The early evening of March 9, 2008 was a festive one for 16-year-old Amber Shaffer, filled with good music, food, and friends. During a birthday celebration at a friend's nearby home in Culpeper County, Va., Amber could not have foreseen the terrible tragedy that would fall upon her later that night. After leaving the party around 7:00 p.m., Amber and three friends headed for home in her friend's pick-up truck. Amber was sitting between her friends in the front seat and not wearing a seat belt, when suddenly the driver lost control while making a turn and the truck began to rollover wildly.
The last thing Amber, now 17, remembers is waking up with a field of paramedics working on her as she lay in a shallow creek near the road. Prior to being thrown from the vehicle, Amber's right arm was pinned between the truck and the pavement. Amber suffered major tissue and muscle loss to her right forearm, nerve damage, two broken wrists, and numerous lacerations and scratches.
Initially, Amber's injuries were so severe, the surgeon at the trauma center recommended amputation of her right forearm.
"Dad, please promise me I'm not going to lose my arm," said Amber, who played on her high school varsity basketball team and had dreams of playing pro-basketball for the WNBA one day.
"Honey, don't worry, they are not going to take your arm," promised Amber's father Tim Shaffer.
Making good on his promise, Tim decided to get a second opinion on his daughter's prognosis after he noticed she still had some feeling in her right hand. That's when the Shaffers turned to ASPS Member Surgeon James Higgins, MD, in Baltimore for help.
"I was so pleased to tell the Shaffers we could save Amber's arm," said Dr. Higgins. "Her arm would not likely achieve the function she had before the accident, but we could fix it and enable her to strive to work toward that goal."
"When Dr. Higgins told my wife and me Amber could keep her arm, it was like being eight-years old on Christmas morning," said Tim. "We were so grateful that we could keep our promise to our little girl."
Amber has endured approximately 10 surgeries (a combination of general operations to clean her wounds and reconstructive plastic surgery procedures) since the accident to help save, as well as, restore form and function to her right arm. She's had two major microsurgical procedures that involved transferring portions of her thigh muscle and tissue to her arm to replace missing skin and reconstruct her ability to extend her fingers and move her wrist.
Her last operation was in early December and Amber is now in physical therapy. Her father says she can now do most normal activities. "A push-up is not in the foreseeable future, but she can do everyday things like washing dishes, brushing her hair, and even driving."
"Originally, we weren't exactly sure how much function Amber was going to have with her right arm," said Dr. Higgins. "This family has truly undergone an emotional rollercoaster—from the original recommendation for amputation—to near normal restoration and function. Amber is truly an amazing young woman."
Amber couldn't be more pleased with her recovery. "I'm very thankful to Dr. Higgins for the progress that he's helped me achieve," said Amber. "To be able to grab things and resume normal activities has meant so much. Dr. Higgins is a great doctor with a great support team of nurses. They're all such good people."
Now, with function nearly restored in her right arm, Amber is looking toward the future with a renewed sense of confidence. Once believing she'd never play basketball again, Amber is now more optimistic. "I'm going to try and do what it takes to get back on the court," said Amber.
Due to her accident and experience with Dr. Higgins, Amber is now considering becoming an occupational therapist. "If this happens to another teenager, I can show them my arm and let them know I once was there and there is light at the end of the tunnel."