7. Rule Of Thumb
I remember the shock of the glass breaking, an instant sting, and the adrenal rush that feels like your heart will explode from your chest. I hadn’t done anything to cause it; it was just the case of a cheap fast-food restaurant glass giving up the ghost. For some reason I think it was a Wiley Coyote glass, but after 35 years, all I know is Burger King owes me one.
It was summer, and I was alone at home. It was one of the first times since our move to Novato, CA, that I’d been alone. At 13, that was OK with me. My mother was at the beach with friends, and my sister was at work. The only thing on my calendar was breakfast, lunch – and lots of TV.
I thought it was bizarre that a feather-light tap against the cabinet could cause this silly glass to crumple in my hand. The flash of red as I snatched my hand away and instinctively closed it against my chest made it clear what I’d done. I was surprised it didn’t hurt much, but shock will do that I suppose.
I’ve never been one to panic, so I didn’t then. Ask anybody who knows me well, I’m the person you want around in an emergency. I assumed since it didn’t hurt, it was probably pretty minor. I grabbed a towel to stop the blood, applied pressure and, as I’d learned, went in search of antiseptic and bandages. I don’t think I ever found either, and I realized quickly that those wouldn’t be enough. There was more blood than there should be for a simple cut. It had started to soak through the towel in my hand and was dripping to the floor with dark red splashes. Now I started to panic – a little. Panic enough that the next-door neighbors were the only solution I could think of. Find adults – even adults who hate you.
The back patios of our condominium complex had minor fencing separating them. The condos were built with a kind of communal feel, and all of our back patios faced a public open space. Being situated on a hillside in Marin County, there was no better view to be had in this 13 year olds head, so the fact that the view wasn’t blocked only seemed natural. As an adult 40-something-ish man, I’m shocked they weren’t fenced in with 6 foot stone walls. So all I had to do was go out the back door, turn left, and knock. I can only imagine what they thought when they saw the wild-eyed half-naked neighbor boy in cutoffs looking through their slider. They didn’t say a thing other than a few comforting words. The husband just dialed 911 and they waited with me until the ambulance and crew appeared. I don’t remember what they did after the EMTs trundled me away. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing them again.
Knowing what they thought of my mother and sister, I was hardly happy seeking their help, but I also remember thinking how nice they seemed after they let me in their back patio door. It took me years to realize that there are two sides to every story, and my sisters loud stereo and somewhat volcanic attitude probably played the major part of the “villainy” in this tale.
The ambulance arrived pretty quickly. At least I don’t remember spending much time waiting in awkward silence. I also don’t remember the trip to the hospital, which I find strange, considering how exciting I must have thought it was. I was going to the hospital for stitches! The idea of stitches at the hospital was pretty cool to a 13-year-old boy. And besides, though I wasn’t going to spend the day alone in front of the TV, I was having way more fun than I had expected!
As an adult, it’s funny to me now to think that I wasn’t too worried about being alone in the emergency room. They had no trouble contacting my sister Yvonne, who was working as a waitress at a Peppermill Coffee Shop. Unfortunately, she couldn’t help much, since she wasn’t my legal guardian. My mother was at the beach, before cell phones existed. My father was a traveling salesman at the time (a three-month stint). They reached my step-mother quickly, but since she wasn’t a legal guardian either, there wasn’t anything she could do. So, I waited.
I lay on the gurney, alone and cold. Occasionally a nurse wandered by. It took a while for somebody to realize I was only wearing cut-off shorts. Regardless of what your mother says, it doesn’t matter if your underwear is clean at the hospital if you’re not wearing any. At some point, I acquired a hospital sheet, but no blanket. I’m 99 percent sure the staff assumed I had a guardian or parent nearby.
After two or three hours, they finally got my father on the phone. I never found out how. I assume his boss knew where he was going to be and left a message for him. It seems so inefficient now. If this had happened to my son, now 24, I would have known about it within minutes!
Even after they connected with my dad, there were hurdles. Nurses had to read him the legalese, get his consent for my treatment, and record the phone call. I was relieved that they’d now be able to clean me off, stitch me up, and send me on my way. So when they started rolling my gurney down the hall, I asked, “What’s the procedure for stitches?”
I wish I could remember the look on the nurse’s face as she rolled me down the hall, but I know she stopped in her tracks.
“Didn’t anybody talk to you about what’s happening?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Oh sweetie, you’re having surgery. You cut the tendon and nerves in your hand, and the surgeon is going to have to stitch it all back together.”
I’ve always been on the strange side, it’s true, but you would think this would have at least thrown me a little off balance. Not me, I was excited! I had always dreamed of having surgery. From the first time I saw the early ‘70s hospital dramas, I wanted to be served ice cream and watch TV in an adjustable hospital bed while the lovely nurse came in to check that everything was okay. A hunky doctor was a given!
I tried to remember everything: the smell of the operating room, the look of the instruments, what the doctors and nurses were wearing, but as soon as they wheeled me through the door and the nurse told me to count backward from 100, I was out. I remember 99.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up to my mother’s face. She looked a little worried; She told me it was because I had had a bit of trouble coming out of the anesthesia and that they had me in the Intensive Care Unit. It doesn’t surprise me; I’ve never liked mornings.
I’ve always wondered what it was like for my mother when she came upon the scene of the crime. While I was in surgery, my mother returned from her outing, completely unaware. From what I was told, she walked in on a bloody trail of red drops, leading from the kitchen and out the back sliding door (left open when I left, as I recall). I’m surprised her reaction didn’t induce a 911 call. She called my sister who was prepared for the talk-down.
The next thing I remember is waking up in a regular hospital room. Soon after, I got a roommate — my mother. She developed a blood clot in the ankle. I initially assumed she was there to stay with me – or it was a joke. But no, she was checking in!
There are so many things wrong with this scenario, according to today’s medicine. It’s a miracle either of us survived. I stayed in the hospital for almost a week. I’m pretty sure this would be outpatient surgery today. And my mother? They never hospitalize for blood clots below the heart anymore. They give you syringes and you inject the medicine yourself. She was hospitalized for more than a week as well.
It was funny watching the nurses every time there was a shift change. It never failed, as soon as a new one walked in, she would do a double take, nonchalantly sidle over to my mother, and prepare to ask why a 30-something woman was rooming with a 13-year-old boy. She usually stopped them before they got far and explained the relationship and convenience factors.
We were treated and released without extraordinary complications. I had a cast for seven weeks. Again, no way this would happen today, I’m pretty sure I would be wearing a removable cast and seeing a physical therapist to reduce scar tissue. But in the ’70s, there was no muss, no fuss – and not the best of results.
Thirty-five years later, my thumb is stiff, and sometimes aches, but is not too noticeable on most days. And, in the final analysis, a stiff opposable thumb is better than none.