Marilyn Heins

The advances in the practice of medicine today are amazing.

As a retired pediatrician, although I still read a couple of professional journals, I no longer try to keep up with the field. There are so many new ways of caring for people, new treatments, and new medications that my aging brain could not handle such a task.

I recently confirmed what I already knew: There is no better way than personal experience to update one’s knowledge fast.

Almost four weeks ago, my right hand had a collision with my refrigerator. The refrigerator won. I was walking too fast and too close so the back of my right hand brushed by the edge of the door handle in such a way and at such a speed as to tear an area of my skin almost 2 inches long and half an inch wide. I could see the tendon to my middle finger so my first act was to check if I could move that finger. Yes!

With assistance from my favorite assistant, we cleaned the wound and used two regular size Band-Aids to cover it until we could get to urgent care. Ouch!

Our first mistake. Although ordinary Band-Aids have covered my cuts as long as I can remember, and I always carried a couple in my purse or toiletries kit when traveling, it was not a good idea. Lesson No. 1: Old skin, especially on the hand, is quite thin and fragile. Easy to put a Band-Aid on elderskin but awfully hard to remove.

My second mistake: I assumed the urgent-care doctor was going to stitch the wound. Lesson No. 2: Elderskin like mine is too thin and fragile to sew together because the stitches would pull out.

At urgent care, wet gauze was placed on my hand to loosen the Band-Aid adhesive (ouch again). My hand was cleansed and dressed with a new-to-me bandaging product called Mepitel. After several visits to my personal physician for a dressing change, my hand is almost healed.

How does one spend weeks living with a bandaged right hand that was painful to use or even move and that I could not get wet? With difficulty!

A partial list of what l could not do with my nonfunctional right hand follows. Cut up food, use utensils, floss my teeth, open pill bottles, tie my shoes, wash my hair, put my hair up, put on or take off a bra, pick up anything heavier than a sheet of paper, turn pages of a book, write the “right hand” way (I signed a couple of checks with my left hand and so far the bank hasn’t called), open a car door, drive because it was painful to curl my injured hand on the wheel and I do not trust myself to drive with only one hand, button a blouse, reach to get something off a shelf, etc. etc.

There were things I figured out or contrived how to do with my left hand. After a couple of days, I could type using my left hand only, but this was a very tedious procedure. I could answer emails sending as short a message as possible but could not write a whole column (Thank you, faithful readers, who emailed me to ask why I wasn’t in the paper).

I learned to floss my teeth with a bridge threader held in my left hand but it took a lot of time and patience. My left hand could, with practice, brush my hair, use the TV remote, eat (mostly with my left fingers).

How do we prevent accidents in old age? Age makes us especially vulnerable to accidents. I know I stagger a bit when I walk, especially around the house and especially when I am changing direction. I am much more careful walking out of doors because of my fear of fear of falling.

Lesson No. 3: I must concentrate on walking slower and paying more attention to where I am. As my concerned and witty son pointed out, “Mom, a refrigerator is a pretty big thing for you not to notice.”

We also have to “elderproof” our house just as we childproofed our house when the children were little. It is important to make sure there is nothing we can trip on like a rug or cord or shoes or bedspread. (“A place for everything and everything in its place” was attributed to Benjamin Franklin.) Push chairs in under the table or desk. Beware of slippery spills — I throw a towel down to soak up the liquid. Have adequate lighting and night lights that go on automatically.

The two biggest risk factors for us elder folk that can lead to disability or even death are falls and living alone.

Because I couldn’t work at my computer or hold a book, I had a lot of time to reflect on the fact that I could not have managed if I lived alone. Fortunately, the man I live with literally became my right hand for many days.

If I lived alone what could or would I have done? I was not disabled enough to be admitted to a hospital. I would have to rely on family (no one lives in or near Tucson) or friends or hire someone to come in and care for me. I just had a little cut. What about those who are really laid up and need help for a long time?

I kept thanking my beloved caregiver profusely because I felt so helpless with a nonfunctioning right hand. He said my thanks were not necessary and reminded me that I had cared for him a couple of times.

A hearty shout-out to caregivers everywhere, family members or strangers, in private homes or facilities. You help those of us who simply cannot manage alone by themselves whether for a short time or for always. You make it possible for us to recover from a minor mishap like mine or a major one, or when we have a condition that requires help for the rest of our lives.

I raise my right hand with an imaginary glass to toast and thank all of you for all that you do for others!

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent, step great- grandparent, columnist and author. She welcomes your questions about all people throughout the life cycle, from birth to great-grandparenthood. Contact her at marilynheins@gmail.com.