Today is the one-year anniversary of my fathers death.
When something terrible happens to someone who has put their trust in the healthcare system, that person becomes known as a patient, perhaps a victim, and nothing else. It is easier to think that medical errors happen to patients and victims, because we (the rest of us) are not patients and not victims.
Today I want to remind you that medical errors happen to people. Real people.
What follows is an essay I wrote about my father back in 2006 while I was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. The assignment was to create a narrative history that captures the feeling of a time in the past.
The finger and the toe
“Not many women are married to a man with nine fingers and nine toes,” my mother remarks.
“Actually, it’s nine-and-a-half fingers,” I correct her.
I hear a faint “Are you two makin’ fun of me again?” over the static on the telephone. My father is sitting in the living room with his foot elevated, recovering from yesterday’s toe amputation.
The story of the toe began fifteen years ago, in 1991, during a weekend of cleaning up the yard and storage shed. My father dropped a six-foot drill pipe, the type used to drill for oil, on the second toe of his left foot. This pulverized the bone, and my father went to the emergency room sure that this appendage would simply be cut off. Instead, the doctor decided to reconstruct a toe out of the flattened remnant of “hamburger”. It did eventually heal into a mass of scar tissue resembling a toe, and all was well until a few months ago when it was attacked by gout. The swelling caused the scar tissue to split, and a persistent infection took hold. After several appointments with medical professionals the toe was removed.
That is the story of the toe. For the story of the finger, we must travel back forty-five years, to the small town of Buffalo, Kansas.
The Clarkson’s place is real easy to find. Just cross those railroad track on the west side of town and take that dirt road that heads north. You gotta keep on this road. It goes north for half-a-mile, then west for a mile, then back north for a mile. Now, once you cross that low-water bridge there’s a road that heads west. That’s their driveway, and you’ll cross two more bridges before you get to the house about a half-mile up. It’s a big two-story farmhouse with one of those wrap-around porches. There’s a big brick garage over on the left, and a chicken house and brooder house on the right. Back behind the house are the barns, grain bins, and silo.
Every time that big ol’ mutt hears somebody come up the driveway it runs out to see what’s goin’ on. But it’s not much of a watchdog. That’s why they have those guinea fowl runnin’ around. They make quite a racket if any skunks, coyotes, or ‘possums are sneakin’ around tryin’ to snatch eggs or little critters. The chickens get shut up in the chicken house at night, of course, but those guinea stay out. A few years ago they had some peacocks helping out the guinea, and they did a pretty good job, but after a while the coyotes got those. They also got hog pens over by the west hill, and over in that west pasture are the cows, sheep, goats, and a couple horses.
It’s 1961, so things are downright modern around here now. With that Rural Electrification Act the house got electricity seven years ago. Those boys helped that electrician-man string those lines to the house and do that wirin’. Now every room has a light bulb fixture in the ceilin’ and a plug-in in the wall. Those boys watched that electrician-man real close. A while later they strung wires over to the chicken house, brooder house, and sheep barn, so now they got lights in there, too. Not only that, but they hooked up an electric pump down in the well, ran some pipes through the house, and put in a bathroom. They got rid of that old washhouse out front that had the gasoline-powered washer. That washer sitting’ in the house is electric. Ida was also real happy when they ran those pipes over from the oil well and she got that gas stove for cookin’. They’ve even got a TV. Now they’re just like those folks in town.
Glenn’s home for the weekend. He’s the third oldest of Albert and Ida’s six kids. He’s their college kid. That’s right, he’s studyin’ biology over at Coffeyville Community College. I guess he liked that de-hornin’ and castratin’ and vaccinatin’ enough to keep on studyin’ that type of thing. The two oldest, Dorothy and Gene, have been gone for a few years now. Dorothy’s off doing clerical work for the government, and Gene, he’s learnin’ to be one of those automotive mechanics. I guess he must have liked workin’ on that truck and those tractors.
John, Barbara, and Bill are the youngest. They’re doing their choresworkin’ in the garden, feedin’ those critters, and cleanin’ out the grain bins. Ida’s in the kitchen gettin’ a box of food ready to send back with Glenn. Most of it’s vegetables and fruits she canned, but tomorrow before he leaves she’s gonna to put in a couple of them steaks from those animals he helped butcher last winter.
