Jake McGehee: The Music Plays On

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Making a living without a forearm is manageable for Jake McGehee, but living without playing his guitar is another matter. With the help of friends and a prosthetist, the Choctaw, Oklahoma, man rekindled his passion for playing music after a chemical explosion took part of his arm and nearly his life.

On May 12, 2012, McGehee was working to help rebuild a tool that was used in the Oklahoma oil fields. He was having trouble removing its lithium ion battery.

“I walked to the end to look inside and it exploded,” he says. “We don’t know why or how. It caught me in the face, the chest, and the right arm, especially. It was pretty bad.”

Deadly lithium covered the right side of his body, searing into his skin. The fumes scarred his lungs. He was rushed to the hospital where physicians placed him in a medically induced coma for seven-and-a-half weeks to allow his body to heal. During that time, he developed a bacterial infection on his arm that physicians worried would spread to the rest of his body. Family members agreed with physicians that it would be best to amputate. When McGehee woke up about five days after the surgery, he saw his right arm was gone from about two inches below his elbow.

“Even if they hadn’t amputated, it was so bad that I probably wouldn’t have been able to use it much,” he says. “Waking up and realizing it was gone was a shock, but it wasn’t the end of the world.”

McGehee accepted his new life quickly and pushed through physical therapy to be released from the hospital about two weeks earlier than expected. He went to a prosthetist, but his short residual limb and minimal range of motion made him difficult to fit. “I went to a couple of different places and they kind of struggled because of what’s left of the joint,” he says. “I got a little frustrated and I decided to hold off.”

For the most part, he was successful at adapting. He worked on a cattle ranch and found he could do his job without his arm. There was just one thing he couldn’t do and didn’t want to live without: playing the guitar.

McGehee with his guitar

McGehee tries out the prosthetic solution with his guitar. Photographs courtesy of Ted Muilenburg.

McGehee grew up in a musical family; everyone from his grandfather to his mother and cousins all played music. “It’s always been a part of us,” he says. “We all played sports and stuff, but music was the one thing we could all sit down and see eye to eye about.”

He started playing the drums at age three, and at age 12 he took up the guitar and never looked back. Before the accident, he was a member of the Jake Adams Band, playing red dirt country music across the state. He was addicted to the music, his guitar, and playing in front of an audience. The time after his accident was the longest stretch of his life that he’d gone without playing music. He had convinced himself that he probably wouldn’t play again—until the day a friend stepped in.

“My buddy was the first one to say, ‘How do we do this? What will it take to get you going again?’” McGehee says. “The smart ass that I am, I said ‘Grow an arm.’”

His friend didn’t accept that answer and started looking around his tool shop. With the help of tape and welding rods, he fashioned a rudimentary device that could hold a pick and let McGehee strum the guitar strings. “After getting it set on my arm and strumming it across the strings, I finally just thought, ‘I got this,’” McGehee says. “I started playing a song. It wasn’t anything fancy, and everybody was bawling their eyes out.”

Once he realized that playing the guitar was a possibility, McGehee once again sought out a prosthetist. This time he was sent to Ted Muilenburg, CP/L, FAAOP, president of Muilenburg Prosthetics, Houston. Muilenburg has made a name for himself by creating unconventional prostheses. He made one for a patient to play golf, another for pole vaulting, and one to help a patient kayak. Fitting McGehee for a standard prosthetic arm for everyday use was necessary, but Muilenburg also knew that a device to help him play guitar would help his recovery in ways that a traditional prosthesis couldn’t. When patients get their hobbies back, they get an important part of their lives back, he says. “I think it helps them to get back to the main swing of life with their friends,” he says. “A lot of guys, they just don’t hang out to talk, they hang out to go and do things.”

McGehee on stage with band

McGehee on stage with the Jake Adams Band. Photograph courtesy of Jake McGehee.

Muilenburg first tried a more traditional prosthesis to help McGehee play guitar. He had a prototype socket from an earlier test fitting and attached a wrist to a piece of PVC tubing to test it on McGehee. “The socket just went kerplunk right on the guitar and he couldn’t angle it to touch the strings,” Muilenburg says. “I saw a horrified look on his mother’s face and there was dead silence. And I said, ‘Okay, time for plan B.’”

This time, he decided, he wouldn’t build a prosthetic arm but instead would help McGehee use his residual limb. The device Muilenburg devised was a locking liner that McGehee could roll onto his residual limb. The liner was attached to a modified, 90 degree galvanized pipe elbow that connected to a TRS Prosthetics adjustable guitar pick holder. The device was the perfect length for McGehee’s residual limb to reach the guitar.

“I adjusted the angles and he went to town playing the guitar,” Muilenburg says. “I don’t remember what song he played, but it was very good, and we could hear it through the whole office. No one could believe what they were hearing. His mom was tearing up and he was happy. It was a wonderful feeling.”

prosthesis modified for use with guitar pick

Close up of McGehee’s prosthetic pick and liner setup.

Now that he was fitted with a professional device, McGehee could put it on himself and play as much as he wanted. “I could just sit down and pull it on like a glove,” he says. “I started playing more and more and realized I still had a lot of muscle memory. It didn’t take a whole lot of time before I was gaining speed and playing clearly. Now I don’t even think about it. I just roll it on, pick up the guitar, and go.”

Soon enough, he started touring with his band again, and often, the patrons at the bars where he plays don’t even notice his device. “A lot of people, when they go out, they visit and dance and don’t pay a lot of attention to the band,” he says. “It’s fun to watch them cross the floor, and then they look up and it hits them, and they stop and watch.”

Muilenburg also made McGehee a more traditional arm for everyday use that is fabricated out of metal, so he can clean it after he works with cattle or tools. There’s nothing wrong with that prosthesis, but McGehee says he usually does not use it. “To this day, I probably don’t wear it a full day in a week,” he says. “In the year I went without, I figured out how to do everything.”

A little more than a year after his accident, McGehee returned to his old job. His coworkers helped him reconfigure the shop where he works. “I do my job as efficiently as when I had two hands; it’s nothing any different,” he says.

Now that he’s figured out how to do his job and play guitar again, life is back on track and how it should be, McGehee says.

“Nothing has really changed,” he says. “I’m a little less than I used to be, but all in all, I still do everything. I look at [my accident] as a bump in the road and life goes on.”

Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be reached at .

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