People & Places: Handed a miracle

Local sport shooter, air force enlistee comes back from hand injury

Colton Underwood

Colton Underwood

Back in October, Prescott Valley resident Colton Underwood said he and his father were deer hunting near Jerome when he sliced open his final two fingers on his right hand. It was an injury that made him at risk of losing all the things he loved to do as well as his career in the Air Force, said hand surgeon Dr. Mark Mellinger.

When the injury first happened, the doctor cleaned it out, stitched it up and checked for cut tendons and said there weren’t, said Underwood’s mother, Kristen, noting that the doctor said to come back in 10 days to have the stitches out. Upon going back in, she asked for another doctor to take a look at him.

“They cleared him again. I asked about therapy, they said no need,” she said. “It healed up but in this time, I would say once the sutures healed, he went back to shooting, playing guitar and then about four and a half, five weeks later, he still wasn’t having full movement. I took him to our primary care doctor, he referred us to a physical therapist who said his tendons were cut. He said we needed to see a surgeon.”

That’s how Colton met Mellinger who said that typically when presented with a case such as Colton’s, a reconstruction has to be staged by removing all the tendons that were cut and replacing them with a silicon tube before reconstructing the canal the tendons run through and after six months, tendons from other parts of the body are taken to fully reconstruct the injured tendons.

However, when it came time to do the surgery it was found that the tendons had only retracted several millimeters and the reconstruction was able to be avoided, Mellinger said.

“I was able to repair his tendons back together. We were just very fortunate,” he said, commenting that the vascular system around the tendons tethered them. “They did not retract very much and he was just very fortunate in that respect.”

The work didn’t end at the surgery though, it was a team effort, Mellinger said. The surgery went well, but it only took 90 minutes to fix the tendons, he said, adding that more importantly, Colton had a good work ethic in terms of rehabbing himself, good family support and a good hand therapist by the name of Valerie Doyle. Having a strong enough repair and therapy that provides the right amount of motion is a balancing effect because the repair has to allow for enough motion to occur and if the therapist is to aggressive the repair will fail, but if they’re not aggressive enough, then scarring will form and the tendons won’t glide which will result in a stiff finger, Mellinger said.

Colton, who is an avid sport shooter, is also enlisted in the United States Air Force. His injury made him scared about the future, Colton said.

“Shooting … that’s my thing. That’s what I do,” he said. “And then, Air Force, that could be the rest of my life.”

Before getting cleared to shoot with his right hand again, Colton started shooting with his left hand and became ambidextrous because he still wanted to shoot, Kristen said, with Colton mentioning he really wanted to get back into it.

Three weeks after being cleared to shoot with his right hand again, Colton said he had his first tournament since the injury. It was a state championship and he ended up winning for sporting clays for all of Arizona and a couple weeks later, he won more championships for skeet and trap shooting, he said. Further, a couple weeks ago, Colton said he traveled to Colorado Springs for the Junior Olympic National Championships for Olympic Skeet and wound up getting 17th in the country.

The Air Force is still up in the air though, he said, remarking he still has to be cleared for everything. Next Friday is when he finds out, Colton said.

“If I get cleared … it’d be a miracle,” he said, bringing up how he already knows what he’ll be doing. “My job is going to be a load master. I’ll be in charge of loading and unloading cargo from planes, getting everybody and everything to all over the world, basically. You see the videos of Humvees getting shot out of the plane in midair, I’m going to be the guy that cuts the cord and shoots the stuff out.”

When it comes to shooting, Colton said he’d love to make the Air Force Shooting Team and isn’t stopping until he makes the Olympics.