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The Story of my Hand

Back in October 2016, I had a hospital stay, with surgery for an infection in my left thumb. In some ways, it’s not that big of a deal, in other ways it was a very big deal – they used terms like “life-threatening” after the surgery was successful. There’ve been some long-term effects, some physical, some intellectual, but by and large I’m fine now.

This is the story, the best that I can recall, but note that it’s been quite a while now and there were circumstances that make me a slightly unreliable narrator. With that said… this is still the best that I can recall.

It started with a sick cat. Something was wrong with her; she would spasm and go into fight or flight mode for about five to ten seconds, biting as hard as she could to address whatever it was. It was scary to watch, but we loved the cat so we were trying to take care of her.

She actually bit me hard enough to draw blood three times; twice on my left hand, once on my right hand. It was inconvenient and painful, but I thought I was okay. I’d clean out the injury, put Neosporin on it, and move on. There were no real effects from this apart from the local injuries themselves – but they did convince me to not allow my wife or my kids to try to take care of the cat, because I didn’t want them injured.

However, she bit my hand again one Sunday. I was trying to bathe her, and in the process she spasmed again – and latched hard, hard enough for me to lift her whole body up with her using her teeth to stay attached to my hand. She bit through the flesh of my left thumb, including one puncture on the pad of my thumb, and went through the meat of the second joint.

I have a pretty high pain tolerance, but I have to say, that hurt a lot. (Not the worst I’ve ever felt, but… let’s just say I’ll be happy to not repeat the experience.) After I managed to dislodge her, I finished bathing her, trying to keep the blood from my thumb from getting all over. After that, I cleaned the new wound and put more ointment on it, and bandaged it.

The next day was uncomfortable. I had to keep my left hand elevated. If I didn’t elevate it, there was a lot of uncomfortable pressure and some fluid leakage. I didn’t mind the fluids – I was trying to keep it drained – but something about it didn’t feel right.

The day after that – day two after the injury – I thought it was going to get better; I figured if it wasn’t better by the third day I’d go to a doctor. However, I did notice a red line following the vein, going up my arm to my elbow.

From what I can understand, this was a bad, bad, bad sign. But I’m a tough old bird, and I don’t fear any medical procedure except for amputation, so I didn’t really worry too much – what concerned me wasn’t the pain or the red line, but the fact that I couldn’t use my thumb at all.

The next day showed up, and the red line was less visible… but my thumb was still as swollen as it had been, and just as painful. My thought was that I needed to have the wound debrided (i.e., cleaned out).

So off to the walk-in clinic I went, because it certainly wasn’t an emergency, right?

At the walk-in clinic, I did the standard dance about insurance and conditions. (“It’s my thumb; cat bite.”) I finally got into an examination room, where a nurse came in to take my vital signs and pain level (on a scale of one to ten, a “six”), only to find that my blood pressure was through the roof. I don’t remember the numbers, but they were apparently astronomical, to the point where blood should have been squirting out of my eyeballs or something.

That’s very unusual for me; my blood pressure is normally right where it’s supposed to be, mid-to-low normal. It was concerning, I guess, because it was different from the norm, but I was at the clinic for a cat bite, so I kept trying to refocus their attention.

The nurse kept saying “We can treat that blood pressure, we need to get that down,” to which I answered “… cat bite.” My blood pressure was definitely on my radar at that point, but addressing my blood pressure was not the same as addressing the fire in my thumb.

After a few rounds with the nurses, the walk-in clinic’s doctor showed up: “Sooooooo, let’s see what we can do about that blood pressure!”

“… cat bite, you mean,” after which I held it up for him to see.

He saw.

That was the last he mentioned of my blood pressure.

I immediately got an x-ray taken, to have it sent to an orthopedic surgeon (like, within five minutes – which was the time it took for me to get my wedding band off.) He then called the surgeon’s office, and I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After a while, the walk-in clinic’s doctor came up with a plan of action: I’d get intravenous antibiotics (I forget the name), with another battery of medicines to be taken orally, and I’d call in the morning and the evening to report progress. He then gave me the prescriptions for the medicines (and referred me to an emergency room for the intravenous antibiotics), and I prepared to go home…

… and then the clinic’s phone rang.

