Avera Medical Minute: Woman’s thumb reattached after team roping mishap

Published: Oct. 30, 2023 at 9:59 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A team roping event turned into a scary situation in just a matter of seconds for one South Dakota woman.

A team roper has been able to continue swinging her rope after nearly losing her thumb.

Team roping is a two-person team that competes to catch a steer.

For Helen Breitag, it’s something she’s been doing since she was young. And it’s a passion that continues for her today.

“A header is who ropes the horns of the steer, so you have a team — a header and a heeler — and you come out of the roping box. The header always ropes first and turns the steer left, and the heeler comes in and ropes the heels,” said Breitag.

She entered a team roping jackpot earlier this summer. What started out as a typical competition soon turned into a roping nightmare.

“First steer out, it was a really hard running steer. I got up to him, I roped him, I went to dally, and somehow my rope popped over my horn. It wrapped around my thumb. The steer was going one way, my horse was going the other way, and it took my thumb right along with it — happened very quick,” said Breitag. “Actually, when it first happened, I thought it was just a rope burn, so I went to go get my rope, and I did this because it hurt and I could feel it move within my roping glove, and I looked down, and I could see that it was detached, and I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”

That’s when she knew she had to get to the hospital.

“They did X-rays right away. They did not take my roping glove off. The thumb was still in there,” said Breitag.

“Basically, it looked like somebody had cut it with a knife. It was a straight, 360-degree cut around the thumb,” said Dr. Gonzalo Sanchez, an orthopedic surgeon with Avera Medical Group.

“We took her to surgery and put a pin across to hold the joint because all the ligaments were torn, as well, just to give it stability and made sure she still had good blood flow and then repaired all the soft tissue, circumferentially,” said Sanchez. “At the end of the case, a lot of stitches and a pin in place to hold that there, but the key was that it was nice and pink, and that’s really what you have to have — you have to have blood flow.”

“I just had to be careful. Went in pretty much every day to see him because he wanted to see the color to make sure it was still the right color, and after it healed up to a point where they could take the stiches out and take the pin out, then I started physical therapy to try to get a bend back into it,” said Breitag.

Now Breitag is taking it slow but getting back to doing what she loves, one throw at a time.

“She’s using her hand and working well. I haven’t heard any problems from her at all, and any time I see her, she says it’s working great. It actually looks really good, too, which is sort of a nice secondary surprise. Functionality is by far the most important thing, but it’s a little hard to tell it was ever injured, really,” said Sanchez.

“Dr. Sanchez came from home just to help save my thumb, and he did it. I still have it,” said Breitag.

A unique technique was used to get blood flow into her thumb. Dr. Sanchez used sterile, medical-grade leeches due to Breitag having some venous congestion. They did that for four days post-op. He said this isn’t super common, but after consulting with other physicians, it made sense to do it in this situation.

For more information, visit avera.org/medicalminute.