The More Complete Stranger – The Middle Finger

Every now and then you have to go to the emergency room. It’s all part of this adulting thing. Sometimes laying on the couch with a belly full of orange juice and Nyquil doesn’t cut it. You need professional help. This has been my experience for the past 15 years. Once out of the nest (and in my case, 3000 miles away from whatever comfort my mom could offer for that nasty cough or that nauseous stomach or that skinned knee) I had to take responsibility for all my feel betters.

Just five years after moving from Michigan to the Pacific Northwest, I became the verbal and physical apothecary specialist for my own children. I could finally empathize with what my mom had to put up with. As a child, if I stubbed my toe, in my head, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were mounted, and a blood-red dawn would cast its crimson shadow on the living. I was going to die, and so was everyone else.

Figure 1: The Rolling Stones, formally known as The Four Horsemen. (L-R), Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

My mom, bless her heart, typically knew how to make me feel physically and mentally better. She could save the universe. I am now responsible for the same effect. When my kids approach me about pain, which is often, like daily, like hourly, I have to come up with a solution, which honestly is usually 99% bullshit, but somehow comforting to them nonetheless. I have to say something or administer something that makes their devil go away.

It usually goes like this: “Dad, I was jumping off the couch and my knee landed on a Lego, and now (insert name of either brother) is laughing at me.” And I say, “We were supposed to put those Legos away an hour ago, but it’s going to be okay. Come with me.” 

We head to the kitchen. I instruct, “Put this pack of frozen corn on your knee. Your brother loves you. He just gets scared sometimes when he sees the amazing things you can do. He doesn’t want you to hurt yourself, but when you do, he makes fun of you to discourage you from making the same mistake again.” This is all off-the-cuff nonsense, but it seems to work the majority of the time.

However, what about my boo-boo’s? If my wife offered the same comfort to me after I jumped off the couch and parked my knee on a Lego, I’d see right through her. Armageddon would still be around the corner. So, occasionally, I have no choice but to leave my healing to the professionals.

Unfortunately, the professionals charge an insane amount of money. As I type this, my wife and I owe over $1,100 to various central Washington emergency wards, all concerning our own nasty coughs or nauseous stomachs or skinned knees. Two years ago, during a peculiar bout with end-of-the-world pain, I attempted to be a financially responsible adult. Instead of heading to the emergency room (which in this case would have been a totally warranted move) I decided to visit the free Union Gospel Mission clinic. It was there that I met white Jesus.

The Union Gospel Mission (UGM) free clinic was established to provide services for people who do not have access to professional medical assistance primarily due to a low or desperately low social economic status. UGM is a Godsend, and attempting to sum up what they do in one sentence is inherently remiss. Furthermore, going there when you could essentially brave the storm of making payments for an emergency room visit is just wrong.

I was not ignorant to the fact that my decision to go to UGM would potentially mean prolonging the time someone much more deserving could have used their assistance, but I was broke, and my finger was giving birth to another finger.

It all started after mowing the lawn. It was Saturday, during the Summer, and I mowed the lawn early in the morning because I had a 12 PM waiting shift at The Olive Garden. After mowing, I hopped in the shower and I noticed (but chose to ignore) a slight stinging sensation on the middle finger of my right hand. Once I got to work, that slight sting graduated to persistent needle-prick. Also, my cuticle was starting to swell and turn green.

Unperturbed, I finished my 8-hour shift and headed home. By this point, my finger was throbbing, and if anything touched it or even grazed it (such as either of the fingers next to it, or the wind) I would cry. It became all that I could think about.

At home, my wife, who just happens to be an expert when it comes to Web MD navigation and diagnosis, determined that I had an infection. “In fact,” she said, “I have had the exact same thing. We’re going to have to drain it.” Do what? “It’s a bacterial infection and we just have to poke it and squeeze the pus out. It’ll get rid of the pressure and you’ll feel much better.” Word? Ok. I trusted her. She said she experienced the same thing. 

I soaked my swollen, throbbing, green finger for about 10 minutes (she suggested this as a way of softening the flesh), and then I placed my hand on her lap. And with a look of confidence, devotion, and love, she stabbed my middle finger with a sewing needle. I have never been shot before. Not even by a BB gun. But I swear a pellet or bullet would have felt like a caress by comparison. I was not cured, and our marriage is barely beginning to recover from the trauma.

The lobby of the UGM clinic looks like a well-lit storage shed impregnated by a thigh-high desk fronted, ¾ drywall cubed central kiosk/box that serves as a front office. The lobby surrounds (as in tight hugs) this box office. To the left of the office is a hallway which leads to various rooms, some with doors, some with curtains for doors.

When I walked in, I was pleasantly greeted by a young lady who handed me a clipboard and told me to have a seat and fill out the information on the front sheet. I complied, though I had to hold the pen like a down-stroking dagger to write close to legible.

After I completed the form, I was taken to a room of sorts (it was only separated from the lobby by boxes and piled up donations of toys and old computers and reusable medical supplies) for a vitals check. After she assessed that I was not a vampire, I was told to have a seat back in the lobby, and the doctor would be with me shortly. There were two patients ahead of me and they were seen promptly—I only waited for about 10 minutes. Then, white Jesus walked into the lobby and asked me to follow him down the hall to the last room on the left. 

Figure 2: Spitting image of my doctor at UGM.

My doctor was a white dude wearing Birkenstock sandals with cargo shorts and a button-up short-sleeved (untucked) summer-time-fun (not Hawaiian but close enough) shirt. He had flowing, shoulder-length brown hair, and a prominent beard. 6’2”, medium build, mid-thirties. I can only assume the pain in my finger sent some sort of shock to my olfactory senses because though I couldn’t smell it, I’d bet the farm (or inn) he was soaked in patchouli (and possibly frankincense). He smiled big and bright and led me to a room with a door.

The doctor called the infection paronychium (sounds like para-knee-key-uhm). He said it wasn’t uncommon, and that my wife was right—we needed to drain it. I told him that wouldn’t be a problem but I needed to be anesthetized or I would die. He laughed and said though I may experience some discomfort, I should be able to deal with the pain. I suggested a local.

His words: “A local would be overkill.” He walked out and came back in with a Styrofoam cup full of ice. He instructed me to place my hand in the cup and shout down the hall for him when I thought my finger was, his words, “Numb enough to proceed.” I sat there for an about ten minutes. 

Meanwhile, sporadically, nurses came in. Two, sometimes three at a time would come in. They would exchange quick pleasantries with me, and stare at my finger, whispering House jargon to each other.

At one point, the doctor walked two nurses into the room and asked them to diagnose me. I felt kind of honored like I was contributing to something. Resting on those laurels, I told the doctor I was, “Ready to proceed.”

Figure 3: This isn’t my finger, but it’s exactly what it looked like.

The doctor returned with three nurses that had yet to meet my finger. He took out something like a handheld drill bit case and unzipped it to reveal an assortment of needles. He then asked the nurses which gauge to use. They all agreed that 8 should do the trick. I have never been set on fire before, but I swear the word excruciating fails to describe what happened. Yet, it worked. Sort of. The green pus, gunk, nastiness was drained for the most part. But he said he failed to drain it all, which would require another session. In the interim, he prescribed Bactrim and told me to soak my finger in tea-tree oil over night. The next day, through the same grueling process, my finger was on its way to being normal again. 

Figure 5: This is my finger now. Much better.

Though I have yet to revisit the UGM free clinic, I highly recommend it. They freely accept all walk-ins, and they also accept (and need) donations of all kinds. You can read more about what they do at https://www.yugm.org/.