I was interrupted by the return of the doctors – five or six of them – who strolled in, joking and laughing. That had to be good. They wouldn’t be like this if it was bad news. I kept positive, telling myself over and over – like sheer repetition combined with hope would make it reality – that I wouldn’t need surgery.
They told me I needed surgery.
They were going to insert plates, and if my hand didn’t improve, well, at some point they’d have to cut me open to see what was wrong – not to fix it, mind you, but just to take a look. That was still their overriding concern – why I couldn’t feel or move half of my right hand. The break was almost an afterthought.
The surgery was successful, but now there was new pain. Of course, surgery does that. They slashed my arm open on either side and screwed six-inch plates into the bones to hold them into place. Each plate had six screws. It looked freaky on X-rays. I imagined nurses holding the incision open while a surgeon screwed in the plates with a power drill.
I was in hospital for eight days. But my mood improved. I had plenty of visitors. Nick brought me some books to read. Other kids came into the bay – including a fifteen-year-old who’d broken both arms playing football. (He didn’t get plates, though.)
Because of my age, the nurses let me stay up later and watch movies in the waiting room. One night Rocky II was on TV. While watching the climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo, one of the nurses narrated the damage each blow was doing.
When the plaster and bandaging came off six weeks later, I had seven-inch scars emblazoned down the top and bottom of my now-emaciated forearm. The incisions were covered in bloody scabs and looked like they were ready to burst at the seams. I almost fainted, seeing it.
Still, the concern was my hand.
I was booked in for a nerve test appointment, where they stuck pins into my hand and the top of my forearm. Electrodes ran from the pins into a machine that generated electricity. What they did was shoot electricity into the electrodes at the top of my forearm and let the nerve convey the current to the pins in my hand. This was meant to help gauge the extent of the nerve damage.
When they did this test on the nerve that controlled the top half of my hand, the pins would stand up and my arm would buck spasmodically. Even my brother Lou, holding my arm, couldn’t steady it. But when they did the test on the other nerve, there was only the mildest shock – like a carpet shock.
This impressed the doctor in question, who took photos of the way my hand had contracted into a claw. He wanted to use the pictures for medical classes. The photos are probably still out there. He also thumped on my arm (unconcerned that I was only a couple of months out of surgery) to further demonstrate the extent of the nerve damage and how I couldn’t feel anything – like I needed to be told that.
Given the results of the tests, the doctor estimated the nerve should recover in about eleven months. The doctor said they’d give it six months and if it wasn’t healing, they’d cut me open to check out the damage. Until then, they put a brace on my right hand that forced my ring and small finger to function whenever I used the rest of my hand.
It left me wondering, Why me? I wondered that a lot growing up. Why did this stuff always happen to me? The other guy in hospital had broken both arms – he didn’t have plates or nerve damage. Neither did my cousin Roo, who’d broken his arm twice. Or my cousin Steve, who’d broken his arm so badly that the bone had jutted out of the flesh.
One time my brother Nick said it could be worse. But worse was a sliding scale. If you lined up all the people who were worse on my right, I’m sure there were people on my left who were better-off. I’d be the worse one for them.
The next months were awkward. Once, while taking something out of the oven, I burned myself on my little finger so bad that the skin immediately blistered. I didn’t feel it. As for movement, I had only a little control, but no control of the digits.
There was an element of novelty in this – a lot of people break bones, but with the plates, the nerve damage, and the brace I had to wear, I became a minor celebrity. People always wanted to see how contorted my hand was, the lower half a claw. Or the scars – a thick purple line smeared seven inches long down each side of my right arm. Some people – cretins, mostly – thought I’d been in a knife fight.
The realities of my situation made me low. I couldn’t cut my own food. If I had a steak or something, my mum would have to cut it. One time, at the pharmacy, I couldn’t get change out of my jacket’s left pocket. My right hand wasn’t coordinated enough, (and my left was out-positioned). When I slept, I needed a pillow under my right arm and I had to stay mindful of not rolling around onto it.
Then there was pool. I tried to play left-handed. I did okay but would get frustrated when I couldn’t do what I wanted. So I went back to playing right-handed (but breaking left-handed), for the same result: frustration. The more I got frustrated, the more my ability deteriorated. I lost all confidence in myself.
I have no idea where my life was going before all this. Maybe nowhere. You never know. But now, every direction had become as fractured as my arm had been. I sat in the ravine of that break with too much time and with not enough to fill it.
The only real fortune was that my hand began to heal, so I didn’t need any more surgery.