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Correspondent Miles O'Brien turns to technology after losing arm

By Steve Almasy and Elizabeth Landau, CNN
updated 8:36 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Miles O'Brien once reported on the same subject he now needs for recovery
  • He jokes that he gets to buy some cool new gadgets
  • TV gear case fell on O'Brien's left forearm
  • He says doctor said he may have "compartment syndrome"

(CNN) -- A few years ago, PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien reported about patients who were receiving modern artificial body parts to help them recover from the loss of the limb.

Now, facing his own recovery after losing an arm while on a reporting trip to Asia, O'Brien is reviewing that story, reminding himself of which experts he should consult.

He talked with CNN affiliate WUSA on Thursday in his first interview after a surgeon removed his left arm just above the elbow. He said he was going to see some doctors over the next few days.

And he tried to look on the bright side of needing technological help with his life.

"If nothing else, this is a great opportunity for me to buy some really cool new gadgets, right?" he told the station. "I look forward to see what technology can do for me."

It seemed minor at the time

O'Brien was stacking cases onto a cart on February 12 after a reporting trip to Japan and the Philippines, and one of the cases fell on his left forearm.

He thought it was a minor injury and didn't experience a lot of pain until the next night. He went to a doctor the next morning and was told he was experiencing acute compartment syndrome, which involves increased pressure in a muscle compartment.

During surgery, O'Brien's blood pressure fell to the point where his life was in danger. The doctor made the choice to take much of the arm.

O'Brien, 54, said his personal doctor studied the charts and agreed that amputation was the best option.

"He said it probably would have been the same consequence, wherever I would have been," he said.

O'Brien said he is dealing with phantom pain, as if his forearm and hand were still there. And he admitted that he's had his mental ups and downs.

O'Brien, an award-winning science journalist and former CNN correspondent and anchor, said work is a welcome tonic. Thursday, he was moderating a panel on climate change at the National Academy of Sciences in the Washington area.

O'Brien revealed his story in a blog post entitled "Just a Flesh Wound" on Wednesday.

"I wish I had a better story to tell you about why I am typing this with one hand (and some help from Dragon Dictate)," he wrote.

He said that fans, friends and co-workers shouldn't worry about him.

Pressure builds up

The National Institutes of Health says muscles in the arms and legs are separated from each other by thick layers of tissue called fascia, and each fascia has space in it, called a compartment, with muscle tissue, nerves and blood vessels.

When there is swelling in a compartment, pressure in that area will increase and press on the muscles, blood vessels and nerves.

"If this pressure is high enough, blood flow to the compartment will be blocked," according to the NIH's MedlinePlus resource. "This can lead to permanent injury to the muscle and nerves. If the pressure lasts long enough, the muscles may die and the arm or leg will not work anymore. It may need to be amputated."

Symptoms of severe cases of compartment syndrome include skin paleness, numbness, tingling, decreased sensation, weakness and severe worsening pain. Early diagnosis and treatment are key for a good recovery.

Amputee pilot: O'Brien could return to flying 'in no time'

Patients need immediate surgery, which involves making long cuts through the muscle tissue to relieve pressure.

O'Brien, who covered the U.S. space program and was an anchor for CNN, now lives in Washington.

Artificial hand lets amputee feel objects

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