Kokomo man uses bionic hand after fireworks injury

Kendall Keeling had his right hand amputated after a firework blew up before expected. (Kendall Keeling)
Published:
Updated:

KOKOMO, Ind. (WTHR) — The promise of big fireworks is they'll light up the sky.

The possibility is the blast will come sooner than you expect.

The type of firework Kendall Keeling was using before it exploded. (Kendall Keeling)
The type of firework Kendall Keeling was using before it exploded. (Kendall Keeling)

Just ask Kendall Keeling of Kokomo. He lost his right hand when he underestimated a mortar fuse on July 3, 2016.

"I went to light it thinking it was a slow burning fuse, and it immediately blew up" Keeling said. "I remember my fourth grade teacher who lives down the house came to help look for my fingers in my yard."

His severely disfigured hand was the most serious of his injuries.

"I had burns all the way up to my chest all over me," he said. "Blew my top lip open, blew my bottom lip open, scratched both corneas, blew two holes in my right eardrum, blew a hole in my left ear drum."

Surgeon Jeffrey Greenberg and orthopedist with the Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center at St Vincent cared for Keeling and many other patients just like him that holiday.

Kendall Keeling recovering after his hand was amputated. (Kendall Keeling)
Kendall Keeling recovering after his hand was amputated. (Kendall Keeling)

"That July 4, we actually in our practice performed eight amputations where we had to remove the hands from eight people who had really high energy injuries," he said. "So, it's serious and it's dangerous."

And it was life altering. Keeling was just 18 years old and 20 days away from reporting for duty with the Army.

"Then in a blink of an eye everything changed," he said.

Dr. Greenberg mapped out years of reconstructive surgeries to repair Keeling's hand with no guarantees.

"It's especially frustrating because as surgeons we are trying to just save and reconstruct, and we see these high powered explosive injuries the tissue that is left for us to work with is very, very deficient and we don't really have a lot to work with to try and give somebody functional use of their hand," Dr. Greenberg said.

Keeling did research and two months after the accident, opted for an amputation.

"It smelled. It looked so mangled. I don't want people staring at that" he said.

He was fitted with high tech BeBionic prosthetics at SRT. Keeling said his insurance claim was denied, but Indiana's Vocational Rehabilitation helped cover the cost.

Keeling stands in front of a fireworks store after his incident. (Kendall Keeling)
Keeling stands in front of a fireworks store after his incident. (Kendall Keeling)

It took months to master the devices, but now it's rare to see Keeling's bare right arm.

"I have one I swim with. I can do just about anything that I really want to," Keeling said.

His hook grip, created with sensors, is so reliable. Keeling can even maneuver a retrofitted motorcycle.

"It's my favorite thing to do; it's my biggest passion," Keeling said.

Keeling said the goal of getting back on his bike helped him push through the challenges of recovery.

Now he's 21 and even laughs at his new road name bestowed by his father and fellow members of his club, Hog Runners of Kokomo.

"They called me Mortar because I blew my hand up with a mortar shell. I think it's funny" Keeling said.

Keeling had hoped to become a welder, but the incident dramatically changed the course of his career.

Instead, he works for SRT Prosthetics where he hopes to encourage new clients that despite their loss, there is still lots of life to live.

"I guess the biggest thing for me is don't ever give up," he said. "Just because it looks bad everything happens for a reason so might as well keep going to see what that reason is."

(Kendall Keeling)
(Kendall Keeling)