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A Thumbnail Sketch

I’m a little embarrassed to tell you how I got injured. I’d like to say my back and neck were casualties of a deathmatch dodge ball league, or the result of hang gliding to triple lutz landing in a crosswind, but no, I got injured by sitting. I don’t even mean sitting in a caving harness for a 12-hour fundraising spelunkathon. Just sitting.

Yup, before I’d mastered home ergonomics, all-day sitting in my work-at-home chair through the early months of the pandemic was a hazardous act. The worst part of a sitting injury is I didn’t even have a colourful story to show for it, unlike my husband Dan, who’s way better at flamboyant injuries.

On an unsuspecting spring day, I was working from home at the beautiful but non-ergonomic oak desk Dan built in his garage woodshop. He was back in the shop, where a power tool had been droning on for so long I'd tuned it out, until an impolite utterance polluted the air.

For the briefest moment, I figured he’d just ruined a $50 dollar piece of oak with an errant cut. A microsecond later, I realized what had happened and bolted to the back door, where Dan was running in, grasping a bleeding paper towel over his right hand. Being the calm, cool, collected wife-in-waiting for woodshop mishaps, I sprang into decisive action.

Boil some water! Nope, that’s for childbirth. Find some ice! Yeah, that’s the one for severed digits.

I rummaged through the freezer in a cloud of mind-chaos.

“I think it’s still attached,” he said, running his thumb under the water in the sink. I settled on the cleanest looking tea towel off the stove and handed it to him. He wrapped it around his hand, guarding the sight from my squeamish eyes.

He peered glumly into the towel. "This is gonna need surgery." It was an especially grim assessment coming from the same guy who once put a nail right clean through his thumb while installing crown moulding, pulled it out, taped up his thumb and carried on working. That’s when I knew it was time to call an ambulance.

While Dan was bleeding toonie-sized drops on the floor, I was going through phone screening with 911 for COVID-19.

"No, he doesn't have a new or worsening cough."

“No, he doesn't have a fever, sore throat or difficulty breathing!”

“No, he doesn’t have nausea, vomiting, altered sense of smell, loose ball joints, hairy tongue, jaundiced navel lint, or male-pattern diarrhea. He has a mangled thumb!”

Every. Single. Question. Followed by, "Is the thumb severed?"

"I don't think so, but as the director of Camp Queasy-When-It-Bleeds, I’m really not best person to confirm.”

“Is he sweating or faint?”

“I’m not sure. He went back out to the garage to shut the router off!”

"He really should sit down to slow the bleeding."

But Dan would have no part of that risky sitting business. When I got off the phone, he was back in the house wiping blood off the kitchen floor. And then he scurried back to the garage to blow the sawdust off himself with the air compressor, 'cause what medical professional can put up with a bloody, mangly-thumbed would-be amputee who presents in the ER with poor grooming.

He trotted back into the house, calm, but he would not stop pacing all over house in good-humoured shock. My repeated pleas for him to sit down were as futile as the mission statement of the Obedient Cat Society. When the ambulance showed up, Dan was still vertical. I would have been a ball of hairy-tongued, sweating, fainting drama if it were one of my appendages similarly re-landscaped. The paramedic asked for a peek under his towel, and declared, "Yup. That’s gonna need surgery."

The paramedics took him away and left me standing there. No visitors are allowed in the hospital during a pandemic so I went back to my computer, feeling useless, while the reality of this injury settled in. If he loses his thumb, he loses his grip, and with that he’d gain a long list of things he’ll never do again – his own buttons, canoe trips, wood working.

The staff in the ER cheerfully answered all my phone inquiries. The intake clerk said she'd seen his wound: "You know how tires leave tread marks in soft ground? Well, it's like that on his thumbnail, but the soft tissue doesn't conform so nicely." So, I was picturing a little bite out of the tip of his thumb. Not so bad after all.

Then Dan texted me a photo.

Cheeses Murphy.

The clerk's description made it sound like a day at the beach with tire marks in the sand, not the gruesome butchering in the photo, complete with a nicely routered edge on the remains of a thumbnail.

His injury presented a challenge for the on-call plastics crew at LHSC, but the lead surgeon, a handsome lad of 15, said he could likely save his thumb (not in a jar) and restore function. Doogie and his trainees planned on a “flap” technique that would harvest some tissue and accessory parts from his forearm, hand and index finger and relocate them to the suburb of Thumbs Upton.

The kids these days – they stay up half the night executing complex extremity reconstruction that makes intact tissue magically appear where there was none, complete with warm bedside manner. The morning after surgery, Dan had feeling in all the places he's supposed to have it. Following a long recovery, he’s now capable of operating tools, paddling a canoe and ambidextrous hitchhiking.

The episode has pretty much blown Dan's hand modelling career, but it has made both of us grateful for the expertise of these talented young doctors who made it possible for him to continue what he loves. And we are thankful that the pandemic was managed well enough to preserve capacity for treating non-COVID emergencies.

The wifely care and maintenance of a semi-retired hubby with power tools is not for the faint of heart, but I'm pleased to report Dan is still in one piece, even after building a 7-piece bedroom suite. I’m taking credit for his intact appendages due to my new role as self-appointed safety supervisor of the wood shop. It keeps me busy in between safely sitting and riding my unicycle while juggling fire.

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