It was a blow to the finger, but it was a bigger blow to my ego

By Stacey Ballis
Updated April 09, 2018
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Credit: Illustration by Darumo via Getty Images

I keep a sourdough starter and make our bread every week, in part because it is fun, and in part because I’m a bread-loving Type 2 diabetic and homemade sourdough doesn’t spike my blood sugar. My bread has a good crust, and a good crust requires a good knife. My favorite bread knife is a German made wood-handled serrated beauty, ten inches long and sharp as a scalpel.

I bet you can see where this is going.

It was Easter Sunday and I had my friends Meg and Paul as houseguests. Sausages sizzling in the pan, buffet organized, we chatted while I blithely sliced up my lovely freshly baked bread for toasting. I was not paying attention. I was being casual and breezy, probably telling a story. Because my focus was elsewhere, I did not notice that the forefinger on my left hand had shifted.

When the cut happened, I knew immediately that it was bad. Bad enough that I closed my eyes for a moment, actually afraid that when I looked down I might in fact see a part of my finger resting on the cutting board completely independent of the rest of me, gone rogue, and cavorting amongst the bread slices. Luckily it wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t good either. I immediately went to the sink, keeping an unruffled demeanor, asking Meg to handle the sausage pan while I assessed the damage, which was reasonably significant.

Since my hand had been holding the bread, the knife went through my finger from the side, about a half-inch down from the tip, neatly bisecting both fingernail and nail bed on the top and the pad underneath, down to what very well might be the bone. Not a bandage and Neosporin fix.

I wrapped it tightly in paper toweling, said I was so sorry but that my guests were on their own for breakfast and I got my husband to drive me to urgent care. They X-rayed it to look for damage to the bone (none) and used skin glue to seal up the wound, which looked ghastly, and gave me a tetanus shot. It took less than an hour, and Frankenfinger and I were on our way home.

I am a total klutz, forever spraining things and bumping into things and finding random bruises I don’t remember acquiring. In the kitchen, I drop things and make huge messes; I’m the one who elbows the open bag of rice or sugar off the counter onto the floor in a spectacular swath of spillage. And on a reasonably regular schedule, I burn myself. Not horribly, just catching the edge of a hand on the lip of a pan or a part of an arm on the inside of the oven door. I wear my burn scars proudly, like any passionate cook, and share the stories with my brethren, remembering aloud the time I grabbed the skillet out of the oven with my bare hand, or rested the corner of a scorching sheet pan on the delicate skin of my inner arm for balance.

But I don’t cut myself in the kitchen. It had been over ten years since I last cut myself, and while I did go to the ER just to be sure, the wound resealed itself with a pressure bandage and didn’t require other intervention.

So for starters, while it was a blow to the finger, it was a bigger blow to my ego. I had done a really stupid thing, a thing I know better than to do. I had done it in front of other people I really love, who I want to think well of me, which upped the mortification tenfold. I felt like a total dumbass, and it literally added insult to injury. I swallowed my pride and posted the incident and a pic of my bandage on the social media channels, in no small part to keep my own BS meter under control. I always promised myself that I would be honest on those sites and post the pics of recipe fails when they happened, or the “sad salad” dinners and not just the glossy stuff. Chef pals rallied, sending tales of their own kitchen accidents, which made me feel better, part of the tribe.

I kept telling myself it was better than it could have been, after all, it's just one finger on my left hand and I’m right handed. Meg and crew were still in town for a couple of days, which meant we were eating meals out, and I wasn’t working. The tip of the finger pinked up after a day or so, which meant that the injury had re-vascularized, and saving me from the eventuality of parts falling off at some future date, which was an enormous relief. I was pretty sure the nerve damage might be a longer fix, or likely permanent, and who knows what the nail will look like when it grows back in, but that is really only a manicure challenge, so all in all I counted myself very lucky.

But then our friends left. And I had two recipes I needed to test and articles to write about said recipes. This is where we discover some things about anatomy that were heretofore a mystery. The forefinger bone is indeed connected to all the other finger bones, they are not strictly a gathering of individual entities, they work together. Especially the index finger. So while I had blithely thought that all I would have to do is keep the injured finger pointed skyward in a permanent “I’m Number One” posture, and let the rest of the fingers on the left step up to cover the load, this is not how things actually work.

First off, any gripping of anything is complicated, because the index finger is a definite workhorse of the hand, and the best mate of the thumb. Without it, the thumb is all lost and confused and the rest of the fingers are unused to taking the lead. So I got a bit dropsy with my new weird lobster claw posture. And when the middle or ring fingers engage, they tug on the tendons that are also connected to the index finger, which creates little sharp needles of pain that radiate from the fingertip up the arm like tiny bursts of lightning, and make me feel my throbbing pulse in my wound. It became clear that when it came to detail work, even though 95 percent of that hand is technically totally fine, the hand as a whole is pretty effing useless.

Trying to cut my chicken at dinner suddenly became a challenge, trying to get enough of a firm grip on the fork in that hand to stabilize it for the knife in my right. My husband watched me struggle like a newborn colt trying to stand on wobbly legs, before kindly reaching over and cutting my meat for me, which no one has needed to do since I was three.

When it came time to test recipes, one of which required making two bread bowls out of round loaves, I broke out in a bit of a sweat. My formerly favorite knife, favorite precisely because it is so sharp and cuts through everything like butter, now including me, suddenly felt a bit like the enemy. Even though intellectually I know that the accident was completely my own fault, not the fault of the knife, it still made me a bit trepidatious. I have always been someone who is a little bit fearless in the kitchen, so this was a new sensation. As is asking for help. I’m really good about asking for someone to reach something on a high shelf, open a stuck jar, carry something heavy. I let AAA change my flat tires, and I let contractors fix things in the house. But help with cooking was never something I needed until now.

I’m blessed with a husband who is a true partner and helpmate and is also a great cook. So he sat me down at the breakfast bar and took my directions like a champ. Where I could do something one-handed, stirring some eggs or flipping something on the griddle, I did. But mostly, I gave as clear instructions as I could and let Bill be my hands. He executed brilliantly, and then cleaned up, and I went to the computer to make notes for the recipes, where I discovered that typing, which I do for a living, is suddenly complicated and awkward, and takes literally twice as long as it did pre-injury. When the timer went off for the items in the oven, I went to remove them, which is when I discovered that I cannot put my left hand into my oven gloves over the bandage.

It is humbling to have the two things you think you do best hampered by a silly thing you did to yourself. I look down at my hand with its ridiculous finger bandage, like I’ve stuck the tip into a morel cap and then taped it over, and cannot fathom that something relatively small can completely derail such big parts of my life. But we adapt and accommodate. The typing isn’t getting much faster, but it is getting more accurate and I’m deleting fewer mistakes. Bill and I are dividing and conquering in the kitchen, sticking to uncomplicated recipes, and with me giving up my usual role as executive chef and letting Bill lead the charge. Hopefully in a couple more weeks I will be able to lose the bandage, and the tugging pains when I use the other fingers will lessen enough for me to get back to business as usual.

I’m sure that soon enough, I won’t be giving my poor sweet German knife the side-eye. But for the meantime, Bill is definitely in charge of cutting the bread.