Filter Tips

The other night, I dreamed I had normal fingers and had to choose the right color nail polish. Nothing garish. Maybe a pearl pink or cream, my old favorites.

Of course, when I woke up, there were my fingers in their night-old bandages. The only real surprise was that I had that dream at all. It’s been almost 30 years, nearly half my life now, that my fingers have been damaged by scleroderma.

The bones in my fingers are resorbed, so the tips look stubby and my nails, like moon slivers. With rare exceptions (two summers ago I managed to go bandage-free for a couple of weeks), at least half my fingers are protected by bandages to cushion chronic ulcers that take months and even years to heal.

Oddly, although my fingertips are extremely sensitive to the pain of ulcer infections, they are dulled receivers of everyday stimuli. I feel the world through a scrim of damaged nerve receptors, fleeting numbness, ointment, dressings and bandages.

So I drop knives and forks. Or think I’ve removed an errant strand of hair from my face when I haven’t. Or whack my fingertips when I misjudge the grasp of a faucet or doorknob.

I wear disposable rubber gloves, the kind you find in the drugstore first aid aisle, whenever I cook, so I test, poke and knead through a thin rubber barrier. It used to bother me to lose that tactile sensation of food, but now it’s just second nature—I assume doctors and dentists make a similar adjustment to examining gloves.

Sometimes, it’s incredibly frustrating. I always loved to explore with my hands, and now I just have to be extremely careful. I can sense more through the skin on my inner arms, so that’s a back-up strategy for choosing which fabric to sew or ensuring the right water temperature for proofing yeast. I can make general distinctions by touch, but need to extrapolate for finer gradations of texture.

Even as I wish my fingertip nerves weren’t so damaged, however, there are some advantages to my ever-present adhesive barrier. When I sew, I can use my bandaged thumb like a thimble, as long as I’m careful not to accidentally stitch or pin my wrapped fingers to the fabric. I rarely cut myself, because my fingers are so protected. The rubber gloves save me extra hand washing.

And my bandaged, odd fingers have proven useful in another way. Several years ago, when I managed a marketing department and had to make hiring decisions, I would always note how interview candidates looked at my hands. If they stared at my bandages and didn’t make eye contact, they didn’t make the cut.

Conversely, if they just glanced at my hands but spoke directly to me for most of our conversation, I’d give them more consideration. Arbitrary, perhaps, but I always sensed that people who related to me on a personal level and didn’t get sidetracked by my strange hands were more likely to be good people to work with. Most of the time, I was right.

I still envy other women’s beautiful fingers—at least sometimes. I wish I could actually get a great manicure and have stunning, shiny oval nails, or even flaunt those miniature hand-drawn flowers or intricate patterns with tiny glass beads for special occasions.

But this is not to be. So I do my best to keep my fingers clean and safe, reach carefully, and paint my toenails, instead.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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