One of the first things my physical therapist asked me was, “You know what P.T. stands for, right?”
“Uh, ‘physical therapy’?” I quavered.
“No,” she cackled, gyrating my poor finger in all sorts of impossible directions. “’Pain and Torture’!”
And boy is she right. I thought I knew what pain meant after the ER doc re-broke my finger to get the bones back in the right place. But what I’ve been enduring — three times a week for the last three weeks — is worse, because it just goes on and on and on.
Mayte is a statuesque Venezuelan woman with long, curly, dyed-blond hair. She wears miniskirts, sports a terrific manicure, and was obviously a CIA torturer in some previous life. Here’s our routine:
I go into one of the office’s dingy private rooms and sit down in front of an examination table. Then Mayte attaches some contraption to my finger that sends electrical impulses into it. It’s supposed to loosen up the muscles in the finger and reduce my sensitivity to pain. She does this at as high a setting as I can withstand. What It feels like is when I was a kid and I stuck my finger into an electrical socket — but this time for 15 straight minutes.
After the electrocution phase, Mayte comes in and gives me an ultrasound massage. She squirts bluish-green goo on my finger and rubs it around with the probe. Supposedly, this brings heat to the joint and gets the capillaries working again. All this time she’s chatting and joking with me, asking me about my weekend, my job, my marriage. etc. It’s a strange moment, just the two of us in this room, my vulnerable finger in her strong hands. It could be mistaken for the intimacy of lovers.
But it ain’t. Because this is when the agony begins. Grabbing the digit in both hands, she straightens it, twists it sideways, and worst of all bends it down, down, down, much further then it’s able to go. I mean look at the damn thing — it’s not ready to rejoin the rest of my hand! But that’s no obstacle for Mayte! And this (wo)man-handling goes on forever. I once heard her refer to this care as “massage” — if that’s massage, I’d hate to know what it would be like if she got rough.
I know why she has to do it. The finger is surrounded by scar tissue, which has hardened around the joint and prevents it from moving. The only way to get the finger bending again is to break up that scar tissue. And there’s no way to get around it — it’s a painful process.
But the worst part of the whole thing is the way she mocks me and my discomfort. When I hop out of my seat, she asks me if there’s a frog in my chair. When I wince, she accuses me of winking at her — “I expect that from Latin men, but not a nice Jewish boy like yourself!” Once the pain was so intense that I groaned, “Oh my god!” and she said I was getting all religious on her! It’s everything I can do not to pull my hand away. Last week, I was leaning forward in agony, and I had this almost irresistible urge to bite her arm. I mean it was right there, bare and brown, and just a few inches away from me. I should have done it.
Lately, I’ve taken to laughing at the agony. It’s either that or start bawling. I can only imagine the different shades of red — or alternately deathly pallid hues — my face turns during these “massages.” And the whole time lovely Mayte chatters away, practicing her torture techniques and admonishing me to “take it like a woman.” What a kidder!
The sick thing is that I actually like her. She’s funny and charming. I mean, think about how much worse it would be with a Nurse Ratched type.
*Sigh.* Clearly I suffer from Stockholm Syndrome.
The orthopedist who’s been tracking my recovery told me to take some pain medication before I went to P.T. So the first time I went, I looked at the bottle and took one tablet — the recommended dose. As far as I could tell, it was useless. Sari scoffed at this and said I had to take more: three or even four tablets. I’m not much of a medicine-guy, so the next time I went, I took two tablets. Still no relief from the agony. Recently I’ve been taking four pills before my sessions, but nothing seems to help. All I’m doing is probably destroying my stomach lining.
The next part of the routine is a series of hilarious finger and hand exercises. Hilarious because it looks like I’m playing with toys: pushing Silly Putty around in a plastic dish, lifting ridiculously small weights, squeezing plastic spring clips, squashing rubber balls. All of these activities are meant to increase flexibility and strength in my finger and hand. But by the time I get to this stage, my poor digit is pooped and throbbing. I hate those fucking exercises.
The final step is to ice my finger. That wouldn’t be so bad — it reduces the swelling — except that the ice pack also freezes the rest of my hand and my other fingers. For some reason, my pinkie is particularly sensitive to this bitter cold treatment and often emerges from the icepack in the early stages of frostbite. Have you ever stuck you hand in your freezer for 15 minutes? I don’t recommend it. Once that’s done I’m allowed to slink out and go home, until the next visit, a mere two days away.
One time last week, I left in such obvious distress that Mayte and the office receptionist made a bet that I wouldn’t come back for my next session. Mayte bet against me! She couldn’t believe it when I came back — on schedule. I may be a pathetic wimp, but I’m not a quitter.
This whole experience has given me real insight into the lives of professional athletes and other people recovering from serious injuries. How many times have we heard the story of the accident victim who taught herself to walk again? Or the pitcher who came all the way back from rotator cuff surgery? The stories of days, months, years of painful therapy, tears, despair, and eventual triumph? That’s me, baby! I’m gonna be one of those people! Some day, maybe even before the summer’s over, I’m gonna hold my pencil normally again! I’m gonna make a fist!
And the first thing I’m gonna do is punch Mayte with it!