The Tale of When I Sutured My Daughter’s Hand

Now slow down if you don’t know that I’m an ER nurse…I didn’t just go on some strange adventure hike in the deep forest and end up putting my daughter in danger before closing a wound of hers using the heads of dead ants. (Yes, that’s a thing. Kinda.) This was all an accident, and thankfully the stars aligned to create a scenario where everything turned out a-ok. Better than a-ok, actually.

It was a nice early autumn day in 2015. I was working my usual noon-to-midnight shift in the ER, and of course, we were busy as shit. Noon-to-midnight is one of those staggered twelve-hour shifts they have in ER’s to cover the periods of higher patient loads, and, go figure, most emergencies happen when people are at their most conscious. I was running tail through the ER like usual, bouncing from room to room, when I suddenly got paged that my wife, Margie, was on the phone.

This was my first indication of big trouble. Marige never calls me at work unless something is wrong. Any non-emergent stuff goes through my phone via text, and I can get back to her when I can. Not this time. She had me paged.

Gulp.

Rut-roah, Raggy…

Margie’s near hysterical, yet holding her last thread beautifully. She tells me that Penny, who was about nineteen months old at the time, cut her hand, and that Margie had to bring her in. Normally, Margie would ask my advice. In this case, no need. She just wanted to make sure that we weren’t too busy.

Here’s the thing: we were. Not terribly so, but busy enough. But there’s an unwritten code about ER’s that should offend no one: We bend over backward to help our own. That’s not to say that we reject anyone or treat anyone differently. The truth is that we fold our backs in half, squash our emotions, and put ourselves through the wringer for each and every patient. ER staff is an amazing breed of people. This is not to toot my own horn, as I am hardly the best ER nurse out there. I love my job, but I have worked with so many people who have left me flabbergasted with their awesomeness and commitment, I can hardly compare. That being said, I’m a solid and reliable ER nurse. And I’m part of an ER nurse family. And as soon as I told my ER family that my daughter was in trouble, the ER parted to make way for her.

It wasn’t inappropriate, though. It’s not like she came in with cold symptoms or took a bed that could’ve been used for a cardiac arrest. She had a laceration to her hand, and lacerations aren’t urgent emergencies as long as they get repaired within six hours. (Do you hear that? If you have a laceration, go to an ER within six hours! Otherwise they might not be able to fix it! Seriously. This isn’t a 100% rule, but it’s best to get it checked out as soon as possible. Here’s more detailed information.) So, the room we held was a typical laceration room. There were no other patients for which that room was appropriate, and honestly, getting a bleeding nineteen month-old into a room to stop the bleeding would normally be a priority for an adult-centered ER, so it was all good.

You gonna say sumthin’ anyhow?

My ER family rearranged assignments to make sure that I was my daughter’s nurse. I would’ve been too distracted for another assignment anyhow, so that made sense, too.

By the time my wife arrived, I was all set to receive my daughter in my new patient assignment. The matriarch of my next-door neighbors, an amazing woman named Toni whom I’ve adopted as my new mother, was en tow. She rode in the back with my daughter, holding pressure on the wound. I met my wife and daughter with Toni in the parking lot, and all I could see for a moment was a blood-soaked kitchen towel wrapped around Penny’s tiny hand. My little daughter was surprisingly stoic about the whole thing. She lit up when she saw me and greeted me with a cheerful “Dada!” I was relieved she wasn’t upset. She’s still that way. Unless the girl is tired or hungry, she’s typically not easily rattled.

We got Penny back immediately and poor Margie was all apologies. It wasn’t her fault at all, it was a simple accident, but there’s no way to take away a mother’s guilt when her child is injured on her watch. I supported her as I listened to the story of the injury.

It all started with a step stool. I built this railed step stool from a hack of an Ikea foot stool and painted it red. The end result still lives in our house:

step stool

It’s actually an amazing little piece of furniture. You see, toddlers always want to know what their parents are doing. This results in a lot of tugging on legs while doing kitchen work, so this step stool has let our children peek up over the counter and get involved. They’ve cooked and cleaned with us using this step stool, and at the time of Penny’s injury, she was “helping” Margie do dishes, which mostly consisted of her playing in a bucket of soapy water in the sink while Margie did the actual washing.

At the end of the dish chore, Margie went to put a glass away in an upper counter and it slipped from her hand and came crashing onto the counter. Shards of glass spread out across the kitchen floor, and the sound brought both of our big dogs charging toward the kitchen to investigate. As Margie didn’t want either of our dogs to end up with glass stuck in their paws, she headed them off at the kitchen doorway and put up the child gate to keep them out. Crisis averted. Unfortunately, in the few seconds it took to prevent the dogs being injured, Margie turned back to find, much to her horror, little Penny clutching a big shard of glass in her left hand, blood dripping down.

Penny wasn’t upset, but I can only imagine how upset Margie was. The shard was a rather big chunk, and it came out as soon as Penny opened her hand. Margie immediately charged into action, wrapping Penny’s hand in a kitchen towel and calling Toni and me to get this horrible situation handled. If I remember correctly, Dave, the patriarch next door and my adopted father, cleaned up all the glass from the kitchen after Margie, Toni, and Penny left. We have amazing neighbors. Truly.

