I'm typing awkwardly today. My left ring finger, wrapped in a fat wad of clean white gauze, keeps slipping off the keys. Every tap of that finger causes a numb, clumsy sensation, like there's a thick layer of rubber just underneath the skin.
I am so, so lucky.
It happened with shocking speed. I was brushing chips of wood off the smooth metal bed of a jointer, a tool that shaves rough pieces of lumber into even-faced boards. This one had given me trouble all morning. Parts were vibrating out of alignment. Thin shavings of oak were spraying into my face and across the machine, instead of being whisked away by the dust collector. With every pass, I had to switch the machine off, tweak the alignments, brush off the beds, then switch it on again. Off, tweak, brush, on. Off, tweak, brush, on. Off, tweak, brush -
My hand moved too close to the blade, still spinning from the last run. It caught on just the smallest edge of my finger tips, less than a papercut's worth of skin. But the force of the rotating knives smacked those fingers down, into the next turn of the razor-sharp edges.
I felt the machine grab my fingers and reflexively jerked my hand away, a chill blossoming through my chest. A panicked mantra began running through my mind in fast-forward, a mashup of cursewords and prayers and terror. I gripped my wrist and stared at my palm, like a fortune-teller on PCP, terrified to see how much the blades had taken. Everything was still there. There was a slice of skin missing on my middle finger next to another, shallow cut, but something on the ring finger seemed wrong. I was already twitchy from adrenaline, thinking too fast to understand what looked so strange. So I flipped my hand over, and felt the tip open...
My ring finger had been sliced at a diagonal, exposing pink flesh and layers of fat and a bright flash of bone, visible for a moment before being drowned under a red wash of blood. For a second I was frozen, struck by the nauseating sight of a part of my body (albeit a small part) laid open like an anatomical drawing. Ok, I thought, as calmly as possible, time to focus. Where's the hospital again?
I jogged from my shop in Gowanus to the hospital in Park Slope, holding my injured fingers up and squeezing them with my other fist, trying to keep my composure as my mind raced with unwelcome thoughts: That's an awful lot of blood. What if they can't do anything? Will you be able to work if you lose the end of your finger? How dumb are you to put your hand that close to the blade of a jointer, anyway? Why didn't you check if it was still spinning? You've only got yourself to blame if you can't work after this, stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
The ER was oddly small for a big-city hospital, and felt like a sanctuary. A soap opera murmured quietly from cheap flatscreens on the columns, playing to a nearly empty waiting room. A triage nurse rinsed the gore off my hands, and concealed my injured fingers in fat cocoons of gauze. Moments later, they were unwrapped by a bubbly physician's assistant with a New York accent. I'd nicked an artery and cause a bit of nerve damage, but missed everything else: tendons, ligaments, bones, even the nail. Nine stitches and the wound was closed, neatly seamed like a tiny baseball.
Accidents happen, especially in a shop. When I was learning carpentry, it was sometimes all I thought about. I was surrounded by spinning blades and sharp points, machines that would cut through a careless person as easily as they sliced through heavy boards. I moved through the shop like a diver through a school of sharks, cautious, wide-eyed, and nervous. As I became more experienced, I became more comfortable. I worked faster, on more complicated designs, with more difficult and valuable materials. The fear of the machines, the threat reflected by the metal teeth all around me, became less and less intimidating, until it was barely on my mind at all.
In a few days the stitches will come out, leaving behind a curved row of pink dimples. The scars will fade, the damaged nerves will eventually bloom with new sensation. As I said at the start, I was lucky. Lucky the blade wasn't spinning faster, that I was walking distance from a hospital, lucky it was my ring finger instead of my thumb. And lucky to have my scar, a broad crescent across my fingertip reminding me to respect the machines, and work safe.