I’m not sure I ever spent much time fantasizing about what an amputation would be like, but if I had, I certainly don’t think I would have imagined something as casual as this. The plastic surgeon, the male triage nurse and I passed the time discussing home renovations in general, and the cost of re-doing kitchens in particular. The nurse, who was approaching the end of his shift (and who was no longer working triage), had offered to assist the surgeon, but since there was very little for him to do once he’d rounded up equipment, he was leaning back with his butt against the countertop, arms crossed. I was lying propped up on the bed, my right arm curved behind my head, my left extended onto the tray so the surgeon could work on it.
This was no fancy operating room; it was the same somewhat shabby ER room I’d been taken to on my arrival, the bed spattered with my blood, a jug of my pee still sitting on the counter.
Thankfully, the lidocaine had done its job, so the only sensations I felt were the tugs of sutures, and tiny vibrations of the bone nibbler doing what bone nibblers do.
“OK, I’m going to apply my cowboy tourniquet,” warned the surgeon.
“Whatcha got there, a filthy bandana?” I asked, not curious enough to look. “Don’t I get a bullet to bite on? Maybe a couple shots of whiskey?” The rubber tubing snapped as he decided he’d got it tight enough.
“You and me both!” the nurse laughed and proceeded to tell me about his day of being yelled at by patients.
The day had started out ordinarily enough. It was day two of cupboard installation at my son and daughter-in-law’s house. Day one had been bit of a loss in terms of productivity because it involved the inevitable scrambling for supplies at big box stores, but I had managed to rip up the sub-floor on a section of the kitchen and replace it where I needed to. Day two was all about installing the island and breakfast bar, which I could do without destroying the rest of the kitchen.
I’d spent the morning installing a couple of toe kick floor sweeps for the central vac, one opening onto the hardwood in the living room, hallway and dining room, the other opening onto the kitchen floor, which would be porcelain tile.
Then I proceeded to wrestle with the toe kick itself making several adjustments as I tried to determine how to compensate for a floor that was at least 3/4″ lower at one end than the other. Conventional TV Reno Show wisdom will tell you to work from the high end and then shim out to the low end – solid enough advice for minor discrepancies. But with larger differences, if you don’t pay attention, you’ll suddenly find yourself with cabinets installed and locked down and an end panel that no longer reaches the countertops. Even though I always make end panels a bit long because of this, I hadn’t, in this case allowed for a 3/4″ discrepancy, so I found myself having to cut down the toe kick, essentially leaving the counter top a bit low on one end and a bit high on the other.
I only bore you with this kind of senseless detail to make you understand that by early afternoon I was getting a bit frustrated, with myself as much as anything. It’s also why I had to reinforce the toekick over the cutout for the central vac floor sweep. Originally, a secton of 2 x 4, laid flat had worked for this, but with the the toekick cut down, this was now too thick. It needed to be cut down.
I like to think I’m pretty conscious of safety procedures when I work. I wear prescription safety glasses so I don’t forget to put eye protection on. I use hearing protection and dust protection when they’re needed. The list goes on.
But if I’m honest, the same cockiness that’s fairly evident in every other aspect of my personality also creeps into my procedures from time to time. I knew at the outset I was stretching one safety rule in the cut I was about to make at the table saw. And without thinking about it, I absolutely broke another one as I fed the 2 x 4 past the blade. The first mistake caused the blade to grab the board and kick it back at me. The second mistake caused the injury.
As the board was thrown, the end nearest me tipped up. That meant the far end tipped down, and took my hand with it. Initially, all I felt was a thump. I couldn’t tell if my hand had just been whapped by the board or the blade, but one look at my hand left little doubt. The action of the board and blade had turned my hand over. There was a deep cut at the end of my left ring finger, another at the base of the middle finger, a third in the meat of the thumb. The first two were on the back side of the hand, the latter, inexplicably, on the inside.
I won’t ruin polite company with the details of my immediate reaction. It was anything but polite. All the anger, all the frustration, all the shame, though, was reflexive. Even in that brief assessment, I never blamed the saw, or the board, or God, or Fate, or Luck. I knew exactly where the blame for this belonged, but that just made it all the more difficult to accept.
