“A woman fell in her bathroom this afternoon and pierced her eyeball. I need to look after her first . . . then I’ll get to you.”
The tall lanky man had just introduced himself as my surgeon. It was late evening. He wore an off-white t-shirt with a grey circular design on the front. From my perspective on a gurney next to the operating theatre, his faded blue jeans were just visible.
He looked down and asked, “Will you be okay for a bit? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Sure,” I said and meant it . . . but couldn’t avoid glancing at the huge bandage enclosing my left hand. The visible fingers were caked with blood.
May 13 2013
Hey, saving an eye was important . . . even more important than the task I’d presented him with.
After attending to the woman’s eye, Dr. Stan Valnicek’s challenge would be saving my left thumb and forefinger. A few hours earlier I’d almost severed both, plus badly damaged the middle finger, with my miter saw. I was willing to wait . . . I didn’t want him feeling rushed while working on my damaged digits.
Dr. Valnicek turned to leave, then stopped and said:
“By the way, which hand do you favor?” asking whether I was right handed or left-handed. Understandably, he wanted to get ahead of the pre-op sedatives coursing through my body. By the time he’d got back, chances are I’d be deeply engulfed in the ‘fog’ already beginning to shroud my consciousness.
“I’m rather fond of both,” I blurted out.
He chuckled, gracefully acknowledging the levity.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m left handed . . . and I’m also a writer.”
Dr. Valnicek’s eyes widened slightly. Perhaps a fleeting thought had skittered through his talented mind . . . could it have been something like, ‘Oh shit!’?
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, then added with welcome candor both a reassurance and a caution: “You should regain the use of your fingers, but you can expect some stiffness.”
An hour later, in the middle of the night, this remarkable micro-surgeon/plastic surgeon began some incredibly delicate surgery that most of us barely know about. I learned later that some of the sutures in these procedures can be finer than human hair. For the next four hours he worked to undo much of the damage I’d inflicted on my hand in a nanosecond of inattention.
(A testament to Dr. Valnicek’s exceptional talent is this story you’re reading: It’s written using both hands, including the fingers and thumb he skillfully reattached.)
Okay, installing baseboards is a routine job, right? That’s what I was doing at the time. But therein lie the risk and the rub. I’ve installed baseboards many times before . . . and have used power tools for half a century. The difference this time? I was not paying close attention when it mattered. At the moment of the accident, my left hand was cupped over a piece of baseboard pushing it into position to make a cut. That next cut turned out to be my hand. The saw blade was still spinning when I pushed the board sideways toward it. I’d not waited for the guard to come down, or for the brake on the blade to engage. A nanosecond.
My hand was cupped one way; the blade is curved the other way. The combination of opposite curves made for an extra-deep cut into the back of my hand, just above the knuckles, through skin, tendons, bones, flesh and muscle. Yeah, ugly!
The x-rays later confirmed I came very close to severing the thumb and forefinger. A tendon on the middle finger was also severed.
We learned later that Dr. Valnicek installed five wires to hold the reattached tendons in place and two stainless steel plates to position the bone of my index finger: the saw blade had removed 1/8 of an inch of bone. The plates will stay, held in place by 12 tiny screws. (In future, should anyone accuse me of having a screw loose, the odds are even greater now that they will be correct.)
The severed thumb bone, officially the 1st metacarpal, was held together by two stainles steel pins in an “X” shape. When it came time to remove them — by pulling on the stub ends sticking through the skin — the thumb looked for all the world like the trussed up business end of a Thanksgiving turkey.
For the first week post-op, the hand was fully swathed in bandages. And for the next five weeks, the hand was in a cast, precluding all those things we need two hands to do, including wearing long-sleeved shirts and sweaters, and warm jackets on chilly spring days. It’s most instructive to be forced to function with only one opposing hand, and only one set of opposing fingers. We humans are designed to rely upon two sets of each for just about everything we do.
May 17, 2013
I’d always worn a belt, until then. Elastic waistbands and the bellies of overweight mature males are a dysfunctional combination. So my dear wife Sharolie acquired a set of braces, the first since I was about three years old. And most of the shoes I normally wear have laces. Try managing a belt or shoelaces with one hand. Or try putting on socks, or button-up shirts. Or try opening bottles . . . pill or pickle – it’s all the same. Not possible. How about using a Scotch tape dispenser? Impossible, too. Or in the shower (with a plastic bag over the left hand), go ahead and try using your right hand to soap your right armpit. Entertaining to watch, I would imagine.
Eating is another challenge . . . cutting meat with one functioning hand and even some veggies. Too often, it doesn’t end well. At times you end up wearing an unbecoming amount of food on the front of your shirt. Not classy at all.
And forget about recreation – Sharolie and I enjoy golfing, hiking, kayaking and cycling. We’d planned a summer of those activities and more, until the accident in the middle of May. Two months later, I golfed a little . . . well, I swung a wedge and putter. Triumphs! The next day, I tied my shoes for the first time, and a week later went kayaking. More progress. Turns out, the trick was getting out of the kayak, not getting in or paddling. Even more progress, just the same.
June 21, 2013
Nine weeks after the accident, what a thrill it was to practice with my golf driver and five-iron at a nearby driving range.
Now, the scar is almost invisible, thanks to Dr. Valnicek’s skill. Not so long ago it was a deep and gaping four-inch cut, pumping blood onto my miter saw and the driveway as I tried to apply a tourniquet with one hand and phone 911 at the same time. The touch screens on iPhones don’t function well covered in blood. One other detail: I have hemophilia . . . I bleed profusely. Yeah, I know, a gruesome thought.
August 15, 2013
But it’s over now, mostly. The hand will need physiotherapy for a while yet. And I’ll need to continue working on it even longer on my own to regain more dexterity and strength. The rehabilitation challenge is two-fold: partly psychological and partly physical. After weeks of being protective of a fresh injury, the time came to do the exact opposite. The wound was healed . . . I had to stop ‘babying’ it. I understood that to rehabilitate my hand I would have to force the knuckles and fingers and the whole hand to flex until they hurt as much as I could bear, and then push them even harder until it made me squirm. There’s nothing special about that . . . it’s necessary and it’s selfish, really. It’s going to take that and more to get my hand back functioning closer to where it was, and to do justice to Dr. Valnicek’s extraordinary work. So be it.
The truth is, I’m really lucky. Not just for the obvious: I’ll eventually get back the use of my hand, almost entirely. Others are not that lucky . . . those with physical limitations who don’t have, or never had, those precious abilities with arms and legs the rest of us take for granted. I’ve gained a new and much deeper respect for the challenges they face. They must struggle every minute of every single day just to do what we consider the “simple things”, abilities that most of the time we’re barely conscious of – until we are without them. No more.
Copyright 2013 By James Osborne All Rights Reserved