Twin brothers Nathan and Nicholas Lewis are your typical six-year-olds.
They love Paw Patrol. They love playing outdoors in their sprawling backyard in rural Petitcodiac, in southeastern New Brunswick. They love finding out how things work.
Like that day in late April last year, when they wandered into the garage, where Dad keeps the power tools.
The band saw, a power saw with a toothed steel belt running over pulleys, piqued their interest.
"We could make a kite," Nicholas suggested.
And then Nathan plugged the band saw in and turned it on.
The phone call
The boys' mom, Cyndy Lewis, was appliance shopping when the phone call came in.
She needed a new washer and dryer and had left her teenage daughter, Jessica, and her daughter's boyfriend, Zachary, at home with the twins so she could shop in peace.
The peace didn't last long.
"Cyndy, you need to come home," Zachary said, his voice tight with panic. "Nathan cut his finger off."
Lewis felt her knees buckle and from then on, the moments blurred. She remembers telling them to call 911, remembers calling her pediatrician and racing to the Moncton Hospital trauma centre to be with Nathan.
"I made it there before the ambulance did," she said. "I had no idea what to expect, I wasn't even sure they'd let me in because of the pandemic."
She rushed into the emergency room to tell the hospital staff an ambulance was bringing her son in and then, "I just broke down."
Hospital staff put her in a quiet room, gave her water and cold compresses and kept a close eye on her until the ambulance arrived.
Lewis braced for the worst.
She was expecting her son to be crying, even hysterical, but the paramedics had done an outstanding job of keeping him calm.
"In fact," Lewis said, "the first thing he said when he saw me was, 'Daddy's gonna be mad at me.' "
Within an hour, Lewis and her husband, Stephen, had met with Dr. Brent Howley and Dr. Jayson Dool, and Nathan was in surgery to reattach the thumb he'd severed from his right hand.
For hours, they waited in an in-patient room, with hospital staff providing regular updates on the surgery's progress. Lewis says that's what kept her from completely dissolving.
"They never once made me feel like I was bothering them, like I was a nuisance," she said.
Ten hours later, Nathan was wheeled out of surgery.
"When they brought him into his room, it was like ..." Lewis faltered, her voice wobbling.
"It's like the biggest relief, but then the reality hits. We knew his thumb was reattached, but we didn't know if it was going to make it — we didn't know anything."
The trauma takes hold
The next day, reality hit like a cold slap.
Nathan lay in bed, groggy, sick from the anesthesia and almost completely unresponsive.
Concerned, Lewis tried to draw him into conversation.
"Nothing," she said. "He wouldn't move, he wouldn't talk, he wouldn't eat. He just lay in bed like he was a statue."
The trauma of what he'd been through was setting in and setting in hard.
Doctors who weren't even on his care would sit and play Snakes and Ladders with him. How do you thank people for that? - Cyndy Lewis, Nathan's mom
The family's pediatrician visited later that day, and when she saw Nathan's condition, she immediately lined up occupational therapy.
The next day, Lewis was trying to get her son interested in the Lego blocks he's usually so keen on when pediatric physiotherapist Derek Kidd walked into the room.
" 'Oh,' he says, 'You're building a truck, a boat and a trailer,' " Lewis recalled. "But he pointed to all the wrong things."
Nathan looked at his mom as if to say 'What's with this guy?" And then he started giggling.
"Derek got Nathan to talk and smile and laugh. It's just ... "
The emotion comes in another wave, and Lewis has to pause again. "You have no idea."
Blood-sucking leeches to the rescue
There have been many steps along the road to recovery that have boggled Lewis's mind.
But the leech therapy, well, that one lingers.
About two days after his first surgery, Nathan's thumb turned bruise-purple. It began to look like it wasn't viable at all and would have to be removed.
But first, doctors figured they'd give nature's little bloodsuckers a chance.
Nathan had severed all of the nerves in his thumb, and the hope was that the leeches would stimulate blood flow and the renewal of nerve pathways.
"It's pretty remarkable to see a leech feeding on your child," Lewis said with a shudder.
They kept Nathan distracted by enticing him with Lego — "We spent, and I kid you not, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars on Lego" — and the leech would have at it until it was full, and then it would release itself.
This process was repeated every couple of hours, for 14 days straight.
"We actually ran out of leeches and had to order leeches from Saint John," Lewis said. "And then we had to get leeches from California. It was pretty serious."
Surgeons temporarily implant thumb into stomach
Once the leech therapy had run its course, Nathan underwent a second surgery on the reattached thumb. But a part of the thumb suffered necrosis and some of the tissue had to be removed.
So surgeons performed yet another surgery, this time to create a pocket underneath the skin of Nathan's chest and sew his thumb into his stomach to help promote cell regrowth.
For three weeks, Nathan's little chest, abdomen and right arm were tightly wrapped in bandages to keep his arm in place.
Nathan took the stream of strange physical intrusions in stride, helped along by Lewis, her husband, and the hospital staff who never seemed to tire of his requests to play board games or just have a chat at his bedside.
"They were the ones who would take him for a walk, who played games with him while I took a shower. Doctors who weren't even on his care would sit and play Snakes and Ladders with him," Lewis said.
"How do you thank people for that?
Kisses at the window, hugs through a fence
Because all of this was unfolding amid the pandemic, no one but Lewis and her husband were allowed to visit Nathan.
But everyone wanted to see him.
His sister, Jessica, and Zachary, who'd been watching Nathan and Nicholas when the accident happened, were wracked with guilt and asked Lewis if they could visit.
They brought Nathan's older brother, Devin, along, and all three of them pressed their faces up against his hospital room window, waving, blowing kisses and smiling as he showed off his bandages and his collection of stuffies.
As Nathan's recovery progressed, visits migrated outdoors, with family members reaching around gaps in frost fencing to "hug" the little boy.
Even from a distance, the visits helped heal the trauma for everyone, Lewis said.
Home at last
By June, doctors pronounced the final surgery to release Nathan's thumb from his stomach a success, and at long last, he was able to return home.
He'd spent almost two months in hospital.
Now, one year and many medical appointments later, life has returned to normal. Sort of.
Lewis still feels a pang of alarm every time the twins ask to play outside.
Nathan's thumb will need reconstructive surgeries as he grows and develops, but it's functional, and that was the goal.
He's self-conscious about his scars, but otherwise seems to have bounced back to his pre-trauma cheerfulness, even cracking the odd dark joke about the thumb that almost got away.
Lewis said it warms her heart to see her boy smiling and carefree again, but she is haunted by guilt over what he, and all of her children, went through that fateful day.
"My teenage daughter had to be a first responder," she said. "As a parent, I feel I failed them."
But more than anything, what Lewis feels is gratitude, above all for the paramedics and Moncton Hospital staff who came to Nathan's aid at every level.
"They brought my son back to me. They deserve 100 per cent of the credit for that boy's recovery," she said.
"There's nothing I could ever possibly say or do to show that hospital the respect and love that they deserve."