Making belt buckles from cow horns provides therapy for Oklahoma man who lost hand

“I wouldn't have this hand if it weren't for my wife,” said James Coldren, an Oklahoma belt buckle maker and ranch foreman.
by Bryan Painter Published: February 24, 2013

They survived.

From Pawhuska he was transported in a helicopter to a Tulsa hospital. When Coldren was in the trauma center, the hand surgeon came in and looked at the injury and gave a reattachment “a 50-50 chance to take.” Coldren told him to do it.

Nine hours later, the hand was back on.

He was in the hospital for about a week and wore a cast for nine months. Add to those numbers at least five more surgeries. He wore a brace for months, because when the cast was removed his hand was “locked solid.” So these braces stretched “all that stuff back to where it was more functional.”

The way it works

Today, when Coldren bends the left wrist, the fingers will straighten. When he straightens his wrist, the fingers curl. He didn't have feeling for more than a year. But the nerves began to grow.

Now he has noticed something that's a little different. If Coldren hurts his ring finger, his index finger will hurt. And when he hurts his pinkie, his middle finger will hurt.

“I can't gripe too much though,” he said. “The only thing that I can't do that I used to be able to do is play a guitar. That's what I miss the most.”

He can move his thumb by itself and his ring finger by itself, but if he moves his pinkie then his middle and index move as well.

Then he reaches for his latest cow horn buckle and rests it on the fingers of his left hand.

“This was therapy, this was the only therapy I had,” he said. “I made myself get out there.

“I made a lot of buckles with one hand because for a long time I had to have my arm like this up near my right collarbone, because the only way to really control the pain was to get it up above my heart.”

The day of the accident, did you think you'd ever use that hand again?

“No, I thought they'd probably just have to put a hook on it,” he said. “But right after the surgery I woke up and you could just see a little bit of my thumb, just the tip of it and I could move it and I thought, ‘Well I might … ”

Close to a year after the initial surgery, the pain was terrible. As the feeling started coming back, even the wind blowing against it “was horrible.” And then he was wearing the braces and couldn't sleep well with them on. James called the doctor and said it wasn't going to work, wanted the left hand taken off. The doctor told him not to give up. He said it would get better, and it did.

James more and more began to apply both hands to the making of the buckles. Placing the buckle in his hand on a work bench, James reaches over with this right thumb and middle finger to roll his wedding ring on his left hand. James said, “Shari was the real trooper.”

A trooper then and on July 3, 1998, the day she was working in a flower bed and a rattlesnake bit her. She lost her right ring finger as a result, but didn't let it bother her much.

She said, “Everybody has their moments, we just get along the best we can and hope things go in our favor.”

This lifetime ranch hand with about as much salt as pepper in his mustache doesn't let her off that easy.

“I couldn't have done this without her; she's way stronger than me,” he said. “I would have left it that day. I'm so glad she didn't let me.

“I wouldn't have this hand if it weren't for my wife.”

by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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