I impaled my right thumb with a power drill last week while screwing together a pair of 2x4s to make a firewood cradle. The bit slipped out of the screw head and entered my thumb, breaking the nail in half.
It was one of those injuries that look way scarier than they actually are; seeing the blood ooze from the breach in my previously intact nail caused me to throw the drill into the grass and dash inside to the sink. The adrenaline coursing through my body gave me tremors, and I struggled to get a Band-Aid out of the medicine cabinet without dumping the whole damn box.
After a couple of hours, when my thumb stopped its hot, achy pulsing, I steeled myself to pull off the Band-Aid and assess the damage. The prognosis was unclear; it sure didn’t look good, all purple and crusted with blood. I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but what if it required actual medical attention, and I was just hiding a significant wound behind a Hello Kitty adhesive strip?
I did what any grown man would do and sent a picture of the thumb to my dad.
Need a ruling on this, I wrote in a text message. Should I get it looked at?
Dad responded within a few minutes. Looks fine. Keep it clean.
I wouldn’t have sent Dad the picture if I didn’t trust his judgment, but even following his all-clear, some pause still remained. Over the course of my life, I’d venture 90 percent of the injuries sustained either by myself or my family members have been characterized as fine. But the thing is, sometimes they’re patently not fine.
In the 9th grade, I broke my nose playing a game of soccer in gym class. A kid turned his head into mine and my nose exploded, sending what looked like the entire contents of my circular system onto the front of my shirt.
My mom left work and picked me up from the nurse’s office. “Should we go to the hospital or something?” I asked.
“Let’s just wait until your dad gets home and he can look at it,” she said.
I waited on the couch for three hours with an icepack until my dad got home from work. He took my swollen face in his hands and gingerly probed the mass that was once my nose.
“It’s probably broken,” he said. “The swelling will go down in a couple of days.”
Since at 14 the entirety of my medical knowledge came from television, I was confused. Did my father not understand that breaking a bone constituted a trip to the doctor’s? Had he not seen the episode of Full House when Joey accidentally hit Stephanie in the nose with a novelty boxing glove on the set of Mr. Egghead?
I suggested we have a true medical professional inspect the damage to confirm my dad’s kitchen table diagnosis.
“What’s a doctor going to do for you?” he said. “You can’t put a cast on a broken nose. It just has to heal on its own.”
I must have pressed the issue, because what he said next is indelibly burned into the recesses of my brain.
“You know what the doctor will do if you go in there? He’ll re-break it to make it straight, and it’ll hurt. Is that what you want? The doctor to break your nose again?”
That shut me up real good, to the point that, when, through a series of unfortunate events, I broke my nose a second and then a third time (the third time being when my friend drunkenly head butted me during a fight because he thought I was on the other team), I just let it be. After all, like my dad said to close the discussion of a trip to the doctor’s, a lumpy nose is an indication of character. It shows people you’ve lived.
My sophomore year of college, I played a CD release party at an American Legion hall with my ska band. About 200 kids came out, and it was hot and sweaty and loud in the way every good DIY show should be. We were playing well that night; the crowd was really into it, and I was throwing myself around on the stage like I was having a seizure.
During our last song, I climbed onto the 3-foot-tall drum riser and jumped off, tucking my knees to my chest as I headed toward the ground. My foot slipped on the humid floor. My body went one way, and my knee went the other.
My friend Todd ran from side stage and pulled me up by my armpits and asked if I was okay. The pain was blinding — to this day, I recall it as the most pain I’ve ever felt — but full of adrenaline and aware I had 200 kids staring at me, I yelled back I was fine and finished the song. Over the next few minutes, I tried putting weight on my left leg, but it kept buckling, the joint pushing out to the side.
Well that’s certainly not right, I thought as I yelled the final words to Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge.”
Luckily, my mom was in attendance that night, and as the crowd headed for the exits, I told her what was going on.
“Probably a sprain,” she said. “Let’s get you home, and if it still hurts in the morning, we’ll go to the emergency room.”