It was the surgeon. I didn’t hear that conversation – I only saw the doctor talking on the phone from a different room – but the walk-in clinic’s doctor laughed about it; he said that he (the walk-in doctor) described what his plan was to the surgeon, and the surgeon said “you know, that’s a great plan, I think you did a good job, but no, he is going to do this other thing.”

The surgeon said that I needed to go to the emergency room for a possible 23-hour stay (after which you have to be admitted, and everyone was trying to avoid that.) At the ER, I’d be monitored, my pain would be addressed (“this doesn’t look like a ‘six'”), and I’d get enough medicine to kill a goat. Then I would be able to go home and try the oral antibiotics.

“Well, that’s a plan, then,” I thought. (It was, in fact, a plan.) So my wife and I picked up my son from his school and traipsed off to the closest ER, which was a Women’s Hospital.

When I got there, everything went smoothly as one could expect; it’s never any fun to wait in an ER to be admitted, but I wasn’t bleeding out, and I was stable. They gave me the standard battery of questions (and had the same observation about my sky-high blood pressure) and everything progressed pretty smoothly, I guess. My pain was still about a “six.”

We finally got to an actual room in the ER, where they hooked me up to an IV and started pumping antibiotics and some pain medicines. I was bored out of my skull for about a bit, until they came in to ask me to have another set of X-rays taken – the first ones from the walk-in clinic were okay, but not good enough.

The pain medicines, by the way, didn’t do a thing. I went in with my pain at a six, and my pain remained a six.

After the x-ray, more boredom. I didn’t have a book, I had my wife and son, but they were bored; there’s nothing to do in a hospital but wait, really, and we were all trying to be patient. (I’m not good at being patient like that.)

After another hour or so, the ER doctor came in, and congratulated me. I was being admitted, but not at that hospital; like I’d said, it was a women’s hospital. Not being a woman, I needed to go to a different place. The plan was to admit me for long enough that the antibiotics could take hold, with surgery as an option if necessary.

Ambulance ride time! I’d never ridden in an ambulance that I remembered, so this was actually exciting.

I had to send my wife and son home, though. They needed to eat, they needed to recharge, I’d be fine.

The ambulance ride was interesting; I kept asking them to turn on the siren, but they wouldn’t. (And they shouldn’t have; I don’t fault them for this, but I also don’t fault myself for trying to get them to turn the siren on.) However, they also noted my sky-high blood pressure (like, nearly 80 points higher than it should have been, I think?)… and they actually addressed it.

They gave me a morphine derivative. I don’t remember which one it was (“fentanyl?” … yes, it was fentanyl), but they hit me with it and my blood pressure dropped like a stone back to normal levels. Whatever they hit me with, it was good. My pain dropped to … something, I don’t remember what it was (it still hurt) but I became rather calm and faintly silly (more so than I normally am), and they seemed satisfied with the result.

If it made them happy, I was happy too. I was in a good place, a mellow place, and the only drawbacks were I just couldn’t use my hand at all, and there was no siren. (There was no emergency, so obviously indulging me would have been ridiculous, and I wasn’t expecting it.)

Getting to the hospital was fine; they wheeled me up to my room in the orthopedic ward, and were quite nice. The bed was weird; I sank in it. I don’t think I ever quite got comfortable, but that’s okay; the bed did its job. It did bed-like things; I couldn’t ask any more from it than that.

The first nurse was great; she asked if I wanted anything, and I was starving by this point. I asked for something to eat – anything – and for apple juice. I wanted lots of apple juice; she asked if two containers would be enough, and I said, “Sure… as a start.”

She brought me a package of peanut butter crackers and two apple juices. By the time she’d opened the crackers for me (as I was one-handed) the apple juices were gone, might I please have some more?

She got me more apple juice. I inhaled those, and asked for more apple juice.