Let me tell you, the times are a-changin’! All the time Glenn was growin’ up here he would milk five or six cows every mornin’ and every evenin’. The cream from that was separated off and part went to makin’ butter. But most of it was saved and taken once a week into town, along with the eggs. The money from sellin’ that was the grocery money for the week, and that’s how they bought sugar, salt, spices, and a few other things like that. But now, regulations say that creameries can’t buy cream from farmers that way anymore. A truck has to come right out to the farm and you have to have those refrigerated tanks for storin’ the milk. So now they got just two milk cows. Sometimes they even get that store-bought milk in those paper cartons. Like I said, the times are a-changin’!
Glenn’s here this weekend to help saw lumber. Like all the farms ’round here, the buildings are built out of native lumber. Now, most farmers don’t have their own sawmill. They haul their trees over to a sawmill and pay to have their lumber cut. But three years ago when Albert was needin’ to build that big barn out back he bought his own sawmill. It was just a matter of economics.
That saw mill is set up over there behind the house, at the edge of the cornfield. That big ol’ circular saw blade is about five feet wide and a quarter-inch thick. Now, if you are wonderin’ how that thing is powered, that blade is on a big long axel, and a belt runs from that axel to a pulley on the tractor engine. As for gettin’ the tree lined up with that blade, they got what looks like a little railroad car on tracks. You put the tree on that car and pull on the cables to push the tree into the blade. And boy-howdy! When that blade hits the tree, you can hear it all over the farm! It takes them about an hour to turn a tree into a stack of boards and big ol’ pile of saw dust.
Albert is feedin’ those trees into the saw and Glenn is around back catchin’ the boards. You gotta be real careful guidin’ those boards comin’ off the blade so that the tail end comes out straight and doesn’t break off. Now, all of the sudden, Glenn gets a real surprised look on his face and throws his hands up in the air. Albert shuts off the tractor and comes over to figure out what’s wrong. Glenn must have reached for that board too soon, ’cause that blade cut down into the pointer finger of his right hand and took out the bone, right up to the knuckle. The skin from the bottom side of the finger is still there, floppin’ around. Albert looks at it for a few moments and decides they probably better go into town and have a doctor sew it up.
Now, y’all gotta understand, this kinda thing happens when you live on a farm. Like that time six years ago with the tractor. Now, Glenn’s been driving tractors since he was eight years old, but this one time when he was crankin’ the engine of that ol’ tractor because it had stalled, the crank handle flew backward and hit him in the chin. It split him all the way down to the bone. He had to go get that sewed up. Or that time when he was up in the silo scooping out silage on a real cold day. The pitchfork bounced off the sheet of ice on top and went through the big toe of his right foot and got stuck in the sole of his shoe. He was hollerin’ real loud for someone to come help get that pitchfork out, but no one heard him, so he had to just sit down right there and put his other foot on top of that shoe and pull on that pitchfork ’til it came out. He still went to school that morning, of course, ’cause that kinda thing just happens when you live on a farm.
That finger is startin’ to hurt real bad and bleedin’ all over, so Glenn goes down the house and washes off the blood and wraps it up in a cloth. Albert and Glenn get in the ’56 Chevy and head to Fredonia, about 20 miles away. The doctor deadens the end of the finger then uses a tool that looks like little wire cutters to snip off the sharp end of the bone. Next he’s gotta figure out how much skin to keep, so he folds that flap of skin up over the end of the finger to measure. Now, when that doctor starts cuttin’ that extra skin off, each time he gets to a blood vessel the blood is squirtin’ out real far, clear onto the white jacket of the doctor. Glenn is thinkin’ this is real interestin’, and is givin’ a squirt-by-squirt account of this. That doctor must have not been appreciatin’ that, because he tells Glenn he needs to stop talkin’ because his comments are makin’ him sick. That finger gets stitched up, and they head back to the farm.
One of those other kids is gonna have to help saw lumber the rest of the day.
By Melisa Clarkson
Information in Narrative & Argument
Dr. David Kaufer, Instructor
Department of English
Carnegie Mellon University