Stumped

De­spite at­tempts to reat­tach my pinkie, I woke up with nine fin­gers

Geist - - Contents - Bar­bara Zatyko

About three years ago I adopted two res­cue dogs, a sis­ter and brother Akita-ger­man shep­herd mix that I named Bon­nie and Clyde. They’re big, they’re loud, they’re beau­ti­ful. And mine was their first home after five years of star­va­tion, con­fine­ment and abuse at the hands of a hoarder.

One evening, about a year after I adopted them, I was feed­ing Bon­nie and my friend’s dog, Brody, de­hy­drated chicken fil­lets out­side on the sec­ond-floor deck while Clyde fin­ished his din­ner in­side. At one point, Brody stole Bon­nie’s por­tion, which led to a blood­cur­dling fight. Bon­nie was un­der Brody and I grabbed her har­ness to pull her out. I don’t re­mem­ber the bite. I don’t re­mem­ber scream­ing. I do re­mem­ber straight­en­ing up from my crouch with a sick feel­ing and think­ing, what have I done now? I didn’t look di­rectly at my hand for fear that I would faint, but I could tell from the an­gle that a piece of my lit­tle fin­ger was miss­ing. Later on I learned that Bon­nie had crushed the sec­ond knuckle and my in­stinc­tive re­coil had es­sen­tially pulled off my fin­ger, which dan­gled by a ten­don.

My neigh­bour’s daugh­ter was star­ing up at me from her drive­way and I told her to call 911 and get her fa­ther. My ten­ant came run­ning and I told her to get a bowl of ice and help me down the stairs. I slipped my feet into my shoes, grabbed my purse and got ready to go down­stairs so I wouldn’t have to be car­ried if I passed out. On the deck, the dogs hap­pily lapped up my blood.

My neigh­bour Scott was at the foot of the stairs in his bathrobe when I got there, pulled out of the shower by his daugh­ter. I asked him to tie up my shoes. When the am­bu­lance ar­rived the paramedic said it was the calmest ac­ci­dent scene he’d ever been to. My blood pres­sure was 120/80, lower than it had been the week be­fore when I’d vis­ited my doc­tor. In the am­bu­lance, lights and sirens blar­ing, the paramedic told me that his col­league and he take turns driv­ing and min­is­ter­ing aid; if a call didn’t re­quire med­i­cal at­ten­tion, it didn’t count as a ro­ta­tion so the driver still had to drive on the next call. I rated my pain as 3 out of 10, earn­ing praise for a high pain thresh­old. We dis­cussed my Hun­gar­ian last name and his visit to Bu­dapest.

At Emer­gency in Toronto Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal I called Brody’s owner, Belinda, who was al­ready dis­traught, hav­ing heard the news from my neigh­bour, and on her way to the hos­pi­tal. I told her to turn back and take care of Bon­nie and Clyde in­stead. I called my boss and told him I might be late for work to­mor­row. I called my brother and said, Guess what I’ve done now?

I was even­tu­ally ex­am­ined, x-rayed, in­ter­viewed by the po­lice, given mor­phine, con­sulted by a plas­tic surgery in­tern (My name is Dr. Hansen. Dr. Hand­some? Dr. Hansen.), in­ter­viewed by An­i­mal Ser­vices, ex­am­ined again and then con­sulted by an­other plas­tic sur­geon, who told me there was a lessthan-twenty-per­cent chance of sav­ing the fin­ger and would I like them to try to save it or would I pre­fer to get it am­pu­tated in the ER?

Out­side the op­er­at­ing room, the or­derly, an ex­cited woman in her for­ties, kept bad­ger­ing me to take off my ear­rings and rings, which I wasn’t able to do. She kept bleat­ing, No fam­ily! No fam­ily! to the op­er­at­ing room staff, to ex­plain that the rea­son I was still wear­ing my jew­ellery was be­cause I had no fam­ily present to re­move it. The kindly anes­the­si­ol­o­gist took my jew­ellery off and de­posited the pieces in a spec­i­men jar, which one of the nurses promised to look after.