To my mom’s credit, she did end up taking me to the hospital in the morning to get checked out when I woke up with a knee the size of a basketball. The ER doctor took X-rays and shrugged.
“No broken bones,” he said.
Now, I took exactly three science classes in college, so I don’t pretend to have more than a rudimentary understanding of anatomy, but my response to the doctor’s “no broken bones” diagnosis was an emphatic “no shit.” Despite children’s songs to the contrary, the knees are connected to the shin via ligaments, not bones.
The doctor gave me a pair of crutches and told me if I wanted to look for ligament damage, I’d have to see an orthopedist and get an MRI. I turned to my mother. “Let’s see if it heals on its own,” she said.
Spoiler alert: it did not heal on its own. For the next six months, I walked around gingerly, knowing if I made a sudden change of direction or put weight on my joint in a way that required lateral support, my knee would slip out to the side and buckle. Finally, when I fell trying to push the riding lawnmower out of some mud, I asked if I could get the MRI.
Surprise surprise. I had a shredded ACL and a torn meniscus. After delivering the news, the orthopedist looked at me over his glasses. “You’ve had this injury for how long?”
“Six months,” I said.
“I’m surprised you could walk at all.”
I shrugged. “I just figured this is how my life would be from now on.”
I don’t want to paint the picture that my parents were in any way neglectful. I didn’t grow up in some Mommy Dearest situation where my needs were ignored. My parents just have a peculiar optimism when it comes to the body fixing itself. They afforded me the exact same attention they give themselves.
Recently, my dad separated his shoulder pull-starting a tiller in the backyard. When the doctor looked at it (coincidentally, the same orthopedist who repaired my ACL), not only did he find a shitload of scar tissue, but that several of my dad’s shoulder tendons had been severed. It was a decades old injury, he posited. Was that possible?
Some time before I was born, my dad, then a union ironworker, had a stairwell fall on him as he was welding it into place. He told me later his entire left side went numb when the stairwell hit. He sat out for a few minutes, waited for the feeling to return into his arm and shoulder, and went back to work. After awhile, his body compensated for the devastating injury, and that’s just how it was.
I know to some this sounds stupid, but hearing this story doesn’t make me question the intelligence of my (very intelligent, by the way) father. It makes me admire his grit in a cellular, instinctual way. There’s a toughness about handling injury like this, something that transcends logical thought that’s tough to describe in any way other than primal. Maybe it’s just macho bullshit, but honestly, I don’t care.
Then there was a time right after my brother was born that my dad sliced off the tip of his nose while changing the bulb in an overhead light fixture. My mom was still at the hospital and he was alone in the house, so he pulled it back into place and secured it with Scotch tape to his glasses. When he told that story to my brother and I when we were kids, we’d laugh because he’d push his nose up like a pig when he told it. Now, it’s kind of horrifying to think about. But also kind of bad ass.
I’ve only broken one bone other than my nose, and it happened last summer, when my wife and I were, of course, visiting my parents. The story of my broken pinky toe is unfortunately not gory or tough-guy romantic: I stubbed it on a doorframe. It hurt like a bitch, and my heart started racing when I looked down and saw that instead of curling naturally next to my other toes, it jutted out sideways.
What is gory and tough-guy romantic is what my dad said when I showed it to him:
“Well, you’ve got two choices. Either you can put it back into place, or I can.”
I took a slug of my beer like Morgan Earp about to get a bullet pulled out of his abdomen. “Just do it.”
Dad twisted it back into place, and we packed it with gauze and taped it to my other toes.
“Do you want me to take you to Urgent Care and get it looked at?” my wife asked.
“What for?” I said. “You can’t put a cast on a broken toe.”
“But it’s still crooked. Are you going to walk around with an ugly, crooked toe the rest of your life?”
I shrugged. “It adds character. Shows people I’ve lived.”
My thumb is healing nicely, you’ll be glad to know. It’ll grow out eventually and will be good as new. In the meantime, Dad suggested I strengthen the area with clear coat nail polish so it doesn’t continue to split.
With the caveat, of course, that no one’s around when I apply the nail polish.