Scar Wars

Today’s Drinking Story:

Here we see Patrick Wensink‘s epic tale of trying to fly cross country to party at the Kentucky Derby with a painful injury that needed medical attention.

Nothing wakes a man up before dawn like standing in your underwear, shoving a hand through window glass and watching your blood paint the sill.

But to get the scar on my hand, you must first go through the scars on my liver.

The plan was to drive to Phoenix and catch a plane to Louisville. Then we’d skitter up the highway for graduation parties, attend the ceremony and return to Louisville in time for the Kentucky Derby.

That idea couldn’t have gone more completely wrong.

Planning to meet my girlfriend, Leah, who already flew to Kentucky, I woke alone at five AM with a cool Tucson breeze blowing through an open window. Only partially awake and, most likely, hung-over, I tried to close the window.

Instead of shoving the frame, I pressed on the glass since it tended to stick. Sleepy, I must not have paid attention to the fact that our windows were older and more brittle than most of Tucson’s retiree population.

The long shatter sounds woke me instantly as my hand popped through the glass.

“Oh, damn,” I said, worried about cleaning this mess up and catching my flight. But then I looked down and “Oh, damn,” turned into an NC-17 string of vocabulary. Blood stained the white window frame, blood puddled on the hardwoods, gooey redness stuck to the zig-zag glass.

In the bathroom I frantically washed the hand, watching pink water spiral down the drain, reminding me of suicide movie scenes and weak Kool-Aid. I also kept checking the clock. That morning’s schedule left little time for delay. My plane was lifting off sooner than I liked.

A generous portion of my body’s motor oil was also leaving sooner than I liked. The gashed palm was deep and its flesh turning pale and swollen. It needed stitches, bad. Young me was panicking like Empire Maker (that year’s Derby favorite at 5-2) at the Elmer’s factory.

I needed to choose between the airport and the emergency room. No time for both.

Of course, being 23, desperate for old friends and about two pints too low for rational thought, I chose booze.

This is where some outback surgeon version of me appeared. The wound wasn’t white hot with pain yet—God bless you, shock, I assumed—so I downed about six aspirin. Next, war movies came to mind: they always apply tourniquet pressure and stop the bleeding. This kind of gut-level medicine beat the Nazis and it was going to get me to a kegger in Ohio by dusk, damn it!

Knowing nothing about medicine, I, of course, fashioned a tourniquet from a sweatsock.

Probably a clean one. Maybe.

Waiting at a stoplight and feeling weak, I remembered how much blood went down the sink. So, Dr. Me recalled how Red Cross blood drives always provide cookies and orange juice. Something about regenerating new blood cells faster, I think. Sounded good at 5:30 AM, with a flight to Louisville breathing down my neck.

After a side trip to the Circle K for OJ and Oreos, I was gunning the car up a mostly empty Interstate 10. Halfway to my destination, I realized the sock was soaked through. Soft red at the center, dry brown at the edges.

Dr. Me came up with another brilliant idea: elevation! School nurses, I thought, said something about elevating injuries so blood doesn’t get too cocky and spurt from open wounds. Dr. Me wrote an instant prescription for elevation.

Nearing the Phoenix city limit, the clock was shockingly in my favor. The wet rag hung above my head as I juggled slugs of orange juice, steering an 88’ Chevy Celebrity with knees. My lonely heart and liver were calming, inching toward boozy Ohio comfort.

I celebrated making my flight by gulping more aspirin. The hand felt good—throbby—but not excruciating. This Tylenol was working wonders.

Also amazing, the Phoenix TSA let a guy with a blood-soaked sock around his hand waltz right through security. But, god, was I thankful for that.

Midway across the country, in the airplane restroom, I peeked under the sock and nearly threw up. The thing that used to be my left palm had swollen to a gory tennis ball. The blood, thankfully, was slowing down. I kicked myself for not bringing a change of socks.

I slept most of the trip. I kissed my girlfriend upon landing and said, “You’ll never believe what happened.” After relaying the previous story—and knowing what a klutz I am— she wasn’t really surprised.

“We need to get you to a doctor, that looks terrible.”

“No time!” I said, “We’ve got to see the guys, there’s a party!”

After some debating, we were on the highway for another two hours to Dayton.

We were greeted by old friends, the smell of cheap hotdogs grilling and cheaper beer pouring. The dilapidated houses and decayed porches brought tears to my eyes. It was college again and it was a miracle drug for my last year of ache and homesickness.

