Blake Babic is no stranger to surgery—or pain, for that matter.
In 2015, he sustained burns to much of his upper body when grease caught fire inside a home.
While his initial recovery proved long and arduous, he battled through it, displaying tenacity and optimism when some might have given up.
“When they told me I would never be able to do anything with my hands and arms, that they might end up being amputated … I just starting fighting to stretch my skin as much as I could,” Babic, 33, said.
As an artist who thrived on creating, he wasn’t about to settle for a life without use of his hands.
“At first, I did everything with my feet,” he said. “But I ended up taping a pencil to the side of my hand so I could draw. You only get one shot at some things—life is one of them. You’re not going to get another body, so you’ve got to make the best with the one you’ve got.”
He put in the work, at therapy and at home. He did exercises to stretch his skin and joints, doing all he could to keep things moving and working.
In the end, he saved his arms and hands.
“It’s tough,” Babic said. “Scars contract overnight and sometimes it’s like you’re back to square one.”
Seven years later, he began to experience trouble with his left hand. He could scarcely use it, and it became a hardship during his work in tree-cutting, landscaping and property management.
Seeking relief from the pain, he got a referral to Spectrum Health Orthopedics Hand, Microsurgery and Upper Extremity, where he met Stephen Duquette, MD, a hand and plastic surgery specialist.
“The majority of his issue was burn scar contracture, which is something we see quite often with hand burns treated with skin grafts,” Dr. Duquette said.
With contracture, the normally elastic skin becomes non-stretchy. Patients can also develop a secondary contracture.
“The pain stems from having skin that doesn’t want to move and, every time you try and do something, there’s pulling and tension that hurts,” he said.
Dr. Duquette reviewed surgical treatment options with Babic, determining that Z-plasty, a plastic surgery technique used to improve functionality—and the appearance of scars—would be his best option to regain some use of his left hand.
“Z-plasty is essentially geometrically rearranging some scar tissue to open up the web space of the hand—in Blake’s case, his thumb,” Dr. Duquette said. “Now he can bring his thumb out and grip things like a can or a ball.”
Babic anticipated recovery taking a couple of years.
But just two months after undergoing the procedure, he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Dr. Duquette was confident in doing the surgery and I already knew what the recovery would entail,” Babic said. “We were both on the same page—and he knocked it out of the park.”
Dr. Duquette credits Babic’s recovery to a positive outlook and realistic expectations—and a commitment to doing his part for a successful outcome.
“We do our part in surgery, but the patient has to follow the guidelines with therapy and splinting,” Dr. Duquette said. “He did all of that.”
When the orthopedics team began brainstorming patients who could throw out the first pitch at the Whitecaps’ Star Wars Night on July 16, they immediately thought of Babic. Spectrum Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine sponsored the event.
“We see a lot of happy patients, but he’s got to be one of my happiest,” Dr. Duquette said.
With his girlfriend, Arasely Montoya, and their kids—Elianna, Adriel and Immanuel—cheering him on, Babic knew he was ready to give the crowd a look at his success story.
Before the game, he and the kids spent some time chucking rocks into a local pond, a sort of warmup for the big moment.
As the announcer at the Whitecaps game introduced him, Babic gave a friendly wave.
He stepped up to the plate, one simple goal in mind: Don’t let the ball hit the dirt.
“It’s kind of terrifying,” he had said beforehand. “I’m just going to throw it as hard as I can and hope I don’t hit the ground.”
It couldn’t have gone better. He had a strong windup and delivered a flawless pitch. The ball made a satisfying smack as it landed squarely against the catcher’s mitt.
Babic, however, knew his real accomplishment had already been achieved.
“I’m definitely a better person because of everything I’ve gone through,” he said. “Suffering makes you appreciate not suffering.”
He said he and Montoya love their life together, and they spend as much time as they can with the kids, enjoying the beauty Michigan has to offer. They find beaches to explore, they build forts and they sneak in date nights whenever possible.
Amid his remarkable health journey, Babic offers sage words for others who may face adversity.
“Don’t ever let anyone limit you,” he said. “And don’t limit yourself.”