You might feel a little discomfort here…
—Thor Miller, M.D.
Donna’s comment yesterday about breaking a toe reminded me of my own broken toe story from 40 years ago.
As a newlywed in 1968, I worked for about six months at the A&P warehouse that was located on Kennebec Street here in Portland. Here I was, a new college graduate, joining the Teamster’s Union for an entry-level job lifting and lugging. But the whole idea of the job was for me earn a few dollars while I waited for the day when I would leave home for Air Force basic training.
Most people don’t know about the A&P anymore. The full name of the company was (and I guess still is) The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. The company’s days of continent-spanning dominance of the grocery business are over, I think, but the A&P basically invented the supermarket.
The Portland warehouse supplied stores over a wide area, and my job was in the meat department. In October, with the approach of Thanksgiving, we started dealing with frozen turkeys, lots and lots of frozen turkeys. The turkeys arrived by truck and by train. The big warehouse freezer was filled with them, and still they kept coming.
One day I was assigned to work in a freight car filled with frozen turkeys packed two to the carton. The cartons were stacked seven feet high in the freight car, and unloading them involved handling each carton individually. The work was hard and repetitive. After a while, I fell into a mindless rhythm: reach up and grip a carton; turn and place the carton on a handcart; repeat until the handcart is fully loaded; wheel the handcart out of the freight car and stack the cartons on a wooden pallet; wheel the handcart back into the freight car; begin again.
At some point in the middle of the day, I pulled a defective carton from the top of the stack in the freight car. One of the bottom flaps came loose, and a 22-pound frozen bird slipped out. The turkey fell like a cannonball, and the frozen stump of its neck landed directly on the toe of my shoe.
Now, this is the reason people who work in places like warehouses are supposed to wear steel-toed boots, but I couldn’t afford to buy such boots.
When the turkey hit my foot, it hurt like hell. I immediately began to wonder if something was wrong, but I kept working. I could feel some swelling inside my shoe, but I didn’t take the shoe off to have a look because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to put it back on.
That fear proved to be well-placed. By mid-afternoon, I could no longer walk on the foot. I left work early, limped to my car, and drove home. At home, I took my shoe off. There was clearly no putting it on again.
Through the rest of the afternoon, my strategy for dealing with the toe was basically to sit and hope for the best. By early evening, I had to admit the strategy was ineffective. Marge called Dr. Miller, the family doctor I had always gone to, and he agreed to see me if I could get to his office.
Dr. Miller looked at my foot and quickly determined that the bones of my big toe were broken in three places. He explained that the pain I was experiencing came from pressure building up beneath the toenail. He said the pressure had to be relieved or else the pain would be worse and worse.
By this point I felt I was ready to agree to just about anything, particularly since I thought I had a good idea of what was going to happen. My assumption was that I’d get a shot of some sort of local anesthetic and that the doctor would drill through the nail (or perhaps melt through it with a heated needle).
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Dr. Miller, nearing retirement in those days, spent most of his career practicing medicine in an era that calibrated pain from broken bones differently. The ragged end of a snapped femur protruding through the skin; that was pain. A woman having twins who suffered sacral fractures 48 hours into unmedicated labor; that was pain. A broken toe? Not so much.
So, for me there was no local anesthetic. There was also no drill or needle. Instead, Dr. Miller stood the point of a scalpel on my toenail. Slowly, slowly he turned the scalpel so that the blade would eventually scrape its way through the toenail. “You might feel a little discomfort here,” he said.
When this sort of thing happens in a cowboy movie, the victim gets a shot or two of whiskey and then something to bite down on. Once again, I got neither. I sat on Dr. Miller’s examination table, gripping the edge of it so hard I was practically tearing off the upholstery.
The twisting scalpel went on and on and on. After a minute or two of it, I began fantasizing that my hands were around the good doctor’s neck. In my dream state, I choked the life out of him until he confessed himself to be a quack and a sadist.
After three or four minutes, I could no longer sustain fantasy. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. My goal became simply to remain conscious and to resist the urge to shriek at the top of my lungs. I no longer cared what happened and was perfectly at home with the notion that death might overtake me at any moment. What a relief it would be…
Finally, the scalpel made its way through the toenail. I felt a moment of truly amazing pain and saw a tiny spurt of watery-looking blood. Then the doctor bound up the wound he had inflicted.
I missed a few days of work, but the toe slowly and steadily healed. At Thanksgiving, Marge’s mom served a 22-pound turkey she had bought frozen at the A&P. I ate with relish, convinced that I was wreaking vengeance on THE ONE.
For a long time afterward the toe I broke was flatter than its counterpart, and for about 25 years its occasional twinge predicted changes in the weather.
Now, astonishingly, I can’t tell or even remember which foot was involved.