Thumb’s Up

I’ve been getting clumsier in recent months. I drop all kinds of things—keys, coins, bottle caps, you name it, anything that involves dexterity and a good grip.

hands-1436113-640x480The other day I was cooking and picked up a full bottle of olive oil by the top, not realizing the cap was loose. Unable to hold on (fortunately, the bottle was plastic), I dropped it on the kitchen counter, spilling oil all over my favorite cookbook.

The cookbook is now well stained—not a disaster, once I unstuck the pages, since I consider my spattered cookbooks to be well-loved, like the Velveteen Rabbit. But still, I wish I hadn’t made such a mess.

There’s a good explanation for all of this klutziness: My right thumb (I’m right-handed) has built up layers of dead skin over abnormal thickening. It’s gotten so bad that it’s becoming difficult to hold even a pen or pencil. I’ve been tolerating this as best I can, bandaging it and even applying some urea emulsion cream that I got from my podiatrist to try to loosen the layers so I can remove them.

But none of this has really worked, and I realized this winter, when Al’s employee health insurance coverage improved (thank goodness), that it was time to see my (once again affordable) hand surgeon at Boston Medical and get his assessment. I knew my thumb needed debridement, and I knew I couldn’t possibly do it myself.

It took two months to get in to see him, but I finally had my appointment last week. It’s been years since I last needed his help—once to remove stubborn calcinosis from my left thumb that had adhered to the bone, and another time to remove two surgical pins from my right index finger, left from previous hand surgery to correct a severe flexion contracture, which were causing pain.

Seeing him was well worth the wait. He is the antithesis of the stereotypical surgeon—patient, empathetic, willing to discuss all options at length. He took a look and commented that some of the pain I’m experiencing is probably due to more calcium stuck under all those thick layers of skin—right at the pressure point (why I can’t hold onto stuff).

I mentioned my bad reaction to lidocaine with epinephrine when I had calcium removed from the bridge of my nose last month. “I never use that combination with scleroderma patients,” he said. “The epinephrine causes the blood vessels to constrict.” Who knew? My other doc (and his resident, who gave me the shot) should have. And this is why I love my hand surgeon—he understands this disease really well.

He was not gung-ho about operating, because of all the risks of infection and my poor digital blood circulation that exacerbates healing. But he explained the choice as one of two options: either continue to live with it, as best I can, or solve the problem surgically. “That’s what we’re here for,” he said.

We agreed that I’d come back to see him in May, get a hand X-ray and discuss how to proceed. I could either have the surgery later that week or wait until June, when the weather is warmer (I hope), to boost the healing process. I have to balance my desire to take care of this as soon as possible with the most favorable conditions, including adequate time for my thumb to recover, pacing between family celebrations at the beginning and end of May, and anticipated balmy weather.

Of course, I can only guestimate the latter—the day of my appointment, the mercury hit 77° F, a record-breaking day in Boston for early March.

But at least there is a solution in sight. Meanwhile, I’ll just need to be more mindful when I pick up the olive oil bottle, or my house keys, or spare change from my wallet. And give myself a pass next time I drop something else.

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

Image Credit: Tibor Fazakas

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