Part of an actual phone conversation with my wife:
me: "I've got to hang up now. I can't talk on the phone - the smell of my thumb is making me sick.""
Why did my thumb smell so much? Well, it seems I had gangrene.
"Localized soft-tissue death (necrosis) from prolonged blood-supply blockage. It can occur... after severe burns or frostbite. ...Moist gangrene comes from a sudden blood-supply cutoff. Bacterial infection causes swelling, discoloration, and then a foul smell. Along with antibiotics, tissue removal may be needed to prevent spread, which can be fatal..."I first noticed a funny smell on my left thumb the previous evening. I had scratched my nose with the end of my thumb and thought, "hmm, my thumb smells faintly like the stinky fish treats we give to the cats." Since I was at work at the time, I was not too pleased to think something I had touched at work had the same smell as dried salmon.
As I was pondering the source of the smell, I turned my thumb over and saw the blister I had received from a burn a week earlier. The blister had turned a brownish color and a quick sniff confirmed that it was indeed fishy smell ground zero.
The next morning the blister had obviously become infected as it was filling up with pus. The smell was worse. I ignored it and went to work.
The smell got worse as the day progressed. People started noticing, but nobody said anything. I smelled like a rotting corpse but nobody said anything. Amazing.
After a long meeting in which I stunk up the conference room, I went back to my office and examined my thumb. It was not looking good. The pus was an evil brownish color and there was a dark, blackened patch of skin under it. I squeezed some of the pus out. The smell was horrific.
Lisa called. I hold the telephone in my left hand which kept my thumb in close proximity with my nose. I was finding the smell to be unbearable. I finally told her I had to get off the phone because I couldn't stand the smell.
When I got home that evening, I knew I was going to have to do something rather dramatic to fix my thumb, but I decided to wait until after dinner. I wasn't going to do this on an empty stomach. It didn't seem possible, but the smell was getting even worse.
The smell didn't bother the cats at all. Sid and Nancy were fascinated by the reek of my rotting flesh. They both came over to sniff my thumb and seemed to be quite impressed.
I ate dinner with my stepson. He told me later that he had noticed the smell, but didn't want to say anything to me about it. Lisa was over at the laptop surfing for "wound care".
After dinner I went into the bathroom to do surgery. Lisa looked at my thumb and insisted we cut the blister open. She wanted to do it, but I told her no way. I was doing it. I had to push Lisa out the door and close it on her. She was insisting that she do it. I was adamant that any cutting of my flesh would be done by me."
I got out the scissors and removed all of the dead skin on the surface of the blister. The smell was stunning in its ferocity. I rinsed off my thumb. The skin from the original burn was dark green. Yuck.
I showed my thumb to Lisa and said "I think I have gangrene." Back into the bathroom for more surgery. I started scraping all the green flesh off. Lisa insisted that I pour hydrogen peroxide on my thumb. Which I did.
I came back out and Lisa was searching for "gangrene". "How do you spell gangrene?" "g-a-n-g-r-e-n-e", I said.
The search results were shocking. "I think I need to remove some more tissue." One of the search results specifically cautions against using hydrogen peroxide to treat gangrene, but I didn't care. I was removing flesh, not trying to grow more.
I removed every trace of flesh that had any hint of green to it and applied Neosporin® Plus. Finally, the smell was gone. But was the gangrene also?
The next morning my thumb appeared to be fine, other than the divot in it where I had removed the affected skin. I'm still applying neosporin two days later, but it looks like I avoided being the first person to die from drinking a latte.
I got the original burn by running down the dock to catch a ferry with my thumb over the hole in the lid of my cup. I have a pretty high pain threshold, but I knew I was burning my thumb. A normal person would have dropped the cup, but not me. I paid three bucks for that latte and I'll be damned if I was going to waste it.
When I got to the ferry, I had a blister on my thumb in the shape of the little oval hole in a disposable coffee cup lid. The entire pad of my thumb was red and the blister had spread to cover the reddened area by the end of the day.
Thank God for Neosporin®.
Oh, and yes, I have a pathological need to avoid doctors. I am well aware of the rationale for this need, but I choose to avoid it. Some day I may regret it, but not yet.
Copyright 2003 Brian Lenihan
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