingers on his right hand, severed above the first knuckle.

Jim calls it his "leap day lament." On February 29, last year, he lost part of his hand while attempting to unclog a snow blower he thought had stopped spinning.

At first, he didn't even realize he'd been hurt. He heard what he describes as a crunching sound, which he mistook for a stick. "And I thought I didn't see any stick around here or anything."

Then he looked at his bloody hand about the time his pain began to register, and ran for the house, "screaming my lungs off, 'What a stupid thing, I'm never going to play the piano again. Oh, I'm going to die here.'"

Jim's wife made the 911 call. He was rushed by ambulance to Eau Claire's Mayo Clinic, were he became part of hospital lore as one of seven Eau Claire area men who lost parts of their hands in snow blowers on the same day from the same storm.

We're not sure how the rest of them are doing, but with two usable fingers on his dominant hand, Jim's passion for piano would not allow him to settle for chopsticks.

He quickly determined that his stumps were too short and too fat to be of any use in striking keys. However, by swinging his right elbow out wide, Jim trained his pinky do the work of his missing fingers -- with frequent assists from his thumb.

Maintaining his sense of humor, Jim's given each of his amputated fingers a name. He points to "Shorty," Mr. Stubs," and longest of severed digits, "Mr. Lucky."

Having done the math, Jim figures, "I've lost about four-and-a-half inches of fingers."

He gives credit to his occupational therapists at Mayo for helping him regain his dexterity. Therapist Marylin Berg came up with a Velcro strap to wrap around Jim's fist, thus stretching his tendons.

He named it "Marylin's torture tool." She accepted the compliment.

"I love it when I see people have succeeded," she says

Marlyn may have helped stretch Jim's tendons, but it was Jim, she says, who pushed the limits. He played his first public performance ten days after his accident, with his fingers still in stitches and wrapped together in a bandage.

And the part about feeling sorry for himself?

"There's no point, because it's a waste of energy, and I have a limited amount of that, and I try to use it to strengthen and improve what I can do," says Jim.

So when the pianist in the red, white and blue vest took the stage at this year's Ragtime Festival, no one even noticed those three unfortunate fingers. 

They were much too busy listening to the magnificent seven.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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