As the shrill hum of industrial machinery grinds the day away, its chorus is silenced by a single abrupt CRUNCH! Confused and startled, I looked down, and to this day I’m still not 100% sure of what I saw. Perhaps an ultra-brief, Nanosecond glimpse of the colour white. I knew it was exposed bone, I knew it was bad, and knew I needed help.
Unfamiliar words exploded out of my mouth, announcing over and over: They’re OFF! With both arms raised above my head, I found a clear place to sit as my co-workers circled around me. All eyes fall on me with a glassy and desperate look. They tell me to ‘breathe’…. Bolts of white hot electric pain erupt through my fingertips. They tell me to ‘let it out’… The hysteria and volume of my own voice terrifies me as a single lonely word; “FUCK”, rips out of my lungs.
In first aid training, it’s advised that you shouldn’t stare at your own injury in order to stay calm and avoid going into shock, which turns out to be an easy rule to follow. I couldn’t bring myself to look and had no curiosity for what might meet my gaze. The blinding pain is more input than I can handle and with the slightest movement, I sense pieces of flesh loosely dangling off my right middle finger. Wrong. Unnatural. Raw primal terror.
My legs begin to warm up, starting with my toes, moving up through calves, through the thighs as the morphine soaks in and dulls the moment. “It looks like a horror movie in here!” says the first responding EMT. Completely immersed in a world of pure obliterating pain, I hadn’t yet noticed the blood splattered all over my clothes, and the pools that had formed on the floor beside me… more blood than I ever cared to see.
Twenty four hours pass by, being pulled in and out of consciousness at the hospital and then I’m delivered to my parent’s house, wrapped in gauze, with splints up to my elbows giving me a grotesque Barbie doll range of movement. Sitting on mother’s bed, replaying in my mind the moment when the doctors told me what had to be ‘amputated’ (what a repulsive word) and for the first time on this journey a spontaneous wave of tears cascades down my face. No sobbing, just empty. Crushed. Defeated.
Twenty four years old, I’m now living at home again, being literally hand fed by my parents, having my teeth brushed by my parents, being chaperoned in the bathroom and wiped by my parents. It was a good encounter with true ‘humiliation’. For the first few days, you occupy the mind with simple things, like trying to feed yourself without the use of your hands. The trick is to be resourceful and experiment. When you finally get that first small bite of food in your own mouth, a great sense of accomplishment sneaks in, and the recovery gradually unfolds.
Slowly you find yourself adapting at a reasonable rate, making unorthodox movements in order to accomplish tasks that you had never given two thoughts to. The simple routine things you do from day to day. Not being able to use my hands gave me a deep appreciation for just how valuable these appendages are, and the livelihood that they’re designed to provide. There were so many things I had always taken for granted without even knowing it.
Leaving the house for the first time was weird. I really felt like people were starting at me. And that’s partly because they were. My forearm-length plastic splints were held together with 3 inch wide strips of fluorescent pink Velcro that I’d chosen at the hospital. It hurt and made me uncomfortable when people stared, especially little kids, but after a while I reluctantly learned that the truth is; humans are curious, and when they’re curious, they stare… It’s nothing personal.
The way people react to my injury was, and continues to be, a mixed bag. My parents were gutted, my friends supportive, and strangers would say the darnedest things. “You’ll never be able to touch your boyfriend with that hand again” was a classic gem courtesy of the merch guy working a Circle Jerks show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. Later I wished I could’ve been witty and said something rude back, but I had nothing to say, and no desire to waste my breath. I was already so embarrassed that this happened, and dreadfully ashamed of the way my hands looked. Society creates constant pressure for a young woman to ‘be pretty’ and with my mutilated hands, I felt like a real monster. It was a difficult and humbling encounter with my vanity and personal identity.
In the months prior to the accident, like many people, I wished for more time and money in order to properly pursue my other passions. Now, out of a job, I had plenty of time and a reasonable amount of money from worker’s compensation, but I was stuck at home healing and realising I should’ve been more careful with what I wished for! However, the physical trauma was the easy part, always having a visual aid to see the progress being made, wounds heal, stitches come out, and it feels empowering overcoming the obstacles, and ‘getting better’.
When the wounds finished healing, things shifted a bit, and depression began to sneak in. Fingers don’t just grow back. They offered to make me prosthetic fingers at the hospital. They also offered to amputate two of my toes and attach them to my stumps, which I quietly declined. I wanted to get used to this change, I didn’t want to cover it up no matter how ‘ugly’ my new hands were. Grappling with the weight of this being my new reality for the rest of my life, the mental healing was the aspect of recovery that caught me off guard. For a long time, I genuinely thought I was ‘broken’, and finally I realised that my body had changed, but I hadn’t; I’m still me. This experience forced me to reflect and look inwards to understand the concept of impermanence and the philosophical difference between ‘me’ and ‘my body’.
I got bored of telling people the story of what happened to my hand and found myself making up all sorts of tall tales, just so I wouldn’t have to recite a that same old story that brought up a lot of darkness for me… again… At first I remember wondering ‘why me’? I childishly thought I’d been singled out and punished for something… I felt alone, like no one could possibly relate with what I’m going through. It didn’t take long to realise that everybody goes through hard times and, in that way, virtually anyone can relate to tragedy and adversity. I was on a self-centred rollercoaster ride with my ego.
I‘d planned to make a career of cabinetry. I loved the work and the creativity of the trade. After the injury, I couldn’t force myself to go back, the passion was gone. Not only did I lose parts of my body, but I lost the path I was on as well. I felt as if something was turning me in a different direction, and I shouldn’t go backwards. So I’ve made a point to travel the world, hunting for unique experiences and learning as much as I can along the way.
When I visited Cambodia for the first time I learned that land mines are a real problem there, and lot of people have suffered terrible injuries due to these UXO’s. Upon arrival in Angkor Wat, I came across a band of men sitting on the ground playing traditional music. As I drew closer I noticed their injuries and a sign near the band explaining in English the nature of their plight.
The sign set my mind in motion; how lucky I was, how small my injury is in the general scope of things; and I felt a pure respect for the way that these men have adapted to their injuries. When tragedy finds us sometimes the only things you can control and change is our own perspective. We either learn from these episodes in our lives and find acceptance, or get devoured by them.
Having my fingers amputated changed my life, my perspective on things, my direction and my drive, and although it hasn’t been easy I’ve made a strong effort to turn this experience into fuel for the fire. Over 6 years later, as corny as it sounds; I can genuinely say I feel fortunate I have the opportunity to learn from this injury and, even if I could, I wouldn’t change any of it.