I am right handed. My left hand is untrained, crude and imprecise. Only very occasionally does it act on its own. Its ordinary role is to follow.
Just now, however, and for the next few weeks, I have a cast on my right hand (more about this in a moment). So I’m having to do everything with my left hand. Simple tasks have become complex. Some things I scarcely attempt at all. I was called upon to sign my name when I left the hospital. I offered only an unrecognisable scrawl.
So here I have decided to practice writing with my left hand. Each night I will write all the little letters of the alphabet and all the capitals, plus all the numbers from 1 through to 29. This will create a 9 by 9 grid of 81 elements. Skipping a line I will then write the date. I wonder if I can improve much before my cast is removed?
Here is my first day’s effort:
Why is my right hand incapacitated? I have Dupuytren’s contracture. This is a thickening of the fascia tissue beneath the skin, a condition that commonly affects the hand and leads the fingers to close in on the palm, rendering the hand a pathetic and inept claw. After a finger curls in about 30 degrees surgery is needed to correct the problem. A long zigzag incision is made from the base of the palm up to near the tip of the finger and the offending fascia tissue is removed, taking care not to damage nerves.
Not so long ago there was a view that Dupuytren’s contracture was caused by alcoholism. It is now recognised that it is linked to Viking or Celtic heritage. It affects mainly older people. I was unlucky to initially get it in my mid-thirties.
This is only my second surgical intervention. The rule is to delay surgery for as long as possible. There is a strong likelihood of recurrence and the risk of nerve damage increases with each surgical episode.
I am trying to conceive this surgery and my recovery as an event – to lend it some coherent shape, to draw something from it, to discover something within it. It is in many ways – most ways – just an inconvenience, something that I’m obliged to put myself through – to endure. My aim here is to turn necessity back on itself, to lend it a sense of artifice and freedom.
I entered the hospital at 7am. My 87 year old father had walked me there from his apartment in Darlinghurst. He complained that I was walking too quickly. He squinted in the early sun as we headed down Roslyn St to St Luke’s private hospital. They took his details as next of kin and then checked me in. I had to change in to the weird backwards smock that you always have to wear at hospital and put on little baggy slippers with no soles, then shuffled off to my pre-surgical bed (berth 109). Cartoons were playing on the television. After a while it shifted to the news. I don’t remember pressing anything to change the channel. I’d been enjoying the cartoons, which were composed of static figures with large faces and blinking eyes.
The anaesthetist dropped in, asked me some basic medical questions and then inserted a canula in the top of my left hand. He had a strange way of prepping me for this. He asked me to close my eyes, take several deep breaths and not to worry about the ‘slight scratch’ on my hand. Once I opened my eyes the canula was in.
Shortly afterwards two hospital orderlies, one thin and the other covered in tattoos, rolled my bed deftly through the corridors to the surgical ante-chamber. I was left there for a little while. I watched the operation of the automatically closing door. I had a warm blanket put over me. The started some liquid flowing down a tube into my left hand. I could see air bubbles passing down the tube and wondered vaguely if they knew what they were doing. Nobody spoke to me, but somebody said something about getting started. Then I was gone. Absolutely no recollection of drowsiness – just absolutely absent time until I woke up a bit after midday back in my pre (now post) surgical bed.
The television was on, but no longer cartoons or the dull cycle of morning news stories. There was some kind of siege happening in Martin Place. Man Haron Monis had walked into the Lindt cafe and taken some uncertain number of hostages. Two female hostages were holding up an Islamic banner at the window. It had started just about the same time that my operation had started and was happening only a kilometre or so away. Of course there is no genuine point of correspondence between my surgery and this major newsworthy event. They were occurring at the same time, that is all.
I was eager to recover from the general anaesthetic and get out of hospital as soon as possible. I had to get a framed photograph to Articulate Gallery before 4pm. The doctor visited me and the nurse checked that I could walk a straight line to the toilet and then I stumbled off back to my father’s place, grabbed my stuff and caught a taxi to the gallery. The taxi driver was listening to live talk back radio on the siege but he asked about my hand. I said I’d just had surgery. He asked me if it was for cancer. I explained that it wasn’t. Then he told me about the melanoma that he’d had removed on his arm and how the cancer had returned to his lymph nodes. He’d recently had radio therapy, which burnt horribly and had destroyed the nerves in his armpit. The traffic was bad so I had time to hear the story in detail. He eventually dropped me at the top of Palace St, Petersham. I crossed Parramatta road and deposited my picture at Articulate. I spoke briefly with the curator, Bill Seeto, then I walked to Petersham station and caught the train back to Woonona.
I went to bed early. I was unconscious when the siege started and unconscious when it ended (at 2am).
Here is my bandaged right hand:
Here is my intact left hand (although you may notice the incipient Dupuytren’s contracture):