It was also a chance for Dr. Me to retire. “Don,” I said, sticking a socky paw in my old roommate’s face, slurping beer with my good hand. “You’re a doctor. Fix this, would you?”

“I’m not a doctor,” Don, a thick, former rugby player, said.

He was right. But a first year med student was good enough. I had drinking and battery recharging to do. I needed to forget my table-cleaning life in the Southwest—a sad, real-world existence my future engineer and doctor buddies would never suffer through.

“Oh, god. That doesn’t look so good,” Don said, untying the sock.

“Will we have to amputate?”

“Let’s start with sterilizing so it doesn’t get infected.”

“This is why they pay you the doctor money!” I shouted, glugging another beer.

“I’m not a doctor.”

We went to the bathroom for stronger lighting and the illusion of clean. Don inspected the swollen hand like a seasoned pro, except for letting, “gross,” slip once. “Well, if you aren’t getting stitches, we need to keep it clean.”

“I’ll get stitches tomorrow,” I said, tipping a beer can to the ceiling, loving its last drops.

But with two words, my little homecoming happiness fest ended. “Okay, hold on,” Don said. “Peroxide time.”

“Oh god,” I said, quivering, drinking another beer. “This is going to hurt, huh?”

“Yes. A lot.”

We recruited two other buddies to the operating room. Mike’s job was to hold my arm still so that when I freaked out, I couldn’t go running wild down the stairs. Ben, sadly, had another job.

“Can I punch you in the arm?” I said. “It’s going to hurt so bad, I need to punch something. Can I punch you in the arm?”

“No way!”

“Come on, you owe me one.”

“Fine,” he said, rolling up a sleeve. Ben did owe me one, technically. A year earlier, on spring break, he punched out my bottom right incisor. In his defense, I had it coming.

Our little M*A*S*H* unit was in place, me biting down on a towel—making lost puppy sounds.

“Three.”

I tensed. Mike gripped tight to keep the patient from squirming.

“Two.”

Ben’s arm went stiff, preparing for impact. I chewed hard and aimed my good fist.

“One.”

The room went silent.

Silent for a long time.

So long, Mike finally eased up and I opened my eyes and spit out the gummy towel. “Did you do it?” I said, mouth full of dry cotton bits.

“Yeah,” Don said, screwing back on the peroxide cap.

“I didn’t feel anything. Why doesn’t my hand hurt?”

“I’m not a doctor, but I’d say there’s nerve damage.”

Suddenly, I didn’t miss college so much. Suddenly, a boring life with no friends in Tucson wasn’t so horrible. It beat blood and severed nerves.

Still, I avoided doctors in favor of barbecues and parties and many, many more beers. That night I forgot everything and came to consciousness on the way to graduation ceremonies. My hand was still split wide open, but crusting pink. Someone applied a huge bandaid.

As soon as our friends’ names were called, Leah and I jumped back in the car for Churchill Downs. Dayton was a letdown, but there was still plenty of sunshine and gambling and bourbon to be had in Louisville. Those nostalgic batteries could still get a zap, I figured. En route, though, she convinced me to visit urgent care for stitches.

There was nothing urgent about urgent care. Hours stretched by, watching pre-Derby coverage in the waiting room. We passed the point where it would make any sense to buy tickets. So we focused on fixing my hand.

Eventually, a real, honest to goodness, board-certified doctor saw me. “How long has it been since your hand went through the window?”

“Uh, forty-eight hours, give or take.”

He was inspecting the hand and then just let it drop. “There’s nothing I can do for you.”

Apparently, getting stitches isn’t like paying your taxes late. There is no grace period for ripped flesh. There’s a window of opportunity where it’ll do some good. Otherwise, you just suck it up, live with the scar and move on.

Leah and I watched Funny Cide win the Derby at her mom’s empty house while the rest of her family cheered in person. Sitting beside my future wife, looking at that lump of discolored hand, I realized college wasn’t for me anymore. There was nothing to miss. I’d passed the point where I should go back.

There is no grace period for the scars of growing up. There’s a window of opportunity for that kind of thing and it closed—or shattered—a year earlier. So, starting there, I sucked it up and learned to move on. And I’m glad I did.

My liver, if given a say in the matter, would rather I had learned this lesson earlier. Tough luck, pal. We have some pretty terrific scars to show for it.

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