I wanted to talk about some fairly recent wounds I acquired and healed from. The description of these might be a little more graphic than I usually bother with, but I feel compelled to write about it because I see “Infection Terror” in so many people.
Infection in the body happens for many reasons. Pus is not always something to be frightened of. Sometimes foreign material enters the body and is encapsulated in pus and pushed out through the skin, through a small sore or a full-blown abscess. These types of wounds are some of my least concern. Sometimes infections are a result of a bacterial contamination or necrotic flesh or tissue. These types of wounds are my greatest concern.
On the same day I injured myself in two ways. The first, I tossed a piece of lumber, I was barefoot (big surprise coming, right?), and this piece of lumber somehow bounced back at me off of a rock. It had a screw sticking out of it. It landed on the top of my foot, but was traveling at a fair pace and the screw stuck me below my big toe and dragged across the top of my tarsal bones. So it was a sort of puncture-gash. Blood pooled across the top of my foot, but I couldn’t stop to inspect at that moment.
Shortly thereafter, I was lifting the tongue of a trailer that weighed a few hundred pounds and my grip slipped in the pouring rain. The hitch of the trailer came down on the tip of my little finger, crushing it between the metal and a cinder block. Don’t worry, there was no gross damage to the fingernail itself. If you’re like me, you avoid hearing about nail injuries….
So I have these two injuries at a moment in my life when I am working 15+ hour days under mind-bending stress. I didn’t care for either injury in any way. Combine stress, lack of sleep, and wound neglect, and within 3 days my hand and foot were competing for my attention… My hand had become so sensitive that each time I picked up and moved another heavy box or object, I stopped and cried for a minute. It took me awhile to realize what was happening. I had crushed the last digit of my little finger and it was becoming infected. The scary kind of infection. The kind you -should- be afraid of. I had infection brewing deep in the mashed bone. The tip of my finger was blowing up 2 or 3 times its size and starting to adopt a bluish hue.
Meanwhile, I had a disconcerting pain in my foot. The wound was hot and infected, but the pain was starting to shoot down into the bone and into the sole of my foot. Also a really bad sign. So despite my circumstantial work load, I had to take a day to tend to these problems before they sent me to the emergency room.
To start- yes, if I had taken the time to tend either injury properly, they would not have gotten as bad as they did. Sometimes we end up in circumstances where even the most practical and necessary of things are not possible, so yet again, life handed me another learning experience amidst the chaos. Anyway, I would never, ever recommend leaving any kind of major wound untended if at all possible, and this is exactly why.
My foot was my priority considering it was inhibiting my ability to walk. I prepared a piping hot bath and loaded it heavily with epsom salt. The puncture had closed and was blowing up with infection. Very bad on my part- you should never let a puncture close until it has healed from the bottom up. So I needed to soak my foot in hot salt water to soften the wound and open it back up.
After 20 or 30 minutes soaking, the scab was sufficiently softened. Thankfully this wound resolved easily; I applied a bit of pressure around the hot swollen wound and it opened back up readily, allowing the pus to escape and relieve pressure. I worked the wound a little bit, squeezing around it gently. To my surprise and intense relief, 3 jagged little rocks popped out of my foot. The pain instantly subsided substantially. I drained the wound fully and let it continue soaking in the hot salt water. The burning salt water was only a minor annoyance compared to the pressure it had been under. I could now wiggle my toes and move my foot around without pain or stiffness. This told me that there was no chronic problem; those little rocks had been what was causing me so much pain. The screw must have embedded them deeply when it stuck me.
This wound healed up readily and without further pain once the foreign bodies were removed. I’ve got a shiny battle scar from it, but hey, add it to the hundreds of others.
My finger, on the other hand, was the bad kind of infection.
There was no flesh wound, no foreign bodies entered my finger, but it was blowing up with infection regardless. The crushed bone was succumbing to infection. I packed a softening, drawing salve around the tip of my finger and wrapped it over night. The next morning it was hard and impossibly swollen, and tear-jerkingly tender. The swelling was concentrated on the outside edge of my nail, just below the cuticle. The pus had to come out, no two ways about it. If it were to rupture internally and enter my bloodstream I could end up in the hospital. So I cut into the side of my finger where the swelling was the hottest.
When dealing with abscesses and infected wounds, there’s often softened and dying flesh involved. Cutting into these areas is often surprisingly not painful as a result. The nerves are not very responsive. It’s psychologically worse than it is physically painful. To date, I have cut open 3 abscesses on my own body. The pain of the pressure and infection vastly overshadows any pain of cutting the area open, and the intense relief of making that cut and releasing the pressure is hard to describe. I detail this because knowing what it’s like makes it easier for me to do things like cut abscesses on animals without hesitation. I know what they’re feeling and what the relief I’m going to bring will feel like. It helps calm the empathetic recoil I feel at the idea of making that initial cut.
So, my finger. If you’re still reading this far… This wound almost got me. In a lot of ways. When I cut my finger my stomach turned at the smell and sight of necrotic green pus weeping from my blue-tinted finger tip. I realized I was at risk of having to cut off the tip of my finger. It rocked my constitution. I milked and kneaded my finger, working the frightening pus out. The discoloration of my finger went away. My mind raced. I swam around in dread, exasperation, frustration, and horror. I steeled myself for the reality that I might lose the tip of my finger. I felt a hint of despair and weighed whether I would go to a doctor to have it removed or just tourniquet it myself. But I pushed those thoughts aside and rooted my determination and prepared my antiseptic herbs. I gave my finger long softening soaks in salty, antiseptic, antibiotic, and tissue healing herbal teas. I kept the tract opened and bandaged with salve to keep it from drying out and closing.
Over the next week the tract kept stubbornly closing. I had to re-cut it a few times, with lots of swearing at the enthusiasm of my body for closing it up. My finger slowly deflated. It glowed bright red for a few days. The pus stopped flowing. The smell went away. The tenderness subsided substantially. I held my breath for that first week but the healing seemed to be progressing just fine.
It’s now been a few months. My foot is fine, of course. The tip of my finger is still faintly tender. I only feel it when I have to grip something very firmly or it gets pinched under something. I notice it when I milk the goats. It’s slightly bigger than the tip of my other little finger and the nail is growing a bit funny. But it’s okay. The hard work is done.
So let that be a lesson on wound care, and a lesson on handling neglected wounds.