I didn’t have the luxury, though, of holding court on myself for too long. The blood was starting to flow, and I needed to act. I rushed into the house, grabbed a rag, wrapped it around my hand and pinched it with the wounded thumb. Was it a clean rag? Sure, if that will make you feel better.
Next I had to decide how to get to the hospital. Aaron and Jaimie were both at work. I took my phone out and contemplated dialing 911 but decided that tying up an ambulance for a cut hand just didn’t seem justified. Besides, I could get myself there faster. I ran to the basement bedroom where I was staying, popped two extra-strength Advil in anticipation of the pain that was headed my way, went back upstairs, made sure the dog was inside, then headed for the truck.
I have a confession to make at this point: I’m a wuss when it comes to blood and guts, particularly when they’re my own. I get queasy easy. I had factored this in when I decided to drive. There was a risk; I knew that, but I also knew that there were warning signs for me; it didn’t attack immediately. If I felt it hitting, I’d pull over. In the meantime, as I drove away, I began to control my breathing in a concerted effort to force my heart rate down and counteract the effects of the adrenaline shot that had hit me the moment my hand had struck that blade. This was putting my martial arts training to a test I had never anticipated. It seemed to work well enough. I wasn’t feeling great, but I hung in there long enough to get to the hospital.
Of course, when I arrived, I had to go through all the usual rigamrole of registration.
“No workman’s compensation, then?”
“No, that’s just one of several regrets within the past half hour.” I had actually tried to register with Workman’s Comp a couple weeks before, but the web site was down. I hadn’t got back to try again.
The nurse at registration suggested that I was pretty pale and that she was going to put me in a wheel chair. I wasn’t about to argue; I wasn’t feeling great, so I sat in the chair, and she wheeled me the fifteen feet over to the triage desk. I took the opportunity to try to phone Jaimie, but there was no answer, so I phoned Aaron instead. I was sure Jaimie would be the first one home, and I didn’t want her coming on an empty house with blood all over the kitchen floor. I asked Aaron to call Jaimie and tell her what to expect, but to tell her I was OK. I got that done just in time. I knew I was fading. As I hung up the call, the triage nurse had begun to unwind the rag from my hand. He seemed rather impressed with the mess I’d made and began to wrap the wound in something a bit more sterile.
That’s when it hit.
When I woke up, there were two people in the room. A female nurse had joined us, and both of them seemed a bit frantic. They were peppering me with questions as if they didn’t seem to realize the last thing I was looking for at that moment was a lightning round of quick snappers. They were tugging at my clothes, moving me onto a bed, asking me who I was and all sorts of other trick questions. I was apologizing for God knows what, and they were apologizing because they thought I was interpreting their excitement as anger. It was quite a real Canadian shitshow for a minute or so. All the time I was thinking, “Geez, have you never had anyone wonk out on you before?” In hindsight, I realize they have to treat cases of shock with some seriousness, I suppose.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, though. If you ever want to get a little action in Emergency, just pass out on them. I was whisked into an exam room before I could come to.
On the down side, It brought some unneeded attention as well. It earned me a quick chest shave and a hook up to a vitals monitor. That limited my mobility considerably.
After that initial flurry, the pace of things slowed substantially. It was probably an hour before I saw a doctor, a muscular South African fellow who told me he wanted to see x-rays first, then probably another hour before an orderly came to wheel me down to radiology. It’s an odd feeling being in a room by yourself with absolutely no idea of any timeline, lying there listening to banal conversations among the staff, conversations that seem so at odds with what you might expect, given the environment.
To make matters worse the heart monitor would issue a warning beep any time my heart rate fell below 49. Normally, I would consider my low resting heart rate an asset, but this was annoying as hell, especially since no one paid any attention to it except me, and I knew I was perfectly healthy. I considered ripping the sensors off, but I’d already gotten shit from the female nurse for driving myself to the hospital, so I thought I’d avoid provoking her a second time.
I’m not going to complain about my treatment, but at the time things seemed to proceed incredibly slowly.
When the ER doctor finally did return with news from radiology, it wasn’t good. The saw had smashed the bone in the ring finger. Then he casually said, “we’re probably gong to have to take that off, but I’ve called a plastic surgeon for a consult.” In that moment, I was struck by the terseness and bluntness of his delivery, but when I re-examined it later, I’m not sure that some sort of Pollyanna treatment would have made the news any more digestible.
