I don’t usually write about personal issues, but since I do like to document the unusual things that happen to me (and since Facebook isn’t really good for that sort of thing in the long term), I thought I would make an exception and write a post documenting the stupidest, most ridiculous injury I’ve had in my thirty-odd years. Those of you who came only for the nature stories and photos may want to skip this post; however, I hope it will help others who find themselves suffering from the same stupid injury.
I wish I could claim that this injury was received while birdwatching – perhaps the result of an over-eager chickadee snatching a sunflower seed from my hand – in order to tie it in with the subject of this blog. The closest it comes to being bird-related is that I was getting ready to go to an OFNC Birds Committee meeting after dinner one evening when it occurred. At. 6:20 pm on February 24th, I was putting on my boots and tucking my pants inside when my finger jammed and I felt a large “pop” – rather like when you crack your knuckles, but magnified. It didn’t hurt, but when I pulled my hand out of boot I noticed that the tip of the middle finger on my left hand was bent down at a 45-degree angle. When I tried to straighten it, the finger was completely unresponsive. I could push it back up into a straight position with my other hand, but when I let go it immediately drooped again.
It didn’t seem to be an emergency, so I drove over to a walk-in clinic hoping it was just dislocated and that it could be popped back into place. The doctor took one look at it and told me to go to the hospital ER to get it X-rayed. By this time I was beginning to feel a small ache deep in the joint.
I arrived at about 7:30. I’d never been to the ER before, and was impressed by how quickly I was triaged, signed in, and sent to the X-ray waiting area. That’s when the wait began. About an hour and a half later a friendly X-ray technician brought me in, and told me he’d had the exact thing happen to him on his pinky finger. He said that the injury had resulted in the tendon becoming separated from the bone and that he needed surgery to fix it. I said, “So it’s not going to be as simple to fix as if it were just dislocated.” He said yes.
I wasn’t surprised when the ER doctor showed me the X-ray about an hour later and told me that I had indeed torn the extensor tendon (the one that runs along the top of the finger and allows the finger to extend straight out) from the bone, an injury known as “mallet finger”. Mallet finger is a relatively common injury, particularly in sports when a basketball or baseball forcefully strikes the end of an extended finger. Other names for this injury include “Baseball Finger” and “Drop Finger”. I’ve since learned that people can even get this injury simply by tucking in the sheets while making the bed! Sometimes a piece of bone may tear off with the tendon, but fortunately the X-rays showed that this wasn’t the case. I just needed to have a splint put on and then I could go home.
It took another hour for someone to put the splint on. By that time it was 11:00 and I was feeling my exhaustion more than the ache in my finger. I was told that a hand surgeon would call me in about a week to set up a follow-up appointment, at which time he would examine me to see whether the tendon had healed on its own, or whether surgery would be required to reattach it. I thought this meant my appointment would be in about a week, but after doing some internet research the following day I learned that the splint needed to be worn continuously for 6-8 weeks! Under no circumstances could I take it off and let the finger droop, as the healing tendon may tear again if that happens.
I was given what is known as a Stack (or Stax) splint. I wasn’t given any care instructions, and didn’t ask since I thought I would only be wearing it for a week. As it is plastic, with an opening for the fingertip and tiny holes on both sides, I thought it would be okay to let it get wet while in the shower, washing my hands, etc. It turns out that letting it get wet is NOT a good idea, as then it gets damp and sticky inside, particularly where the skin presses against the inside of the splint. Also, by the third day, it was beginning to smell like feet that had been encased in sneakers for too long. I wasn’t sure how to clean the splint and wasn’t about to risk taking it off, so I eventually came up with my own method of cleaning it: I cut up a J-cloth into tiny strips, dipped the strips in some rubbing alcohol, then fed the strips between the splint and my finger with the help of a nail file or letter opener, trying to bring the alcohol into as much contact with my finger and the splint as much as possible. I did this every two or three days, and while it didn’t entirely help with the stickiness, it helped the smell! I dealt with the stickiness by cutting up a stiff paper towel into a thin strip and inserting it between the finger and splint as well, leaving it there day and night and changing it daily. After learning that lesson I obtained some disposable gloves to wear while in the shower and washing dishes.
I was sick of wearing the splint by the second day, so having to leave it on for an entire 8 weeks seemed unbearable. I felt miserable the entire first week since even the most ordinary tasks had become a challenge for me, and everything took longer than usual. Although I tried to be careful, I ended up hitting my finger against the occasional door frame more than once while reaching for the knob because my finger tends to stick straight out. I also pulled the splint off less than 24 hours of wearing it. I was using that hand to slide a folder into a filing cabinet, and when I pulled my hand out the splint was no longer on it. I am fortunate I did this on Day 1 of the splint rather than Day 21, for if splint comes off and the finger droops, the clock turns back all the way back to Day 1 again.
Other minor inconveniences included difficulty pulling things out of a pocket or a purse with the splinted hand, cutting food, and picking up items from the floor. One day on the bus I dropped a glove on the floor, and as I was sitting beside the window with a seat in front of me and someone beside me, I couldn’t pick it up with my injured hand and had to wait for my seatmate to get up so I could reach across with my good hand.
Since it happened in February, I also had to contend with finding proper winter gloves that fit over the splint. My regular gloves are too tight, so I bought a pair of ski mitts which were really thick and really warm (the best I could do as it was so late in the season). Unfortunately I am not a “mitt” person and then had difficulty carrying things and opening doors while wearing it. Then I found my fiancé’s open-fingered gloves, which were a godsend. As they were too large for me, I only used the left-hand glove for my injured hand, which allowed me to pull it on and off without worrying about the splint coming off with it. The exposed fingertips meant I could actually open doors and hold things, such as my keys, and use my iPhone.
Typing is the worst part of wearing the splint, as it’s my “D” key finger that has the splint. My typing has gotten better over the past 7 weeks, as my index finger has compensated for my useless middle finger, but any time I have a several letters from the “D” and “F” columns all together – i.e. “freedom”, “delete” – my fingers tangle up together and I have to stop and type with only one finger.
Today marks the 51st straight day of wearing the splint…or 7 weeks and 2 days. The joint still gets that deep, painful ache every now and then, but for the past 10 days or so I also have felt a light, maddening discomfort in that finger similar to when one sits in the same position for a very long time, such as on a long car or plane ride. This is accompanied by the urge to stretch and flex my fingers. Hopefully this means it has healed and is ready to bend and flex properly. I see the hand surgeon for my follow-up appointment in six days, so at that time the splint will come off to see whether my finger can extend straight out on its own…or whether it will droop again. If it still droops, I might have to wear the splint for another 3 or 4 weeks.
From everything I’ve read on-line, even if it has healed, I will still need to wear the splint for a couple more weeks at night and during any activities that may put the finger at risk. If fully healed, I can expect the finger to be stiff, and will likely need to do exercises to regain strength and range of motion. In many cases, the finger may have a slight, permanent droop, called an “extensor lag”, though apparently this does not usually affect the function of the finger.
Though I am now used to the splint and to having limited function in my left hand, I am both eagerly and nervously awaiting next week’s appointment and seeing the results of the 8 weeks’ treatment. I will report back later to let you all know the outcome!