For a couple of days recently, I was down to one bandaged digital ulcer—my right thumb, still healing from surgery in June. Every few years, especially when there’s been a long hot spell, this happens. I can actually see most of my fingertips, a bandage vacation.
It’s very nice while it lasts. I can get going in the morning much more quickly—a couple of minutes, instead of the usual 20, to care for my hands. But it feels very strange. The fingers that have been under wraps for months, sometimes for the entire year, are extremely sensitive to touch. My left thumb, in particular, has some nerve damage that becomes much more pronounced when it goes Full Monty. By the end of the day, it’s tingling almost constantly.
Even still, I’m amazed and glad to be able to take a break from the bandages. Careful as I am to keep my hands clean, they get grubby during the day. The bandages shred at the edges and the adhesive attracts dirt. (I only use fabric bandages, which breathe and remain fairly comfortable, despite daily wear and tear.) Plus, I can’t sense exactly what I’m touching. This is the most frustrating part.
But walking around with almost bare hands can have some unexpected consequences. On one of the days when my fingers were exposed, I bought some groceries. The young cashier asked with genuine sympathy, “What happened to your hands?” I gave my standard reply about ulcers (sometimes, it’s just too much to explain about scleroderma) and went on my way. Only later did I realize that she wasn’t inquiring about all the bandages—there was just one. She was commenting on my oddly stunted fingers, misshapen by resorption of bones in my fingertips. Usually, no one can see, because of all the dressings.
Scleroderma causes a myriad of hand distortions. The oddest visual aspect of the disease, in my case, is that I barely have any fingernails left. This is actually what the cashier was asking about—it looks as if the tips of my fingers have been chopped off.
A missed opportunity for a teachable moment about this disease, certainly. At the same time, however, talking about a personal, physical disability with a casual stranger is murky territory.
My hands are strikingly different. I’ve had this disease for so many decades that I don’t really blame someone from wondering about them. The cashier was not ridiculing me. She was concerned, merely articulating what most people who meet me for the first time may be thinking.
However, I also don’t always feel like having to explain why my hands look strange. My hands are my hands, they are the only hands I have, and they serve me well, despite all the struggles inherent to this disease. They are certainly a distinctive feature. Enough said.
All of this will be a moot point, soon. The weather changed over the weekend from sultry heat to cool breezes by Sunday evening. I’m back to three bandages, and as it gets colder, I’ll have more. My stubby fingertips (the middle fingers on both hands are the most damaged) will hide under wraps again for the better part of the year. Time to find my gloves and pull out the sweaters.
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.