I had another hour to process that news while we waited for the surgeon to arrive. I’ll confess to a dark moment during that hour. I had another considerably later. Still I hoped that the surgeon’s skilled eye would see a way to re-construct the finger.
When the surgeon finally did arrive, he didn’t spend a lot of time with the x-rays before coming in with his assessment. The saw had smashed the joint at the last knuckle. I had two options:
1. He could sew everything up, in which case the bones would fuse. I would have full length in my finger, but there would essentially be no last knuckle. He did point out that the healing might prove less than satisfactory but if it was painful I could always have the amputation done at a later time. OR
2. He could remove the end of the finger today.
He proceeded to suture the gash in my middle finger to give me the time to weigh those options. I didn’t waver much. The idea of having a stiff finger getting in the way held little appeal to me. I wouldn’t be able to make a proper fist, and I could see it being an impediment in all sorts of fine motor tasks. Furthermore, I had no desire to re-visit surgery at a later date. I told him to take it off.
Five hours after I’d turned off the saw, I was driving back to Aaron and Jaimie’s, but first I had to stop at a pharmacy for meds. As the young girl at the dispensary handed me my prescriptions, she said, “Have a nice day!” I chuckled inwardly at that. She was so locked in the routine of her day that she could hand antibiotics and Tylenol 3s to a man spattered in blood from stem to sternum, a man wearing a gauze baseball mitt on his hand, and never once question whether “Have a nice day” was an appropriate response.
In contrast, thirty seconds later, the middle-aged woman at the front till called out as I walked past, “Boy, you don’t look very healthy!”
“Actually, I’m quite healthy, I’m just shy part of a digit that I woke up with this morning.” She stared at me as if I had a leprechaun peeking out from behind my ear. I guess I was having too good a day for her.
In telling this story, I couldn’t help think about one of my favourite Patrick Lane Poems, “Just Living.” Like many of Lane’s poems it’s a peculiar balance of harshness – even brutality – and tenderness. In it, the narrator drives a man who has just lost his hand in a saw mill accident miles down rough logging roads, the severed hand all the while sloshing in a pail of ice water. By the time they make it to the hospital, it’s too late to save the hand, so the narrator returns to camp. The entire poem hinges on the question, “What do we do with the pieces of ourselves that we lose?” That, of course, is an existential question about loss masquerading as a question about lost body parts. In the end, he stops on a bridge and launches the hand out into the night, where it hangs for a moment as if holding the moon, before disappearing into darkness.
There was no such poetic end for that sad little flap of finger I left behind, and I’m left wondering why I even tell this story.
For certain, it’s not for sympathy. I’m not looking for any, and I wouldn’t deserve it anyway. In addition to being self-inflicted, my loss is a minor one. I can still give thumbs up to a good movie, still point at things in wonder, still flip the bird in traffic, and still delicately hold out a pinky at tea time. In fact, if I suddenly took a notion to wear jewelry, I could still wear a ring. As an added bonus, I now have one less fingernail to clip and one less fingerprint to give me away at a crime scene.
As for pain, I’ve really had none to speak of. The sharpest pain I felt was from the needle the surgeon gave me for local anesthetic. The advil carried me through to the surgery, and the Tylenol 3s did their work for the first few days afterward. By the fourth day I’d quit taking them. I”ve taken nothing today, and I’m fine. True enough, if I whap my finger against something I experience an electric shock through my entire body, as if I’d stuck it in a dryer outlet, but that’s really not surprising.
Am I telling the story as some sort of cautionary tale for my readers? No, not really. Most of you probably don’t regularly deal with table saws, and if you do, you probably already know that they can maim.
No, the only reason for telling the story is to get it out there, to tell it ONCE and get it over with. The entire incident isn’t really something I can take any pride in, so I don’t relish re-telling it ad nauseam. So now it’s out there.
By the way, my second moment of darkness came to me when I considered composing this blog post and I suddenly realized touch typing speed was going to take a real hit. Typing “saws” would never be the same again. That darkness lasted about two minutes before I kicked myself and concluded that If I’d learned to touch type one way when I was 15, I could probably find a way to adapt now.
The day after the accident I went out on the back patio to survey the scene. I picked up the board I’d been cutting. All I could see was a single speck of blood – and an unfinished cut on the wrong side of the board.