Quarter past ten. Why does it always take almost as much time to drive 50 miles from my home into Boston as it does to maneuver through local traffic and park for my rheumatology appointment?
I’ve driven round and round the garage, finally located a space on the sixth level. Heading toward the stairs, I notice the elevator has just arrived and decide to shave a few minutes. For some reason, I have it in my head that I’m late, when I’m actually, amazingly, early for a change.
A curly haired woman in capris steps into the elevator ahead of me. As the doors begin to close, another woman with a rolling briefcase runs, calling for us to wait. The first woman reaches her forearm to hold the door. “I’m not very good at this,” she apologizes. “But you did it!” says the third passenger.
When the curly haired woman steps toward the back of the elevator to make room, I notice her hands. They are frozen into fists, with scabs from ulcers on the back of each knuckle. Her face is smooth and tight, lips pulled into a grin. She carries her paper coffee cup in a pink rubbery sleeve with two handles that she can hook with each hand.
As familiar as I am with scleroderma, I’m startled. I don’t often meet a fellow traveller. I feel badly for her. Her hands seem so much worse than mine. I wonder if I should say something. But casually commenting, “So, I see you have scleroderma, too,” feels awkward. There’s no hiding this disease. We all want our privacy.
We both walk quickly across the street and into the medical center. She pauses to study the floor directory. I signal the elevator and am the first one in, this time. We exit at the same floor, with me a few steps ahead. We sign in for our appointments simultaneously. I overhear her saying that she is seeing the same rheumatologist. Her appointment is the one before mine.
As I open my wallet, a dozen coins spill onto the carpeting. Great. This is the price of leaving the coin compartment unzipped to save my fingers. The curly haired woman is the first on her knees to help me. She scoops up some quarters and dimes with her fists and places them on the counter before I can flip a few into my palm. “I often find using a piece of paper helps,” she says. I thank her, marveling at her speed.
We sit on opposite sides of the waiting room. She scrolls on her pink-encased smart phone. I type on my laptop. Our doctor is running late, as usual. I think how grateful I am that I can still type. I notice how adept she is at maneuvering objects with her two fists. I keep track of her turn, since mine will be next. She disappears into the warren of exam rooms.
When I finally see my doctor, an hour later than scheduled, we go over all my latest symptoms and difficulties. My ulcers have been particularly troublesome for the past few weeks, due, no doubt, to the odd extreme temperature changes of late. It’s frustrating, I tell him. They’re sore all the time. But, I add, there was this woman in the waiting room who had the appointment before me. Her hands were so much worse. What do I have to complain about?
It’s only a few days later, when I recall her comment about how a sheet of paper helps her to scoop up coins, that I realize she may well have thought the same of me and all my bandages.
This is a jarring disease. It disfigures and contorts the body. But it doesn’t straightjacket creativity, so essential for coping. My curly-haired counterpart has figured out how to scoop up coins with her fists. I have found the lightest touch keyboard so I can still write with my bandaged fingers. I wouldn’t trade my frustrating but familiar problems for hers, and I expect she would say the same of me. Maybe we’ll talk about it, next time our appointments coincide.
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.