When the physician’s assistant and I unwrapped Penny’s itty bitty hand, I realized things were worse than I thought. I could see the little bones in her pinky poking out in between the minimal subcutaneous fat below the layers of skin. The glass nicked Penny’s tendon. It was time to call in a plastic surgeon.

That might surprise you. Plastics doctors do much more than “enhancements.” They are the people helping reconstruct skin and bodies after horrible traumas. Theirs is a precise practice that requires a lot of time and skill. That being said, there are a lot of plastics doctors who choose to specialize in boobs and such. It’s all lower risk and higher payout, so who can blame them?  But just know that the next time you meet a plastic surgeon, he or she might be more involved in life-saving issues. And, in my limited experience, those plastics doctors who choose to involve themselves in the traumas and serious issues are a little more humble.

And luckily, one of those more humble doctors was on for Penny’s trauma. His name was Dr. Novotny. We put out a call for him, and he said he’d be there in about an hour. So, we had some downtime, and it was not stress free by any stretch of the imagination.

More info about lacerations that require stitching: if an artery isn’t involved, then it’s not as big of an emergency as you might think. Luckily, Penny hit no arteries, so her bleeding was slowing with pressure. And, as I’ve said, she’s a calm kid. She took in the entire scene while everyone else around her looked and acted much more anxious. And rightly so. Depending upon the level of injury to the tendon, there was a chance that Dr. Novotny would want to take our little girl to surgery. The wait was horrible.

Adding to that, Amber, the nurse who was so kind to take over my old assignment so I could be with my daughter, approached me quietly and pulled me aside. She seemed worryingly serious. I excused myself from my daughter’s bedside and walked away with Amber toward the back of the ER as she gave me the great news: one of the patients I was taking care of brought bedbugs with them.

Suddenly, I felt uncontrollably itchy.

Bedbugs means that we have to sequester the patient and those who were in direct contact need to change their clothes immediately and inspect their skin. ERs are full of beds, don’t ya know.

Flash forward about fifteen or twenty minutes. Margie had been sitting patiently and anxiously for my return, and I finally busted through the curtain in an all new set of scrubs and freshly combed hair. I couldn’t pretend nothing was different, so, I told her. It wasn’t too big of a deal, since Penny was small and she was holding her the whole time. A quick check of her and the bed put our minds at ease, but still…that was another hectic couple of minutes to add to everyone’s distress.

At last, Dr. Novotny came in. He was a calm, cool, collected fellow. He approached Penny and she let him see the whole wound. He assured us immediately that no surgery was required. SIGH…such a relief. Then, he got to work and I assisted the entire time. We got everything together and made Penny as comfortable as possible with her little left arm outstretched toward me. Margie held her body while I held her arm while I assisted Dr. Novotny.

Penny only really stirred and got upset one time, and it was at the most painful part of any suturing: the injection of the lidocaine. The little stabs and initial burning of numbing an area for suturing is the worst. After that, it’s just pressure and getting over the mental hump that someone is sewing your skin together. Luckily, Penny had her mom and dad right there, reassuring her that everything was just fine and that she was the bravest little girl in the world.

Truly Wonder Woman…but in toddler form.

ELEVEN sutures later, she was all done. I cleaned and dressed her wound. She took it all so well. Dr. Novotny did an excellent job. When he came back in to check on the dressing, Margie and I shook his hand. Then, much to our surprise and delight, little Penny stuck out her healthy right hand for him to shake. It was the first time a child shook his hand in gratitude, he said.

Crisis averted, all that was left was for a couple of weeks of wound cleaning and dressing changes. I got to be Penny’s at home nurse as well as her father. To this day she says that I “fix boo-boos” for a living, and I’m not going to correct her anytime soon.

She’s a tough little kid. Always has been. And my wife is awesome and amazing. She handled the situation perfectly. My neighbors are irreplaceable. They are incredible people. And all of my ER family…I will never stop admiring them. Dr. Novotny is a wonderful man as well. In fact, I found out that he has a stipulation on his consults: no pediatrics. We tried calling him for a pediatric case a couple of weeks after my daughter’s injury, and he referred us to another doctor, which happens. When he was reminded of how he fixed my daughter’s hand, he said “That was a special scenario.”

I’m not trying to underplay the seriousness of the situation. Penny’s finger bones were exposed and her tendon was nearly severed. Things could have been much worse, and it was all because of a simple accident. But, accidents happen. In debriefing after this crisis, Margie and I realized that we have done well surrounding ourselves with amazing and quality people. Also, we felt confident that we could handle sudden, intense situations well. Sure, it’s nice to try and keep your kids from being hurt, but the odds of your children getting through childhood unscathed are next to nil, unless you keep them in a bubble, in which case the trauma can have deeper wounds that are much harder to suture.

Instead, my daughter willingly shows children and adults alike her little tiny scar along the inside of her left pinky. She does this to help people feel better when she sees them get hurt, because she can say “I got hurt bad once, and I did okay. So will you!” In fact, the entire reason I felt like telling this tale was because her teacher just had hand surgery, and when Penny saw the teacher’s bandage, she had to tell her the tale of her finger. The teacher told me that when Penny was done telling this very tale, she said “We were all very brave.” And by “we” she was referring to herself as well as Margie, Toni, and me. She remembers that day, and what she has taken from it is that she is surrounded by helpers, she herself is a helper, and we are all brave.

That lesson wouldn’t be there in her mind if it weren’t for a simple accident with a broken glass. I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I could.

I love my little family.

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