Monday, November 04, 2013

The last joint of the little finger of my left hand

Caveat: I don't have many personal memories of the events outlined below. I have lots of family stories relating the details, but hell: I was only three years old. I have a scar, faint and scrambled images, and a family story.

But the scar that I can still identify on one finger accords with the story, so I'll tell it as straight as I can.

I was, like I said, three years old. The car we owned at the time was a 1959 cats'-eye Chevrolet Bel Air (which I have to confess I still have a soft-spot for, in spite of what happened). The location was a Farmer's car park, I think at Ryde. My mother was inside in the shop; I was with my brother (then aged eleven) and at least one sister, who would have been nine at the time. I can't remember whether the eldest sibling was present at the time.

The game? A three-year-old playing “escape from the car, run to another door, and jump in laughing”. And at some point, someone pulled a door shut, I stuck my hand in to stop it closing, and – because cars of that era were famous for panels that fitted nice and tight – the last joint of the little finger of my left hand was severed.

The narrative now gets scrambled, but roughly: my brother grabbed the whole mess of my left hand, gripped it, and didn't let go. My sister ran to find my mother; and my mother drove us to Royal North Shore.

The hospital's bad news was: yes, the finger was severed. It was only attached by one flap of skin (I can still see where the scar isn't). The good news was that a visiting English surgeon was in Sydney demonstrating a new technique, called “microsurgery”, and had agreed to try to re-attach my finger.

At the time, my father – you were wondering weren't you? Remember, this is before mobile phones, so mum's priority was “get to hospital first” – was a civil engineer supervising Sydney-city construction sites. Once mum had news, she phoned him, and told him to come to Royal North Shore after work, because there was no point in him rushing away while I was in surgery.

So: my father arrived at about 6pm, met mum in the waiting room, and was there for a very smug surgeon to announce that yes, they'd re-attached my finger without problem and all would be well.

Later, the bill was presented: 1,800 in 1963 currency. According to the Reserve Banks' inflation calculator, this amounts to:


I set this on a line of its own because … look at it. More than 45 grand.

As Dad said at the time (by family report): “Eighteen hundred pounds for the last joint of the little finger of his left hand? Just cut the bloody thing off again!”

And the health insurance fund didn't pay for it, because it wasn't on the list.

What I do remember, because I was 13 years old, is that there was a small family celebration in 1973, when Dad announced that he'd made the last payment for the last joint of the little finger of my left hand.

In the interim, I learned piano for a while; learned guitar for a much longer time (I still play in spite of the twinges of arthritis), and learned to make a living as a writer with a most enviable typing speed. I'd guess that to me, the last joint of the little finger of my left hand has been worth way more, over the years, in both enjoyment and money, than fifty grand.

So, thanks Dad.

And thanks, Australia, that the healthcare system that came much later than 1963 has kept my wife alive through a long illness, surgery, and immune-suppressing chemotherapy, without bankrupting us.

And I will spite bile on the American-inspired right-wingers that would deny healthcare to anyone. Because they're trying to make sure that small incidents turn into huge debts, to the benefit of nobody but the private owners that lobby that healthcare be turned over to them.

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