My right forearm began to ache in early March -- a vague throbbing at first and then an insistent pain that intensified when I raised my arm to shoulder level. My wrist began to hurt soon after. Classic carpal tunnel symptoms, known to many writers. I iced, ate ibuprofen and rested the arm as much as I could, adjusted my desk chair so that my wrist would be as flat as possible when I typed and, as Dave can attest, complained. But I was in a three-week window between trips, getting ready to head off to Turkey on our first with-contract book research trip and anyway, carpal tunnel is so common and self-diagnosable that I didn't seek treatment.
Two days before we left for Turkey my right palm began to ache and I had trouble writing. A week later, as we readied to fly from Istanbul to the southeast, my right thumb stopped flexing. It is a very strange thing to look at a limb or a joint, will it to move and get no response. Try writing with a non-flexing thumb -- it's difficult. I spent the next 4 weeks taking notes by squeezing my pen into the junction between my thumb and forefinger, thumb standing up straight up like a soldier on guard duty. It looked strange, I know. My writing was slow and my hand cramped easily. I can hardly read some of my (usually very neat) notes from that trip.
I was still thinking carpal tunnel when we landed in Adelaide for speaking engagements at Tasting Australia. I'd bought a brace in Sanliurfa and wearing it at night and in the car helped a bit with the forearm and wrist pain. I became mildly freaked out after an editor I met with in Australia told me of a former colleague, an editor at a publishing house, who got carpal tunnel in both arms so bad she eventually had to quit her job and change professions. But I assured myself that that was an extreme case; it wouldn't be me.
It turns out that I was right, but not in the way I had hoped. When we returned to Penang in early May I visited an orthopedist. He sent me to a neurologist. And then he sent me to Kuala Lumpur, to consult with an orthopedic specialist and hand surgeon. An X-ray, two MRIs, a blood test and a medievel torture session (actually, a legitimate nerve test that saw the neurologist inserting needles deep into muscles on my forearm, upper arm and (!!!!!) the soft pad beneath my thumb (OW!) and THEN asking me to flex various muscles while he kept the needles stuck in me and sometimes wiggled them around) I had my diagnosis: anterior interroseus nerve syndrome (AINS). In layman's terms, a branch of the medial nerve in my forearm is compressed, and that's why I can't move my thumb. Given that the condition has not righted itself in going on 7 weeks my orthopedist advised surgery sooner rather than later, to cut the band of tissue between the two major muscles in my forearm that are entrapping the nerve.
The surgery is not a big deal. One and a half hours, out-patient, I recuperate in a hotel overnight and then it's back to Penang. I've been given the OK to travel to Turkey 7 days after the procedure. (We were originally planning to head back to Turkey this Sunday.) I couldn't care less about the scar, 4 to 6 inches along the inside of my forearm. At the moment my main source of consternation is rather mundane: I'm trying to get three doctors to give me the paperwork required by my insurance company before next Tuesday, when I am scheduled to be sliced. (Pro tip: contemplating medical tourism to Penang? Don't. The hospitals -- or at least my hospital, which received an award last year from the state government for its contribution to the island's medical tourism industry -- are as chaotic as the roads).
What is a big deal is that the procedure has a success rate of only 72 percent or so. If it doesn't work I won't get my thumb back, and AINS will eventually affect my forefinger too.
On the one hand (TA-DUM -- get it?) it's just fingers. It's not the whole hand. It's not like I've got cancer of the tongue, or have lost my sense of taste and smell, or the ability to eat and drink. This is a Small Problem and, thinking about those Big Problems, I feel like a whiner.
On the other, um, hand, these fingers -- the thumb and forefinger of the writing hand -- are important to a writer, especially a food writer who does research in often remote locations, taking notes in a notebook. I can't take notes on my ipad or a phone when I'm in a market, in a kitchen, in a bakery, on a farm, in a cheese workshop. I can't use a recorder. Recorders make people uncomfortable. And anyway I rarely sit down for interviews -- my "interviews" and recipe gathering are often on the fly, in snippets. I whip out my notebook all the time to write one sentence, two. Folks don't mind my notebook, often they don't even notice that I'm writing in it. Pulling out an ipad, even a mini, and firing it up and typing on it -- or doing the same with a smart phone -- announces: Here I am, taking official notes. Not cool.
So, yeah, I'm a bit worried. But as my Dad says, I've always been a Worrywart.
To indulge my Worrywart-edness I've been thinking about other things I need my flexing thumb and forefinger for, things I wouldn't be able to do without them. So far I've come up with: using chopsticks, holding a fork so I don't look like a 1 year-old, properly gripping a curved knife for mincing, hooking my dog's lead to his harness, picking up a coffee cup or a glass.
Typing properly on this computer.
Did I mention that I have a book contract?