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Eric Cornell- Seven Years with One Arm

Courtesy of the Cornell Group
Eric Cornell, along with Carl Wieman, synthesized the first Bose–Einstein condensate in 1995. They both share a 2001 Nobel Prize for Physics with Wolfgang Ketterle.

He knows he woke up in a hospital, but he doesn’t remember it. He recalls wondering if his arm was wrapped in gauze, out of sight beneath the sheets. Then he realized. His left arm and shoulder had been amputated in a last ditch effort to save his life.

In 2004, Eric Cornell contracted necrotizing faciitis, a rare bacteria that kills 30 percent of people infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria breaks down muscle and fat tissues, giving it the nickname “flesh-eating bacteria.” Like most cases, Cornell experienced pain and flu-like symptoms a few days before going to the hospital.

An avid Red Sox fan, Cornell was watching the World Series final in between conversations with doctors. His wife, Celeste Landry says “the Red Sox had just won, they’re all jumping on each other, happy, and Eric says ‘I waited a long time for this, I thought I would feel better’…but he doesn’t remember saying that.”

In Cornell’s case, the bacteria had infected his left arm and shoulder. It is usually contracted through a cut, but Cornell doesn’t know how he was infected. The morning after being admitted to the emergency room, the decision was reached. They needed to amputate before the infection reached the core of his body. Cornell was unconscious, having been sedated because of the pain.

Landry told the surgeon, “If he has his brain, I think he wants to live.”

Cornell was 43 at the time, a Nobel prize winning physicist and father of two. After the amputation he spent seven weeks in the hospital, where he says it “kind of sunk in gradually how badly I was hurt.”

Seven years after his amputation, Cornell sits at a circular table in his office at the University of Colorado Boulder, a copy of Classical Electrodynamics laying at an angle on his packed book case. His grey shirt sleeve is tucked neatly inside itself, creating a clean edge to his silhouette. Whether because years have passed since the amputation or because of his natural outlook, Cornell can see humor when describing the darkest period of his life.

“It was kind of funny because the people who came to see me were very happy… because I had been for about a week quite close to death…They were all happy because I was obviously getting better; I was coming to grips with the fact of how bad I was, I wasn’t convinced I wasn’t dying, so it took a little while to be as happy as the people around me were.”

As part of his recovery, Cornell has skin grafts covering a substantial portion of his torso, which were taken from his own body.

“They take the skin off the legs, but they have to take what amounts to a very thin layer of the skin so they leave enough skin left on your legs that it can grow back.”

His scientific zeal is evident from the excitement in his voice when he talks about the device used to cut away the skin, an aspect of his recovery most people would cringe at.

“They have this thing, kind of like one of those cheese slicers with the wheel and the little wire you know,… they slice a very thin layer of the skin off, it’s an amazing thing.”

After returning home from seven weeks in the hospital, Landry says they “made gradual adjustments” for Eric.

“He would ask me to do something, like open a jar, and I’d open it one handed and look straight in his eyes to tell him that you could have done this yourself,” she said while laughing. “When he wanted to go back to work I said ‘you have to do the taxes before you can go back’ …so he did, and then he could go back to work.”

Cornell is now Chair of JILA, a multidisciplinary research institute. He isn’t teaching classes as much as he used too, instead advising graduate students on experiments. The students make the adjustments of the lasers now. Cornell says the adjustments are “too fine” to be done with just one hand. He calls his time with graduate students “the best part of his day.”

Cornell says he doesn’t think of his amputation as a severe disability.

“Compared to a lot of people who are disabled, a single arm amputation is a very mild disability… I look more disabled than I am.”

In his office there are no assistive devices or technologies in sight. That’s because there aren’t any. Cornell uses a normal keyboard to type, saying he was “too lazy” to use the voice recognition software daily. He was fitted for a prosthetic arm, but “didn’t find it very useful,” pointing out that prosthetic arms can’t hold and pick up things. He says they have a can and jar opener at home and a tandem recumbent bike that he and Landry ride, but that most of what they bought after the amputation was given away.

He drives with a turning knob on the steering wheel saying its “as safe as people who talk on their cell phones.”

Instead of using a specialized clamping device in the kitchen,“I end up putting it on the cutting board and wailing on it when I want to cut,” he said, while smiling.

His students see his optimism in the classroom.

“[Cornell] was upbeat about it and made a joke on the first day of class,”said Chris Schwaab, a former physics student who was taught by Cornell. “After that, he didn’t mention it and we talked about physics.”

Schwaab was in Cornell’s class two years after he lost his arm.

“He clearly really appreciated the beginning physics and that we were there,” said Schwaab.“He really enjoyed teaching us even though it was really trivial material to someone like him.”

Schwaab said Cornell “explained things clearly” by using “lots of diagrams and examples.”

Cornell continues his work with cold atoms as well as a different project that examines “how symmetric or however so slightly asymmetric the electron is.”

Cornell says he has “a very full life” and doesn’t want to rest on his scientific laurels.

“I’d like to continue to make discoveries in cold atoms and I’d love to have this electron experiment work, that would be a really big deal.”

Schwaab says he doesn’t think of Cornell as being disabled because it didn’t affect his cognitive abilities as a scientist.

“So he has one arm. He won a freakin’ Nobel.”

In 2007 KUNC's Brian Larson interviewed Dr. Cornell for this Colorado Profile. Jackie Fortier also filed this video to answer the question "How do you play golf with one hand?":

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