It was excruciating – pain radiating from my right thumb to my wrist, then forearm, then shoulder, all in the course of three days. There had been some discomfort in the previous months, but this time it was agony.
Refusing to take meds or try any remedies pending a physician’s advice, I gritted my teeth, leaned heavily on Alex for support (she almost buckled under the weight), and made my way to the emergency room of a Makati hospital late one night last week.
That afternoon I had done some research and by a galactic coincidence a story popped up on Yahoo! Finance that seemed related. “The Baby May Be Giving You Mommy’s Thumb” screamed the headline.
The condition is called De Quervain’s tendonitis and is an inflammation of the tendons below the thumb down to the wrist, and may result from carrying heavy babies from lower cribs and scrolling and texting on smartphones. It may be treated by painkillers, splints, steroid injections, and surgery.
With the text was a diagram that showed pain beginning at the base of the thumb area and radiating upward. My pain was the radiating kind but it wasn’t emanating from the base but from the thumb joint, which was red, swollen, and painful to touch.
I poked it. Oww. Bad idea.
At the hospital, two residents attended to me, a female and a male. The lady doctor looked over my chart.
“Is the pain severe?” she murmured.
“Yes. Assuming childbirth to be number ten, my hand pain is the number eight orange frowny-face on the pain chart,” I said. I described the situation.
“Radiating? I see. Has the pain reached the ancilla?”
“If by ‘ancilla’ you mean ‘armpit’, then yes, it has.”
They sent me out for x-rays and when I came back, the male doctor looked them over and spoke. ”Have you seen how I write?”
What the hell does that have to do with my hand, I thought, but of course I realized he had a point – somewhere – and was about to make it. I put on a puzzled face. ”No…”
He took up a pen, gripped it in four fingers, his thumb hanging free. “I have the same condition you have. It’s called focal dystonia – ‘writer’s cramp’.”
Focal dystonia is a neurological condition that may be accompanied by radiating pain or uncontrolled curling or twisting of the fingers, and usually afflicts people who rely on fine motor skills, like guitarists and surgeons. And writers.
“Oh, cool!” I was elated. “I’m a writer! It figures! Hey, wait. So you mean I don’t have De Quervain’s tendonitis or ‘mommy’s thumb’?”
He glared. “No, you have focal dystonia, ‘writer’s cramp’!” I nodded with understanding. Of course. He had it himself, so naturally he wouldn’t want to call it some sissy girly name.
“Is it a joint thing, or a repetitive motion injury thing?” I asked.
“It’s a stress-related nerve thing, and you might need therapy, and you definitely need rest,” he said. He scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper, pushed it to me. “Here’s my hand specialist’s number. Call her.”
I wanted to ask if the specialist was so specialized as to specialize on only the left or the right hand, but remembering the story I read on the Internet, I asked instead, “Can I have a splint? Or steroids? Hunh, can I, can I?”
He frowned. “You can have a pill. Here’s a prescription.” More scribbling.
“But it hurts bad,” I whined.
“This is (unpronounceable name of medication),” the nurse said. “It’s going to sting going in. Oh, and there’s an aftertaste of buko juice.”
“What kind of painkiller gives more pain?…oh, never mind. Lemme have it,” I said, wincing as he slooowly pressed the plunger and the taste of coconut filled my mouth.
The shunt was kind of cute, because it was pink. I wanted to keep it as a caffeine delivery system to shoot espresso or Cobra energy drink straight into my bloodstream and! to! the brain! but Alex stared at me with narrowed eyes and of course no one wants their eldest daughters fixing them with disapproving looks so I let the nurse remove the shunt. He wouldn’t have let me leave the hospital with it anyway.
For being a mostly good girl while in the emergency room, I was given my favorite treat by Alex. She took me to ingest caffeine the old-fashioned way at Starbucks where she had a Mocha Peppermint frap and we shared a banana loaf slice and a tuna croissant.
Lifting my plastic cup of Zen iced tea, I tried to balance it on my palm while holding with four fingers and trying to find a way to rest my thumb, until Alex pointed out that I could maybe hold the cup in my left hand. Brilliant child. Whatever would I do without her?
By the time we went home, the pain was gone, and I slept well again, my slumber serene, knowing that I had ‘writer’s cramp’ as befits a writer.
But ‘mommy’s thumb’ would not have been amiss, as I am a mommy too – a grateful one, to be blessed with an Alex like mine, and an Erika waiting at home with a warm hug.
The lesson here was that even a minor ache may turn out to be a condition for which one needs medical treatment. I had ignored the hand pain for months, belonging as I do to the Ernest Hemingway tough school of writing, where you bind up your bullet wounds with a dirty handkerchief clenched between your teeth and keep on typing.
But my neglect meant that my condition had deteriorated to the point where I needed to get x-rays and see a specialist. I am thankful that the emergency room resident who saw me last week made a spot-on diagnosis and treated me with sympathy and smiles.
It was a stern reminder, though, that anyone can benefit from – take care of yourself, so you can better take care of others. ***