(By Cally Brooks)
A man has had his big toe sewn onto his hand after a freak accident left him without a thumb…

Award-winning cobbler David Lee, 40, sliced off his thumb while working at his shoe-repair shop in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Notts – when his jumper got caught in the machine and dragged his thumb across the blade.

Despite a friend grabbing his thumb and putting it on ice, the tendons were so badly damaged that medics were unable to reattach it.

Concerned that David would never be able to work again without a thumb, medics suggested a bizarre solution – chopping off his big toe and attaching it in place of his thumb.

And incredibly, within a few weeks, David was stuffing his big toe into gloves rather than socks – and has given his new digit the toes-up.
“I thought I was going to lose everything”

David said: “It didn’t hit me until I was in the hospital and realised that I had lost my thumb for good – I thought I was going to lose everything.

“I went back to the hospital room and I just cried my eyes out at the thought of losing my business that I had been working on for 18 years. You need your hands to be a cobbler, especially your thumbs to grip onto the shoes.

“I had only been open for six weeks at this new location and it’s my passion- I couldn’t give it up.

“The first day they unwrapped it and showed me my new ‘thumb’, I thought ‘wow, that looks really ugly’ and I felt so self-conscious about showing anyone.

“Eventually, I got used to it and people would always tell me that it wasn’t that bad and customers really boosted my confidence. Everyone has been great about it.

“The team at the Royal Derby Hospital don’t realise the incredible impact they have had on my life. They were caring, compassionate, positive and encouraging. Without them, I would have struggled to get through it all.”

Toe transplant: Man has big toe sewn onto his hand after losing thumb in freak accident_1
PICTURED: David Lee’s x-ray of thumb after operation.(Pic by Caters News, Magazinefeatures.co.za)
David had been repairing a women’s shoe which involved some drilling around the shoe in January 2019.

He explained: “I turned the bottom run of the machine on to do the back of the shoe and once that was done, I felt around the edges to make sure there were no bumps.

“Having felt a bump, I wanted to go back and smooth it out which is when my jumper sleeve got caught in the machine.”

Panicked, David initially began trying to pull away from the machine and then managed to press the emergency stop button. Without knowing if any damage had been done, he told a fellow business owner in the market to call an ambulance as he began unravelling himself from the machine.

Finally, he managed to detach himself from the machine which is when he saw his thumb drop on the floor in front of him.

David said: “When I saw the thumb drop in front of me, it was like my emotions switched off and I turned into survival mode.
“I instantly pulled my jumper from over my head and wrapped my hand up to stop the bleeding.”

“By this point, people were on the phone to the ambulance service who said it would take an hour for the ambulance to reach me. That’s when the manager of the building offered to give me a lift”.

After David closed his shop, a fellow worker in the complex put his thumb in a bag of ice and they drove to the local King’s Mill Hospital that was only a mile away from where they were working.

Once there, David was given X-rays of both his thumb and hand which showed severe damage to his muscles and tendons.

“I thought they were going to just stitch it back on – that’s how oblivious I was to how serious the situation actually was.

“They told me that there was nothing that they could do and I thought that’s it, my business has gone”.

Toe transplant: Man has big toe sewn onto his hand after losing thumb in freak accident_2
PICTURED: David Lee 40, the Cobbler, in his shop in Sutton in Ashfield. Pic Taken 05/02/2020(Pic by Caters News, Magazinefeatures.co.za)
Replace thumb with toe

That day, David was sent to the Royal Derby Hospital where he was told that having his big toe removed and sewn onto his hand was an option that they could offer him.

David, who had won several competitions with his shoe-repair skills, decided to go ahead with the surgery and on the following Monday, the transplant took place.

Miss Jill Arrowsmith, one of the two Consultant Hand Surgeons who performed the operation, said: “Toe-to-thumb reconstructions are quite rare but we have been really pleased with all of the outcomes these patients have achieved.  There are lots of different ways to reconstruct thumbs but using the big toe gives the best functional and cosmetic benefits, as it is the thing most like a thumb on the body.

“David has worked really hard to recover after his injury and has done amazingly well. He’s the first master cobbler I’ve ever met, so it’s really nice to hear that he’s back doing what he loves to do.”

Once the surgery was completed, David had to attend physio sessions once a week for eight months to support him in learning how to control his muscles in his hand and work on using the ‘thumb’.

David said: “I would have had to quit my job if I didn’t have the surgery so I am so grateful for the team at Royal Derby Hospital for offering me this transplant that has actually saved my entire career.

“The physio team have supported me through everything and I’m planning on having some cosmetic work done in the upcoming months to help thin the thumb out and make it look more appealing”.

Toe transplant: Man has big toe sewn onto his hand after losing thumb in freak accident_3
PICTURED: David Lee 40, the Cobbler, in his shop in Sutton in Ashfield. Pic Taken 05/02/2020(Pic by Caters News, Magazinefeatures.co.za)