Last winter I severed a tendon in my thumb.
It was a pretty serious injury. It required complicated surgery during which there was a chance a supplemental tendon would have to be harvested from the inside of my wrist to fix the thumb. Thankfully that did not come to pass, but I did have to wear a cast to the elbow that left just the four remaining undamaged digits on my dominant hand free to do things like type—which is what I do for a living—and write—which is what I would have done with my dominant hand if I’d been able to hold a pen. I had to move apartments suddenly during the time I was wearing the cast, but I’m not looking for (all) your sympathy.
How it happened
What I’m looking for is an appreciation of the way in which it is possible to hurt ourselves incidentally and severely in the course of very unrisky behavior at home: My tendon was severed in a casual instant when the ceramic salad plate I was washing broke in my hands. I was amazed that a piece of broken crockery could draw so much blood; when I retold the story later, I’d be reminded that they make scalpels from ceramics.
I didn’t go to the emergency room when I cut my thumb. While the cut did seem to be deeper than your average slicing-an-onion nick, and I maybe left my body for a minute at the sight of the wound, I didn’t believe it was possible to really hurt myself while washing dishes. If I’d gone to the ER, they’d have sewn up the tendon on the spot and I wouldn’t have had to have the surgery or the cast, never mind the weeks of physical therapy and the scarred not-quite-normally-functioning thumb I now have on my dominant hand.
What people with children know
People with children know that when you see a lot of blood, you rush to the hospital. I blame part of my cluelessness—the fact that I put a series of novelty band-aids on my gangrenous wound and didn’t think to go to the doctor until three weeks had passed and I couldn’t straighten my thumb—on the fact that I don’t have children. There’s an alarm that doesn’t go off.
Surgery of any kind is a terrible drag. The only good part is the painkillers, and that’s only if you know to say “8” when they ask you how much pain you’re in afterwards, because “10” sounds suspicious and telling the truth is going to land you with a directive to take two Tylenol as needed.
Why on earth anyone would get elective surgery is one of life’s great mysteries, as recovery is such a ridiculous ordeal, but at least after plastic surgery you have a new nose. After tendon repair, you get to still have a thumb, only a less dexterous version of the one you used to have.
Do the worst accidents happen at home?
When people saw my cast and asked me what happened, I would make things up: I got in a fight. I was rescuing a cat. It feels ridiculous to tell people that you were in a freak dishwashing accident.
They act interested but really they just pity you: They see you as one of those heedless, accident-prone types and glide on to the next cocktail party conversation before they catch what you have. Almost cutting off your own thumb in the kitchen while not even wielding a weapon is so undramatic, so unexotic, so totally domestic.
In the same way you drive so much more slowly and carefully after you get a speeding ticket, I am working on being better at staying home alone without incident. It’s going okay. Last Saturday I attempted some hasty home surgery on a callus with a credo blade and now understand precisely why they are illegal to use in nail salons. There was no serious or lasting damage done. For the moment, at least, I’m intact.