Painful Lessons of Healing

“Not all pain is significant.”           – Scott Jurek

It was a cool, rainy Friday night.  Rob and I had walked back to Amy’s parent’s house so we could get the Nissan NV, and pick up our wives and kids at the football game.  As I went to the side of the NV to put the umbrella in, I braced myself as I pulled the sliding door up the hill.  Suddenly, I became aware that my right hand was in intense pain, and it was stuck in the passenger door.  Unknowingly, Rob had slammed the heavy door shut on my fingers.  Suddenly aware of my situation, I began yelling at him until he unlatched the door.  I looked down at my hand and it quickly became clear that the mangled middle finger on my right hand had taken a direct hit.

Feeling both bad because my finger hurt and because we only see Rob and his family once a year (they lived in Cleveland at the time), we piled the kids in the NV and the story quickly became the talk of the vehicle.  Rob joked, “I think I broke your Dad’s finger.” I was pretty sure he was right.  After getting a splint at the local pharmacy and dealing with some moderate pain, I started to consider that maybe this was an opportunity to test what I had briefly spoken and written about regarding our approach to pain.  Having been blessed with only one previous broken bone (during football season my freshman year of high school) and no surgeries, I figured it was way overdue.  That night, having made the decision to forego any pain medicine to just allow the natural process to take course, I was pleased to get a few hours of sleep with just periodic intense pain.

The following morning I was signed up to run in the local half-marathon, and as I secured the splint on my finger before the race, I started to reflect on all those people in my life who were experiencing so much more pain than I had.  As I stood at the starting line on a beautiful sub 50 degree morning, I thought of my Aunt Joni, whose frontotemporal dementia had robbed her of her language and caused her and the family much pain.  I thought of my Dad, who was struggling with hip and back problems, and I figured that any pain I experienced was minimal compared to them.  As the race started, my finger throbbed for the first few miles, and then just went numb, and after a little over 90 minutes on the course, the race was done.  I had thought of so many along the way.

Two days later, I finally got x-rays and the news wasn’t good.  The middle finger (which created its own set of jokes in the splint) was not only broken, but the second phalange was displaced just above the joint. It would require surgery as two inch long pins would be drilled diagonally through the bone to bring it back into position as much as possible.  I felt the anxiety well up in me as I realized surgery was required; but as it was just a finger, I knew it could be so much worse. 

When the day arrived for the procedure, I had convinced the surgeon performing the operation to allow me to receive a local anesthetic rather than a general one.  As I joked with my kids, if the guys in the Civil War survived amputations without anesthesia, then surely I could handle a finger surgery without “going under.”  They didn’t seem so sure, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure either, but felt that I should take this course.  Once the painful lidocaine shots were done, though, and I suddenly realized that the surgeon was drilling into my hand with my arm dangling above me (as I was under a sheet and could not see in this direction), I felt myself become more at ease.  I was grateful that I had a surgeon with this type of expertise and local anesthesia that allowed for it to be done in comfort; I was not a soldier just off the battlefield losing limbs to the horrors of war.  My pain was nothing compared to theirs.

Having gone into work for a few hours after the surgery while the lidocaine was still working, I realized that the numbness would soon wear off only to reveal what it felt like to have foreign objects drilled into bone.  Still resolving to forego pain meds, I knew that night in bed was probably going to miserable.  But I also knew that day that my friend, Greg, had back surgery and so any pain or discomfort I felt would be nothing compared to him.  The worst thing I would experience was a sleepless night full of excruciating pain.  I was fortunate that the source of this pain was my finger, not my back.  Even if my pain seemed unbearable, I had to keep reminding myself that I was fine. 

That night was rough, and lying in bed I found myself at times questioning the sanity of my decision.  But as the night wore on, and I managed to eventually fall asleep for a couple of hours, the morning brought some relief.  As the days continued, the pain continued to lessen and I got pretty good at four finger typing while my injured finger healed.

In the end, I came to realize a few things.  Had I decided to take pain medication at any point, it wouldn’t have been failure.  We are blessed to live in a time and place that allows for pain relief when physical, psychological, or emotional reasons demand.  But for me, I think it would have been a missed opportunity for a couple of reasons.  One, it reminded me that our minds and bodies are equipped with many natural methods of pain relief, and that whatever pain I encountered in the future, this experience was one mode of “training” for what may come. Two, I found myself connecting with so many people who have experienced pain at a degree that I couldn’t imagine.  Ever so briefly, ever so simply, my experiences had merged with theirs even though I knew I had suffered much less.  I came into communion with people I loved, and people I had never known.

Almost a year removed from the accident, my finger functions well although my kids still laugh because it looks a little fat and distorted.  If asked if I would go through it again, I am tempted by both answers.  But what I know is the communion of love I felt overshadows the memory of any pain.

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