I’ve done a lot of household projects, with a lot of power tools, for a lot of years. I’ve avoided serious injury, but sometimes we do things that aren’t so smart. Sometimes in the pursuit of these projects I put myself in unwise positions, positions that, should things go pear-shaped, might lead to injury. Standing on piles of things instead of getting a proper ladder; cleaning the grass out of the mower chute while it’s still running*; pounding on the end of a long screw, with the back end of a screw driver, amid a forest of straight-up 12-2 wire stripped of its insulation when my hand slips and the back of my hand ends up, no mystery here, punctured by a nice, sharp copper wire.
While in the middle of these household projects, I’ll realize that I’m being a temporary idiot and try to think of plausible excuses to tell emergency-room employees to explain my injury, should the need arise. I’ve never come up with a good scenario, because I’ve never been seriously injured enough to need one.
Until a few weeks ago. I was cutting a big plastic drawer insert from Ikea into something that would fit into a smaller drawer. I had my nice, new utility knife in my right hand, the insert in my left. At one point I thought that if something were to go wrong, things could get ugly, so I changed my position. So, instead of potentially stabbing myself in the chest if the knife slipped, I severed the radial artery in my left arm.
It happened fast, of course, but it didn’t really hurt. There was, however, a tremendous amount of blood. I ran into the kitchen, where Captain OCD was making dinner, chanting to him and and to me, “thisisbad thisisbad thisisbad.” He saw some blood, grabbed a dirty dish towel off the counter, and I said, “No, get a clean one!” At least I was aware enough to know that was important at the time. He then saw a two-inch long, inch-deep hole that was gushing/pulsing blood, got a bunch of clean towels, wrapped them around my wrist, and squeezed with everything he had. He ended up with a bruise on his chest from compressing my arm in the crooks of his elbows against his chest.
I suggested we go to urgent care. In the car, in the driveway, I realized that I couldn’t control the bleeding (although I did so long enough to keep the car blood free), so we went back in the house where Captain OCD called 911, which kind of made the whole thing real in a grown-up way. It would get more real as the night progressed. I heard, “My wife cut her wrist really bad with a box cutter” and realized how bad that sounded and yelled from across the room, “Tell them it wasn’t on purpose!” He chuckled a little and answered, “No, it wasn’t intentional.” The EMT said that would have been “a whole other call.” After all was said and done, we did a better job of controlling the bleeding than EMTs (all very nice) in two separate ambulances. Enough that I didn’t need a blood transfusion. To be fair, they weren’t exactly sure where the injury was: when an artery has been severed, you don’t take all the (formerly clean) kitchen towels and the one bath towel off to look at it until you’re in a more controlled situation. Still, I wonder what would have happened had I been unconscious.
After one ambulance ride where we made a detour to stop in front of a fire station to pick up another EMT because we needed another set of hands (after one too many “You’re not squeezing hard enough; see all that warm blood gushing down my arm from under the towels?” from me – the guy we picked up knew what to do with his hands and assured me that our aborted trip to urgent care was a good move on our part); an emergency room where a nurse finally asked, as my hand hung in the air, my arm, shirt, and the pillow and sheets of the gurney soaked in blood, if we minded if she closed the curtains “because it’s a little too close to Halloween” (if you don’t like blood, look away. Oops, too late.);
In the first ER, after much cleaning up of blood. After about 45 minutes of hanging my arm from my fingers in the hope that the artery might clot on its own (this hospital wasn’t equipped to explore the possibility of it being completely severed. Turns out, it was). I was getting somewhat concerned about my now freezing-cold, dark purple hand, but the nurse assured us that “it takes a long time before tissue damage occurs.” She did not define “a long time.” My hand was not amputated, so this experience suggests that it is longer than 45 minutes.)
another ambulance ride to the trauma hospital and another emergency room where my arm hurt like a motherfucker after they unwrapped it because, as I discovered as I peeked over, the doctor’s thumb was knuckle-deep inside my arm, clamping off my gushing artery against my bone while the room started spinning around me and where, later, sleepless, I discovered that George Lopez reruns are on an infinite loop on ION TV on Sunday nights (I’m still seeing the macrocephalic Mr. Lopez in my dreams, but I will henceforth thank him for rescuing me from endless infomercials) (over many hours I was able to calculate that ION’s commercial-to-show ratio is approximately 46:1) (the hospital doesn’t splash out for Showtime, hence no Dexter) and did you know that CBS news goes live at 3:30 AM Monday morning (no one needs live news at 3:30 AM, but I welcomed it nonetheless); more hours of sleeplessness in the ICU (I needed to be monitored in case the bleeding got past the golf-ball sized wad of gauze taped inside my arm pending surgery and I’m too nosy to fall asleep easily in strange surroundings and, boy, did those nurses chat up a storm with each other); and emergency surgery to tidy up the ends of the hastily sliced artery and sew them back together and repair some muscle damage, I went home.
I was lucky: Captain OCD was home. I wouldn’t have been able to control the bleeding with my one good hand, and it was close to ten minutes before the ambulance got here. We knew what to do with an arterial bleed until (and, in this case, after) help arrived. The surgery went well, performed by a well-respected surgeon (not much consumer choice when the surgery is of the emergency variety), I avoided cutting any tendons, and, after a detour through a staph infection that turned the surgeon’s lovely stitchery into a bit of a freak show, my arm seems to be healing nicely and it looks like I’ll have full range-of-motion in my hand and wrist.
I have been shocked to hear the number of people who don’t know that bleeding from an artery is different than just bleeding. Wasn’t everyone taught such basic information in high school health class? Hasn’t everyone watched enough Law and Order to know that bleeding from an artery leads to a detective uttering a sarcastically pithy statement over the victim on the medical examiner’s table just before they cut to the opening credits?
Today’s lessons: Don’t get bloody, cut toward your buddy. Don’t do stupid things with potentially harmful outcomes when home alone. Wear an old, crummy shirt if there’s a chance they’ll have to cut it off your body. Ride in the ambulance with your loved one – you can get a ride home later. Take a basic first aid class, or at least Google it. Seriously, the life you save may be your own, and then you’ll be around should you be called upon to save others.
I never came up with a good explanation, but all the health care professionals were kind enough to tell me, “We all do dumb things.” And they said these are common injuries, what with all the bullet-proof plastic packaging that’s impossible to open without a really sharp knife.
* I did that once, and the spinning blade nicked the end of my finger. I had C1, about 16 at the time, drive me to urgent care to make sure there were no bone chips mixed in with the hamburger at the end of my finger. Later, my mom said that maybe it would be a good idea to paint a red line around the mower deck, where the end of the blade was, so I’d know where the cutting edge ended. C1 said, “Or, how about she DOESN’T STICK HER HAND INTO A RUNNING LAWNMOWER EVER AGAIN!”