KOKOMO - Kendall Keeling isn’t any different than he used to be – except, where his right hand used to be now sits a prosthetic limb.

Keeling lost his hand after a fireworks accident on July 3, 2016. He lit a fuse to a firework in his hand and the next thing he knew, he was on the ground and his hand was unrecognizable.

After nine days in the hospital, Keeling knew he would never fully regain control of his hand again. His fingers were gone, and in their place was left a jumble of dead skin and exposed bone. Though his doctor advised against it, he decided to amputate what was left of the hand in order to get a prosthetic.

His doctor took some convincing, he told a group of physical therapy students at the Kokomo Area Career Center, where he spoke on Wednesday about his experience. Sara Sullivan, the class instructor, said when she first heard about Keeling wanting to amputate, she thought he was being naïve.

“I thought 'a doctor is not going to take away something with good skin and good bone,’” she said.

When she learned his doctor had gone ahead and amputated his hand, she thought the doctor made the wrong decision. That is, until she met Keeling last week and experienced his positive attitude.

“I saw his attitude,” she said. “There’s no doubt he’s going to be very successful and make a difference.”

Keeling said he’s never once looked at the situation in a negative light, and added that if he could go back and do anything differently, he wouldn’t. Losing his hand has shaped him into the person he is now, he said.

He even tries to make jokes about the situation, telling people they can literally hold his hand and that he gets half-priced manicures. One of the students in the class commented that Keeling is exactly the same as he was when he attended Kokomo High School, saying he’s just as easy-going and comical.

When the firework exploded in his palm, he wasn’t just losing a hand. Keeling lost the opportunity to join the U.S. Army, which he’d already enlisted in. When he realized the extent of the damage, he texted his recruiters, explaining what happened. He was medically discharged from the military, and will never be able to rejoin, he said.

Currently, Keeling works for the Kokomo Parks and Recreation Department. His friend helped him get the job after the accident, and the job helped him get the prosthetic.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services, which helps people with disabilities find employment, paid for the prosthetic, but Keeling had to show VRS that he needed two hands. His job often requires lifting and moving heavy objects and the prosthetic can help, though he never wears it when he works outside because he can’t risk getting the prosthetic limb wet.

When he spoke to the students at the career center, he stressed that he would answer any questions the students had. One student asked if he could flip people off with his prosthetic, and he demonstrated how easy it is to do. He said it’s one of the most common questions he’s asked about the new limb.

He talked about some of the things he’s no longer able to do, such as write except to sign his name. Luckily, he said, most things he needs to write can be typed using his left hand. He also can’t eat with his prosthetic very well – the fork tends to just fall out of the mechanical hand. He’s having to learn how to do everyday tasks with his left hand. He showed a video of himself shooting a gun with his left hand, though he lamented that he was a good shot with his right.

Keeling recently bought a new truck, but after the accident he still drove a stick shift. He said he would have to let go of the wheel and reach over with his left hand to shift gears, though he mostly drove his mother’s jeep after the accident. He admitted that driving a stick-shift wasn’t necessarily the safest thing to do.

Without Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Keeling wouldn’t have been able to afford a prosthetic hand, which he said costs about $50,000. He went through an Indiana prosthetics company, Superior Rehabilitation Techniques, to get the limb.

Currently, he has two attachments, a hand and a hook. He said he generally prefers the hook because it can lock into place. The hand is controlled by a sensor that is affected by the muscles in his arm. Sometimes, the muscles can make it difficult to fully control the hand, he said.  

Keeling said he doesn’t plan to work for the city forever. He’d like to become a motivational speaker, talking with different groups about his experience and how companies like Superior Rehabilitation Techniques can help people in his situation.

“Things can literally blow up in your face, but it’s not that bad,” Keeling said.

Education Reporter Caele Pemberton can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at caele.pemberton@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @CaelePemberton

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