Decades ago, when scleroderma first attacked my hands, my right index finger began to droop. Over the course of several years, it stiffened into a hooked flexion contracture, bent to an immobile 100-degree angle.
To me, it looked like a claw. It was ugly, hag-like. I hated it. I was constantly smashing my bent knuckle into drawers and cabinets whenever I reached for something. It hurt when I shook hands. It was an embarrassing deformity.
The hardest piece was that it had been my favorite finger, enabling me to maintain deft control of pencils when I drew, of needles when I sewed, anything that involved fine motor coordination. I had talented hands with great kinesthetic feel, and my right index finger was the most talented of all.
As the risk of permanent knuckle ulcers and infection grew, I decided to look into corrective hand surgery. I went to one of the best orthopedic hand surgeons in Boston for an assessment. The surgery was doable, but I was scared. What if it didn’t work? What if I lost my finger in the process?
While I debated what to do, our youngest, Emily, expressed a very different view. For her, my digital hook was her favorite. Born a premie and always petite, she had tiny, slender fingers, and she loved to hold my bent index finger like the handle on a tea cup whenever we would snuggle. Her gentle touch was always a salve.
It took me a full year to gather up the courage to have the surgery. All went well, no complications or infections—though my hand surgeon commented that the operation was challenging, my skin as fragile as an onion’s. He shortened the finger so I could still pinch the tip of my resorbed thumb and stabilized the joint with two steel pins.
Emily was disappointed that she couldn’t hold it the same way anymore, but old enough to understand why the surgery was necessary. Gripping the finger, with its internal pins, was painful. So we found other ways to hold hands, as hers grew.
Then the bones in my finger began to resorb. Gradually, the pins poked their way out of the bone and stabbed my knuckle from the inside. I saw another hand surgeon, and we agreed he would remove the pins. As my finger had healed well from the initial surgery, it had formed what he called a “false joint,” and would still be useable.
So, the pins came out. My finger looked a bit squashed and quite stubby, but this time, I was much less concerned about aesthetics and just grateful to have a working finger without pain.
And there was one new attribute that delighted Emily: Since the joint was now more tendon than bone, I could rotate the tip of the finger in a circle, like a hula dancer. I’d hum a tune and make it jiggle, and she would giggle. Another saving grace.
I had my first hand surgery when Emily was five. This week, she turned 20. We still occasionally joke about my hula finger. And we still hold hands when we visit.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.