When Jared Spencer shows up to a Fourth of July party, people take a little extra caution around the fireworks.
He’s a walking safety reminder.
Spencer’s right hand was blown off five years ago in a fireworks accident at a holiday party in northwest Omaha.
In his recovery, Spencer battled depression and addiction. Now 36, he’s turned things around. He no longer uses drugs. He’s back to work as a mechanic in Frisco, Texas, where he and his wife, Jessie, now live.
Spencer’s best advice for holiday celebrations: Be safe, skip the illegal fireworks and don’t light any fireworks in your hand.
“I don’t want this to happen to someone else,” he said.
Last year there were an estimated 9,100 fireworks-related injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The bulk of fireworks injuries affect hands and fingers (28% of injuries), followed by the legs (24%), eyes (19%), and head, face and ears (15%), the commission says. Trunk and arm injuries make up the rest. More than 40% of the injuries are burns.
Omaha-area hospitals in 2018 treated more than 30 patients for fireworks-related injuries.
Spencer’s accident happened quickly, he said, but he still remembers it clearly. He held the fireworks — with the power of a quarter-stick of dynamite — in his hand. It exploded as soon as it was lit.
Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates
Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.
The force knocked Spencer to the ground. He tried pushing himself up and realized that the explosion took his right hand with it.
“It looked like wet spaghetti,” Spencer said of his arm.
He was losing blood. His lips had a blue tint to them. He was slipping in and out of consciousness while waiting for the ambulance. That’s when the pain set in.
When The World-Herald talked to Spencer weeks after the accident, he was slowly adjusting. He encountered phantom pain and waited to be fitted for a prosthesis. Spencer hoped that damage to his right eardrum wouldn’t lead to permanent hearing loss.
He got a prosthesis about three months after losing his hand. He went back to work as a mechanic shortly after but wound up quitting. It was hard to use the prosthesis and harder still to do his job.
Spencer spent two years on disability. He started doing drugs and nearly lost his marriage.
Then he got into outpatient rehab programs. He stopped using drugs. He started spending more time with his wife and family.
“I learned I had to fix myself before I could go ahead,” Spencer said.
Eventually, he started to tinker with his wife’s car. He started getting more proficient at using what he refers to as his “nub” and was able to tackle some jobs that typically require two hands. He started doing some repair work on the side, fixing brakes and doing suspension work.
Last year he moved to Frisco, Texas, to be near his father.
He applied to a few mechanic shops, but he suspects he was denied because of his hand. But one shop took a chance on him.
Some of his tools are battery powered, so he needs to use only one hand. Other times he’ll use what’s left of his right arm, or a shoulder, to steady parts. He can tackle most repair jobs, but rear drum brakes are like his “kryptonite.” In those cases, his co-workers will step in to help.
At home, putting on socks, tying his shoes and buttoning a shirt — tasks he struggled with shortly after the accident — are things he can do with ease now.
One of the few things he struggles with is striking something with a hammer. Spencer, who was right-handed, is still working on his penmanship.
“I push myself to see what I can do,” Spencer said. “If I can’t, I try harder and harder until I can do it.”
He doesn’t use his prosthesis and has slight trouble hearing.
Spencer said he’s always loved fireworks and the Fourth of July. The year of his accident, he spent nearly $1,000 on fireworks. Since then, he’s stayed away from any illegal devices and watches professional shows.
This year, though, he plans to put on a show to honor his father, who recently died. But Spencer said he’s sticking to fireworks sold legally. And, per his wife’s rule, he won’t be lighting any.
Spencer said he likes to share his story, because he wants other people to be safe.
“It takes less than a second for it to happen and boom. There’s no turning back,” Spencer said.