I don’t know how much I actually got down, but I didn’t feel like trying her patience past a certain point; I stopped asking for more. She was nice about it; I was okay, and stable, and no longer as thirsty as I was.

Somewhere along the way, a set of doctors came in to examine my hand and ask me about everything with it. I explained; I asked about the options. They gave me the rundown, from antibiotics (the passive plan), to surgery (a “possibility,” with a range of outcomes, one being a new life as Nine-Fingered Joe.)

I was not having that last option. No way, no how, no body, no nothing. Amputation was off the table. They could do whatever they wanted to, but I was leaving the hospital room in one piece, even if it was in a body bag.

The morning nurse came in for the pre-dawn shift, an awesomely sarcastic fellow named “Chuck.” He was great; bantered with me about the injury, scolded me for not taking it seriously enough. Constantly made jokes about amputation. I liked Chuck, he was great, but the amputation jokes were not funny, Chuck. I mostly asked Chuck for more apple juice.

He brought me some, but only a little; he, um, said that someone had asked for enough apple juice to empty the ward’s supply and that he’d have to scrounge to find more. I said nothing of who I thought the culprit might be.

To his credit, he actually borrowed some apple juice from other wards to bring me some. Like I said, Chuck was great, except for those amputation jokes. (They were not funny, Chuck.)

Then they came for me. There was no-one left to speak for me – oh, wait, this is just a story of my hand, and not apocalyptic literature from Martin Niemöller.

They did actually come get me in the morning. From what I can tell, all of the stuff they kept telling me about antibiotics and waiting to see what would happen was irrelevant; they knew I didn’t particularly want surgery, but it wasn’t really an option. They had kept reminding me that it was a possibility, and in the morning, it went from the “possible” to the “it’s going to happen in a few minutes.”

I really don’t know if they ever entertained the thought of not operating. I guess they were willing to see if the antibiotics would attack the infection quickly, but it’s hard for me to tell; one way or the other, I was going into surgery.

Surgery was rather surgery-like; I prepped (which didn’t involve much, being just on my hand), I waited, I was bored. After surgery prep, they anaesthetized me, then moved me into the operating room, which I saw briefly but barely remember after that, and then I was out.

Things apparently happened when I was out.

I woke up a few hours later, back in my hospital room; my wife and youngest son were there. My hand felt like it’d been hit with a brick. A heavy one. One that hurt.

My pain was finally above a six… and the staff had decided that my pain tolerance levels were off. What to me was a “six” was a “ten” to them. If I said I was at a four, it was time to hit me with sedatives; a six, or a seven, was serious business. I thought this was an overreaction, but … what did I know? I spend most of the time there apparently on a morphine high.

After that, it was all downhill. I was on an antibiotic schedule; my hand hurt like it had been scraped out (and it had); I acquired a new set of stitches, and a bunch of funny dreams. I woke up in the middle of the night after my surgery, shaking with anger at the nurses, because I had a dream of a dead, beached whale… and the hospital staff wouldn’t help… the dead… whale. In my dream. I was apparently castigating the staff, gently. I can’t imagine what that sounded like.

I actually got out of the hospital a day or two later; one of my sons had a football game, and while it might not have been bad for me to stay in the hospital a bit longer, I was on my way out of the woods, and I didn’t want to miss my son playing football. I had to change and clean my dressings; not a big deal, it wasn’t comfortable but it wasn’t bad, either.

I still only have about 85% of my left hand’s range of motion. My left arm is also notably weaker than it was, and probably always will be; there’s a ribbon of scar tissue under the skin, running from my left thumb up to about halfway up my forearm. (That’s where the infection had traveled, and what I think made the surgeons decide to act so fast – if it’d kept on going, I’d be typing this as a ghost.)

I resumed giving blood to the Red Cross not too long ago; I think they used five units of blood on me during surgery, and this wasn’t even a major surgery – nothing like heart surgery or anything like that, probably among the lesser operations that I myself have had.

We still miss the cat.

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