Sev­eral hours later I woke up with nine fin­gers, de­spite at­tempts to reat­tach my pinkie by the world­class sur­gi­cal team, who a few months later per­formed the first suc­cess­ful hand trans­plant in Canada.

A week after the am­pu­ta­tion I went to the hand clinic for a post-op exam. The sur­gi­cal fel­low in­tro­duced him­self and sat across from me and my friend Jo­hanne and asked: how was I feel­ing, what was the level of pain, any fever, and so on. When he re­moved the ban­dage I saw my stump for the first time. It was big­ger than I’d an­tic­i­pated and the swollen red flesh was criss-crossed with men­ac­ing black stitches.

He pointed at my hand and asked, Where’s your fin­ger? Jo­hanne and I looked at each other. I asked him if this was some kind of psych eval­u­a­tion to de­ter­mine if I’d ac­cepted my new re­al­ity as an am­putee. No, he said, I’m just won­der­ing where the fin­ger is. I ex­plained that it was wher­ever dig­its are sent after un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts at reat­tach­ment in the op­er­at­ing room.

When phys­io­ther­apy started I was a model pa­tient, ad­just­ing beau­ti­fully and heal­ing quickly. I pooh-poohed warn­ings about PTSD ex­pressed by con­cerned friends and med­i­cal staff. For a fin­ger? I’d scoffed. Then, over the next few weeks, my ring fin­ger swelled up and my pur­ple palm throbbed with pain if I so much as walked quickly. Fol­low-up ap­point­ments and fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion of the x-rays couldn’t ex­plain why I was no longer heal­ing as I should. My puffy dark palm was due to vas­cu­lar trauma, as the veins in my hand slowly fig­ured out how to re­wire them­selves.

I took more drugs, slept with my arm propped up and dreamt that Bon­nie and Clyde were go­ing to eat me. I was jumpy and im­pa­tient, and couldn’t stop cry­ing. Friends brought food, sham­pooed my hair, walked my

dogs, cleaned my house, weeded my gar­den. Even­tu­ally I joined a fin­ger and thumb am­putees sup­port group on­line and found a large com­mu­nity of peo­ple miss­ing dig­its. A few new mem­bers joined our group ev­ery week. I learned that con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, the pinkie is im­mensely im­por­tant in the hi­er­ar­chy of fin­gers. The most im­por­tant are the thumb and in­dex fin­ger on one’s dom­i­nant hand, but the pinkie is the foil to the thumb; other fin­gers can be com­pen­sated for, but not the pinkie.

With­out the pinkie, not only is it hard to open jars, but you can’t cup your palm to hold things. Twenty per­cent of my hand strength was gone. I hit the caps lock but­ton less of­ten than I used to when aim­ing for the shift key. I started to buy more pre­cut frozen veg­eta­bles.

Com­ing up to the two-year mark, I still have some soft tis­sue dam­age and swelling. Friends con­tinue to help me walk the dogs as I can only walk one at a time. Too much pres­sure on my palm can still send my stump into or­bit with pain. But com­pared to oth­ers I’ve come to know, my re­cov­ery was straight­for­ward. I wasn’t faced with mul­ti­ple surg­eries, neck trou­ble, nerve dam­age, bone in­fec­tions, job loss, prob­lems with self-im­age or chronic phan­tom pain. If I’m in a meet­ing and some­body is dron­ing on or an­noy­ing me, I’ll steeple my hands and let the pinkie on my whole hand flap in search of its coun­ter­part. A lit­tle dis­com­fi­ture of­ten gets things mov­ing. A girl’s gotta use what she’s got.

But mostly, I don’t even think about my hand and how it’s changed. The only time I’m taken aback is when I’m walk­ing along with the sun at my back and I catch sight of the shadow of my hand on the side­walk.

Bar­bara Zatyko is Vice Pres­i­dent, Op­er­a­tions & De­vel­op­ment at Mag­a­zines Canada, and Man­ag­ing Edi­tor Emer­i­tus of Geist. Read more of her work at geist.com. Zatyko lives in Toronto.

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