Rich Edwards was trapped.
Flames crackled through the dry grass and leapt around the sport utility vehicle as the frantic man tried to escape. Just as he touched the red-hot door handle, Edwards heard a click.
The electrical system had burned up, sealing Edwards inside the SUV. The heat was so intense, he could barely breathe.
Suddenly, all the windows exploded, shattering into a thousand pieces.
“I don't remember anything after that. I just know that allowed me to get out of there without burning alive,” said Edwards, 56.
The Edmond chiropractor was burned severely over 30 percent of his body and his hands were deformed, sending him down the long pathway toward becoming the country's third double-hand transplant recipient.
It's still a mystery just how Edwards, with unimaginable burns on his face, arms, hands and legs, escaped and walked a mile over rugged, hilly terrain to the cabin he shared with hunting buddies.
Angels get credit
His injuries occurred Feb. 11, 2006, when his SUV's catalytic converter apparently sparked the fire after his truck and trailer high-centered on a dry hillside near Weatherford on a frigid, windy night.
Edwards and others credit angels for his survival, pointing to burn spots that resemble wings on his back and the curiously unmarked white tennis shoes he wore through the fire that spread over 20 acres.
He kicked open the front door, and his friend, Ron Maxwell, was shocked to see his buddy incoherent, wearing what appeared to be a 3-D leafy camouflage suit for hunting.
“I thought, ‘My gosh, did he get in a fight with a pig?' It looked like someone had used a cheese grater on his skin and left the pieces hanging,” Maxwell said. “His hands were gone.”
The “leaves” hanging down in his face were actually burned pieces of skin. His facial skin and hair were gone, except for his eyelashes and eyebrows.
‘Gift from God'
Edwards fell into a 10-day coma and Weatherford Hospital emergency room doctors told Maxwell that Edwards wouldn't live through the helicopter ride to the Integris Baptist Medical Center burn unit. And once he made it to the hospital, surgeons told his wife, Cindy, that he might not live.
“And if he does, he might not have much of a face left,” they said.
“He'll probably be blind. We'll have to put another nose on him, put other lips and ears on him. He'll lose his hands.”
Instead, Edwards healed remarkably well during his two months in the burn unit. But his hands remained useless stubs.
“My sense of touch has been my gift from God,” he said.
The chiropractor depended on those hands so much that he and his wife worked to find the best hand surgeons in the nation. But Edwards, who'd predicted he'd be back at work within four months of the accident, was devastated when a surgeon said that a fifth surgery would be the final one for Edward's right hand and he'd start on his left hand.
Edwards still couldn't use his hands.
The couple searched for a better answer. That took them to the Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center, where Edwards underwent three years of testing to ensure he would be a good candidate to receive the nation's third double-hand transplant operation.
Then, one night, the telephone rang.
“Rich, we've got a pair of hands for you,” said Dr. Warren Breidenbach, who led the surgical team at Jewish Hospital Hand Care Center in Louisville, Ky.
“Oh, praise God,” Edwards said.
‘I was so scared'
They caught a plane the next morning and Edwards underwent a 17½-hour hand surgery Aug. 24 and 25 by a transplant team from Kleinert Kutz Hand Care Center and the University of Louisville.
“I was so scared to see them,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he felt sure the hands would be too tiny or too fat. But they were perfect and looked like his original hands.
“Well, they're close. I think they fit him well,” said Cindy Edwards, 55, looking at her husband's right hand and stroking it. “It was so surreal. I was used to seeing those club hands and then to see these hands, it was as if they belonged there. Yet, it was weird.”
Edwards had the advantage over other transplant patients who were missing hands, sometimes for decades. The surgeon was able to place the new hands on top of the structures of his original hands and route his existing nerves into the new hands. Consequently, Edwards could move all of his fingers just days afterward.
“In terms of the function of his hands, the look of his hands, the attitude, he's A-plus,” Breidenbach said.
Edwards has gone through hours of therapy and several additional surgeries to keep his hands functioning. And now, the doctor has prescribed a new medication because Edwards' arteries seem to be thickening.
“He could lose the hands, as can happen in any of the hand transplant patients,” Breidenbach said.
He said, especially in the 1990s, hand transplants were highly controversial, arguing that the transplants were too risky and it was unethical to replace a non-life-saving organ. But the controversy has declined and there have been about 50 hand transplants worldwide. Sixteen of those were double-hand transplants.
The fire and surgery revived Edwards both spiritually and physically. He changed the course of his life and became more spiritual the day he said angels carried him out of the fire.
Physically, Edwards can't yet return to his chiropractic practice. Yet, for the first time in five years, he can shower, shave one-handed, buckle his own seat belt and hold a coffee cup with one hand. He said that though he's lost the tips of two fingers, he's confident his new hands will become more functional over time.
“I wake up every morning and look at my hands,” Edwards said, “I can't believe I have two hands and 10 fingers.”
And Cindy Edwards said she welcomes her changed husband and has lost her initial nervousness about letting him touch her with another man's hands.
“But they're his,” she said, stroking his hand. “What comes through his hands comes from his heart.”
I wake up every morning and look at my hands. I can't believe I have two hands and 10 fingers.”