The trouble started on my 29th birthday. The day before, I had scraped a thick layer of ice off the windshield of my car. I felt all right afterward, but when I woke up the next morning I was in pain from my fingers to my elbows, and my hands involuntarily buckled into loose fists throughout the day. The pain continued into the next week, and eventually my left hand began to pull itself into a tight first, to the extent that my fingernails were cutting my palm.
I went to the doctor. She said it was tendonitis and gave me a week’s worth of prednisone. This was somewhat humorous, as the package in which the pills were kept was almost impossible to open for people who didn’t have problems with their hands. I know this because I made them open it for me. There was at least one occasion, however, when even this was not much help, because my hand cramped into a fist, trapping the pill inside for the next few minutes.
On that first visit, the doctor avoided looking much at my left hand because it had by this time begun to take on what would become its permanent shape – more or less a hook, with the index finger pulled over the top of the others.
The prednisone did help a bit with the pain, but the cramping continued, and so I went to a walk-in orthopedics clinic.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the PA said, in a gross violation of everything I thought I knew about bedside manner. She also said it definitely wasn’t tendonitis, and an X-ray revealed there was nothing wrong with my bones, either. Her solution: Return in a couple of weeks to get a nerve conduction study completed. This involves having a needle stuck into your arms and hands, which then shoots out an electric current to see how your nerves react.
This, too, failed to reveal anything, but it was kind of fun, discomfort aside, to see my hand flop around on the table like a gasping fish when they shot in the electricity.
What was less fun was the attitude taken by the doctors. I say “attitude” rather than “attitudes” because they all reacted the same way: With bemusement. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” they would say with depressing regularity. Or, even worse, they would talk about it to each other as if I wasn’t in the room and they were making idle chitchat at a cocktail party.
I went on to have more tests, including an MRI and an EMG, during which the doctor kept unhelpfully repeating, “Relax your arm,” to which I would reply, “I can’t, that’s why I’m here.”
I also began wearing white cotton gloves to protect my palms when my hand cramped up, which it continued to do for up to an hour at a time.
After about eight months the doctors stopped asking me to come in for appointments. That’s the thing about doctors. When they can’t determine what’s the matter with you they do one of two things: They either pass you on to another doctor or they stop seeing you altogether. I had been passed around more than a pack of jailhouse cigarettes, and I guess I reached the last doctor in the chain because he ran a few tests and said he would schedule another appointment when the results came in. The results came in – inconclusive – but he never scheduled another appointment.
To be honest, I was almost relieved. After so many months of “We don’t know’s” I was getting frustrated. The only thing I could be sure of was what my condition wasn’t. It wasn’t tendonitis, it wasn’t arthritis, it wasn’t carpal tunnel syndrome and it wasn’t multiple sclerosis. Or nerve problems. Or brain damage.
Eventually the pain became less and less, although my left hand is now permanently “hooked” and my joints pop loudly and often. No matter. Throughout the whole ordeal I was always glad I was still able to hold a pen and (somehow) able to type. I still am. I can deal with a small amount of pain to be able to do either of those things.
Still, if you’re a doctor and you’re reading this and think you know what the problem is, drop me a line. I’d be curious to know.
“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.