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Published in Alumni Publications on July 31, 2013
Surgeon Dr. John Goudelock cradles the vintage rifle that exploded in his hand in 2003.
Surgeon Dr. John Goudelock cradles the vintage rifle that exploded in his hand in 2003.

Philanthropy: Goudelock: 'Miracle' surgery motivates bequest

By Joshua Cogswell

On any given day, you are likely to find Dr. John Goudelock out in his cow pasture, driving his tractor and feeding his herd.

Retired surgeon Dr. John Goudelock displays the hand he injured when his rifle exploded. Surgery at UMMC helped him regain much of its function.
Retired surgeon Dr. John Goudelock displays the hand he injured when his rifle exploded. Surgery at UMMC helped him regain much of its function.

On any given day, you are likely to find Dr. John Goudelock out in his cow pasture, driving his tractor and feeding his herd.

Or, you might catch him in his woodworking shop etching intricate patterns on his hand-carved duck decoys.

If he’s not there, you might try checking under the hood of the 1930 Ford Model A he’s restoring.

A retired surgeon, Goudelock, 64, is by turns a cattle farmer, woodworker, gunsmith, metalworker,  gardener and mechanic.

In short, he’s always using his hands.

That he even has a left hand today, though, is a minor miracle. It’s a miracle that Goudelock ascribes to the skill of surgeons at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who were able to save most of the function in his hand after an explosion all but destroyed it.

Out of gratitude, Goudelock has set up a fund to support hand surgery at UMMC, both through annual gifts and through a bequest in his will.

“I was devastated to think of what I would do with one hand. Now I have about 65 percent of my function back, which sure beats the heck out of zero,” Goudelock said. “I was very grateful, so I took a look at my savings and decided I wanted to do something.”

Goudelock’s journey from patient to benefactor began on December 10, 2003. It was supposed to be a joyous time in his life. After 15 years as a divorcee, Goudelock remarried. Just 10 days after the wedding, he was relaxing on the back porch of his historic home in Myrtle with his wife Mary.

He brought out his Winchester Model 1886 lever-action rifle, a gun he had proudly restored by hand, and began taking target practice. When he pulled the trigger, the gun exploded and his left hand with it.

The blast destroyed both of the major arteries and both major nerves that run through the hand providing blood and sensation to the rest of the hand. What remained of his fingers dangled at surreal angles. He was rushed to the hospital in Memphis, Tenn. where emergency surgery was able to preserve what remained.

The day after surgery, the doctor warned that “there’s a good chance that the thumb would become gangrenous,” Goudelock said. The doctor added that he believed that Goudelock would eventually lose the hand to amputation.

“I wasn’t in a mood to accept that,” Goudelock said.

As a surgeon in Vietnam in the 1960s, Goudelock had repaired similar wounds. He spoke with a Navy SEAL friend who remembered him saving the hand of a fellow soldier who had been severely injured in an explosion.

With his friend’s encouragement, Goudelock decided to seek a second opinion. The first doctor he saw after his initial surgery said he would not be able to restore function to his hand. So did the second. And the third. And the fourth, fifth and sixth.

“At that point I started to become discouraged,” Goudelock said, “But I still wasn’t in the mood to accept that.”

It wasn’t until a routine visit to the University of Mississippi Medical Center—about six months after the accident—that Goudelock’s fortunes changed. While walking through the Medical Center, he passed a door that said “microsurgery”. He popped in and asked for an appointment. Dr. Bill Lineaweaver, then a faculty member in UMMC’s Department of Surgery, spoke with him, listened to his theories and ultimately decided to go ahead with a risky reconstructive surgery.

“He was the first doctor who took the time to examine my hand in detail,” Goudelock said.

After an eight-hour surgery, doctor and patient were hopeful. Over the next 90 days, feeling gradually returned as nerves began to regenerate. It was when Goudelock was working in his garden that he noticed what he thought was an ant bite in the fingers of his left hand. He brushed it off. Another ant bite came. After that, he realized that the sensation was the feeling returning to his fingertips.

To Goudelock, a UMMC graduate, it’s important that his gift has gone to an academic medical center. He said that doctors in an academic medical center are more apt to perform the types of complicated surgery that saving his hand required.

“They really see the teaching and research value of doing these types of procedures,” Goudelock said. “If you asked a doctor in private practice whether he would perform one eight-hour procedure or eight 30-minute procedures in a day, he would choose the 30-minute procedures.”

Goudelock hopes the hand surgery fund he’s established can help others restore function to an injured hand, rather than being forced to live with severe disability.

In a rural state like Mississippi, many depend on their hands for their livelihood, Goudelock said.  Those who suffer injuries like he did find themselves in difficult straits.

“Patients with injuries to their hand, they’re not able to work, and so they can’t pay their doctor’s bill,” he said.

Goudelock hopes that by enhancing training and faculty support, the endowment he’s created will help change that.

“In the future,” Goudelock said, “I see people coming from all over for hand surgery [to UMMC] like they go to MD Anderson for cancer.”

In the meantime, John Goudelock will keep on tinkering with his rebuilt hand, and enjoying every minute of it.

Dr. Goudelock has written a more detailed, technical account of the repair of his hand that we have posted online at www.umc.edu/goudelockreport.