Destined to fly

By Senior Airman Kristoffer Kaubisch
Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs

In a split second, her entire future was hanging in the balance. One minute she was cutting floor boards for her new house, the next, she was in survival mode as the saw kicked the board up and took her hand with the cut, completely amputating her hand. The only thing running through her mind was to stay calm and focus on saving herself.

“It was crazy how it all happened,” said Capt. Kristin Nelson, 23rd Bomb Squadron pilot. “It’s amazing how much self-aid buddy care helped. I stayed calm and hollered for my husband. I cut off the pressure point, elevated my arm and went in the house and laid on the floor.”

Capt. Kristin Nelson, 23rd Bomb Squadron pilot, prepares to take flight on Minot Air Force Base, N.D., April 30, 2015. It was Nelson’s first flight back since an accident that amputated her left hand. However, doctors were able to successfully re-attach it. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kristoffer Kaubisch)
Capt. Kristin Nelson, 23rd Bomb Squadron pilot, prepares to take flight on Minot Air Force Base, N.D., April 30, 2015. It was Nelson’s first flight back since an accident that amputated her left hand. However, doctors were able to successfully re-attach it. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kristoffer Kaubisch)


Although Nelson handled the crisis well, she was still haunted with thoughts of losing the thing she is most passionate about, flying.

“I started flying when I was 14-years-old; it’s part of who I am,” Nelson said. “I was laying on the floor thinking I was going to have a prosthetic hand and would never be able to fly again.”

While Nelson lay contemplating her future, her husband Erik stepped up and did what he had to do to save his wife’s life.

“My husband did a great job,” Nelson said. “He put a tourniquet on before the ambulance got there and was able to stop the bleeding in probably less than a minute.”

Despite losing half of her blood, Nelson stayed conscious throughout the duration of the day’s events. A police officer was first on scene and it was his first response ever on duty.

“Welcome to being a police officer, I guess!” Nelson said. “He stayed very calm and was persistent on getting me to a qualified plastic surgeon that could put the hand back on, which wasn’t something that I knew they could even do.”

After the ambulance arrived and took her to Trinity Hospital in Minot, North Dakota, it was decided she would have to be flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. With her hand on ice, her husband took the co-pilot spot next to the helicopter pilot.

“He and my husband flew the helicopter together,” Nelson said. “I vaguely remember being in the back of the helicopter and being jealous that my husband was flying it.”

Upon arriving at the Mayo Clinic, she was rushed into a 12-hour long surgery. The doctor examined her hand and thought it was a good candidate to be re-attached.

“It’s rare that it’s successful,” Nelson said. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s well less than 100 that were able to have a hand put back on and it be functional.”

The doctor was able to re-attach the bones, arteries, veins, nerves and tendons; there were 36 tendons needing re-attachment, as well as all of the microscopic nerves.

“I don’t think he missed a single capillary,” Nelson said. “My hand never turned any different color at all; it was very healthy looking from the beginning.”

Nelson stayed in Minnesota for the next five weeks, recovering and working with therapists. That was only the beginning of her near year-long rehabilitation process.

“After a few months, I started to get quite a bit of mobility back and was ahead of schedule compared to other hand re-plants any of the therapists had seen,” Nelson said. “Around then, I saw the possibility of getting back in the plane.”

On April 27, 2015, just 11 months after her accident, Nelson received the official word she was getting back in the air.

“My commander told me that he had just got off the phone with the Pentagon and they had cleared me to fly again,” Nelson said. “I almost fell off my seat I was so excited. Everyone was really excited for me and very supportive.”

After two days of getting spun up on training and paperwork, Nelson found herself in the cockpit of a B-52, ready to take flight.

“It was kind of like I had never gotten out of the plane. It was like I had just flown last week,” Nelson said. “I didn’t realize how much I really missed it until I got back in the plane and was actually flying. It was great.”

Now back to what she loves doing most after overcoming such a catastrophic incident, Nelson sees life in a whole new light.

“This has definitely made me more appreciative of the little things,” Nelson said. “Just taking advantage of life every day, because you never know what your future holds.”