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