LEWISTON — Fifty years ago the Kenneys were off on a Sunday drive to the ocean when Marie and 1-year-old Joyce had to stop to use the bathroom.
The Topsham service station had just gotten new, heavy automatic doors. When those doors closed, they severed an inch of little Joyce’s right ring finger.
“The bone was sticking out,” said Joyce’s brother Mark, who was 8 at the time. “I was crying harder than you were,” he said to his sister. “And you were trying to console me. The rest of us were freaking out.”
The finger was reattached three hours later, after tears and pandemonium, and doctors telling her parents they would try their best.
If it didn’t heal, if the tip didn’t take, they’d have to cut off more of her finger to patch it up.
A cute, bandaged Joyce made the front page of the Lewiston Daily Sun.
A week later, success.
People sent letters from all over the world. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not came knocking.
“I look at it now and think, ‘Wow, the history behind that,’” said Joyce Kenney, 51, of Buckfield.
It was March 24, 1963, mid-morning. Mark Kenney remembers the details well. The family had been on the way to Bailey Island.
“My father and I were waiting in the car,” he said. “All of a sudden there was yelling and screaming and crying.”
Parents Roland and Marie rushed Joyce to a Brunswick hospital.
“They took a look at her, ‘We don’t do emergencies here,’” Mark Kenney said.
The family raced to St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston where doctors asked about the missing part. They didn’t have it.
Police were dispatched to the service station; they couldn’t find the finger.
“The doctor gave my father a little jar with solution in it,” Mark Kenney said. “He drove like 100 mph back to [Topsham]. He opened the door and he found it right away — it was still stuck in the door jam.”
Without Novocaine or anesthesia, doctors sewed it back on. Joyce Kenney only remembers seeing her pediatrician, Dr. Gilbert Grimes, and being on an exam table.
In the weeks that followed, her mother encouraged her to soak her hand, putting colorful marbles in the bottom of a bowl to play with.
“I feel blessed that they were able to reattach it,” Joyce Kenney said. “My poor mom, I can’t imagine.”
Dr. Wayne Moody, medical director at St. Mary’s Center for Orthopaedics, said Joyce likely benefited from being so young.
“In an adult, that would not work, it would just turn black and fall off,” said Moody. “But in a small child, because of the intense regenerative potential with her tissue, she was able to quickly grow some capillaries back into this small fragment.
“Kids, we often speak of them being like salamanders, they can almost grow a new finger, grow a new tail,” he said. “Just by putting it back on there, the way it works is just like a skin graft would work.”
Today, she has full use of her finger and full sensation but the nail bed is just a little shorter on her right ring finger than her left. Kenney said she remembers it being a topic of conversation throughout her childhood.
“‘How’s Joyce? What about that finger?’” she said.
When she was older, she read the mail that had poured in to the family. One woman shared that doctors had tried something similar on her; it hadn’t worked. A young boy said he was praying for her.
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not also wrote.
“‘Girl gets finger cut off, finger gets reattached, looks like a zombie now.’ My mom wanted nothing do to with it,” Joyce Kenney said.
One of her favorite reactions came from her brother Mark: “He wished it happened to him instead of me. He’s the best brother in the world, and I was a brat to him.”