BOULDER — Life without his left arm has not been as different as Eric Cornell feared, even though the Nobel laureate can still “feel” the limb that was amputated last fall.
Surgeons at Boulder Community Hospital amputated the physicist’s left arm and shoulder Oct. 28 because the shoulder was infected with necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-killing disease.
Cornell and his wife, Celeste Landry, discussed his illness and recovery Tuesday morning at the Coors Events Center on the University of Colorado campus.
“When I close my eyes, I would say my left arm feels at least as real to me as my right arm does,” said Cornell, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who also teaches at CU and shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics with fellow professor Carl Weiman for creating a new form of matter.
“I’m really not kidding when I say it’s more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe. You have to try it to appreciate it,” he said.
“I don’t know if you have the patience for the experience, but the first day is going to be really a drag,” Cornell warned with a laugh.
In the nearly six months since the amputation, Cornell has learned how to tie his shoes and drive a modified car. He is scheduled to take his driving test in the car today.
“You really get used to it. You’d be surprised how much you can do with one arm and, OK, sometimes with your teeth,” Cornell said. “It just turns out not to be that big a deal.”
He said his arm “feels as though it’s behind my back and I can’t move it,” Cornell said of what is described in amputees as phantom sensation. He said he also suffers phantom pain in his missing arm.
The physicist said he thought he was suffering from flu symptoms Oct. 24. His left shoulder began hurting the next day and became increasingly painful until he went to the emergency room Oct. 27.
The last thing Cornell said he remembers is wishing the doctors at Boulder Community Hospital would give him a painkiller.
“I was actually more concerned about the baseball game; it was the fourth game of the World Series,” Cornell said.
Surgeons operated on Cornell’s shoulder that afternoon and amputated the next day.
“Everything was moving very fast. I didn’t have time to think,” his wife said. Cornell was transferred to the University of Colorado Hospital’s burn intensive care unit Oct. 28.
It took two more surgeries to cut out all the infected tissue, Cornell said.
It’s still not clear what caused the necrotizing fasciitis, which Cornell said is usually preceded by a wound that is exposed to an invasive strep bacteria.
On Oct. 29, the surgeon told Landry he thought he finally had excised the entire infection, she said.
“That’s when I started to have hope,” Landry said. “He was still in critical danger for a long time.” Doctors kept Cornell in a medically induced coma for three weeks. The first week out of the coma was the most difficult, physically and emotionally, Cornell said.
“For the first few hours, I assumed it was somewhere under those bandages,” Cornell said of his arm. “I was very sorry to discover it was missing.”
He said his biggest concern when he awoke was learning how sick he was and finding he was on a respirator.
“Most people in my situation would have died,” Cornell said.
These days, healing skin grafts give Cornell more trouble than his missing arm. As the skin heals, it shrinks, so Cornell must undergo daily physical therapy, which will continue for about another year. He expects to get a prosthetic arm eventually, although he has been told they have limited usefulness.
When the skin grafts have healed, Cornell expects life to be “more or less back to normal.”
The ordeal has helped the couple realize how precious life is, Landry said. Without elaborating, but with a smile, Landry said, “You have to know that life is getting back to normal when the things around the house that bug you about your spouse, bug you again about your spouse.”
Victoria Camron can be reached at 303-684-5226, or by e-mail at email@example.com.