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Winter of the Thumb

Posted on 19 February 2010

By Karl Grossman

This is the winter I will remember for the snow and what that snow did to, yes, my finger. It also marked my entry into the world of finger and hand therapy on Long Island. Who knew that even existed?

It’s not all the fault of the snow. Amber had a role. Amber, our little indoor cat, likes to dash outside and swallow grass which, once back inside, she spits out. (I’m told that this is a common cat routine, a way to eject fur balls.) On this December morning, Amber’s quest for grass made absolutely no sense considering everything outside was covered with snow after our first big storm.

Amber cut between me and the front door which I had just opened. I tried to grab her with my right hand but I took a misstep and stumbled. The middle fingers on my right hand came down hard on the arm of a chair on the front porch. Ouch! I’ve been told since that I had “jammed” my fingers (ring finger and middle finger) in an injury not uncommon to basketball players.

The snow problem came in a few hours later. My wife was attempting to get her car out of the driveway but it couldn’t get traction because of the ice. We thought some sand might help.

With my right hand I grabbed a plastic barrel filled with sand, part of a pool filter system, and tried to drag the barrel up and out of a snow bank—to then get at the sand inside.

In the process, one of those hurt fingers (the ring finger) dislocated. I never thought fingers could do this. I thought fingers were firmly attached to you. But at the middle knuckle it separated. The top half of the finger hung there. I thought I had broken the finger. This was both scary and painful. I shoved the separated parts of the finger back together.

Then I called the wonderful orthopedic surgeon, Dr. John Hubbell, who had cared for me the last time I screwed up a body part. That was two years ago when I slipped on pebbles on a driveway at a yard sale (another potentially dangerous venue) and tore through the quadriceps muscle and knee tendons of my left leg. Dr. Hubbell performed an operation putting my leg back together again.

Now it was the finger. Dr. Hubbell’s office included victims of the snow and ice. He said an operation would not likely be needed this time. He fashioned a metal-and-foam splint on to the finger, “buddy-taped” it to my middle finger, and then secured everything with gauze. Over time, there should be recovery, he assured me.

That seemed to be the case when, a couple of weeks later, I did a stupid thing. I decided to take the splint and gauze off, to let my hand get some air, while I went to the post office.

At the Sag Harbor Post Office, with my left hand I held the door open for Deering Yardley, the distinguished and amiable director of funeral homes in Sag Harbor and East Hampton. In return, as a gesture of friendship and with no idea I had an injured hand, he shook my right hand—firmly. Crunch. It was a funeral for my finger!

I must have jumped up a foot. Mr. Yardley was upset. (Since this happened, if there is any possibility of anybody shaking my right hand, I have it fly to my back and extend my left hand.)

Meanwhile, the finger had gotten accidentally re-injured. It was no longer straight but now kind of s-shaped. It was back to Dr. Hubbell. This time the prescription was finger therapy. Dr. Hubbell recommended someone he described as THE finger and hand therapist in these parts, Neil Cash. His associate, Dr. Teresa Schully, a hand specialist, concurred.

It’s quite a scene at the Hampton Bays office of Mr. Cash. In front of two large posters—one of parts of a hand, the other parts of an elbow and shoulder (Mr. Cash’s expertise extends up to the rotator cuff)—people whose fingers and hands are in various states of disarray get therapy.  There are machines: ultra-sound, whirlpools, cold laser, electric stim, exercise devices and, for youngsters, a video game to provide fun while they exercise a hand. And there is much human care: massage and manual manipulation.

Mr. Cash is a professor at Touro College teaching courses including Hand Therapy, Kinesiology and Splinting. He made a plastic cast for my finger. I’ve been getting therapy at his office. At home, four times a day, I exercise the finger—bending it this way and that, seeking to get the tendons back to their correct positions. After a couple of months, the finger should be straight again.

And snow will be gone from here. Amber, the runaway cat, however, will remain.

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