Thursday, January 3, 2013

Interrupting The New Year

Spending most of the night in my local hospital’s emergency room is not exactly how I envisioned passing time on the first evening of the new year. But a small puncture wound in my forearm, inadvertently caused during playful interaction with my 18-pound behemoth kitty, Underfoot, that morning, turned into something far more serious than I could have imagined early on January first when I arose to prepare for a vigorous New Year’s hike in the woods near my rural farmhouse in Baltimore County, Maryland.

Underfoot in 2007
I didn’t think anything of the injury at the time, as it was a good-natured "love-bite" from my cat which hardly bled and didn’t even need a bandaid. I soon forgot about it completely and went about my day. But late in the afternoon, as I sat at my computer tapping out my blog post about the hike that morning, I suddenly realized that my forearm was really hurting. I ignored the pain for awhile, trying half-heartedly to remember when I might have scraped or bruised that area of my limb. But, eventually, the pain would not be denied, and I carefully peeled back several layers of thermal shirtsleeves I’d been wearing to ward off the chill in my drafty old house.

I was amazed by what I saw: a swollen area on my forearm the size of a halved golf ball. What on earth had I done to myself? And when? And then I saw the small puncture and was reminded of my cat’s gentle bite that morning.

My late kitty, J.R., when he first
became mine in 1988 
Many years ago, when I still lived in Texas, I suffered a similar predicament. It was a few days before Thanksgiving and I was sitting in the backyard of my home in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine playing with my cat, J.R., whom I’d owned since my college days in northern California, when a roommate had returned to her home town following graduation, leaving her cat behind. As I played with the now elderly J.R. on my Texas lawn that fateful day in 2000, he spied a rival cat through the back fence and, growling, made a dash to confront the enemy. I grabbed J.R. and held him tight, which displeased him greatly. As J.R. struggled to free himself from my grasp, he reached around, biting me on the index finger. I later cleaned and bandaged the minor wound and turned my attention to my Thanksgiving preparations.

Thanksgiving dinner in Grapevine, Texas, my bandaged
finger deftly hidden behind the turkey, with my then-fiancé,
Jesse Turner, left, my best friend, Kari, right, and her boyfriend,
Stuart's, three children, from left, Charlotte, Maisy and Jack
The next day I was surprised by how swollen the finger had become and how painful it was. Indeed, the pain seemed way out of proportion to the degree of injury. As my Thanksgiving arrangements progressed I began to realize that my throbbing finger was interfering with efficient execution of all I had to do to produce a festive dinner for seven – including my new fiancé, Jesse, my best friend, Kari, her new beau, Stuart, and his three children – all of whom I was terribly eager to impress.

I called my Dallas doctor. He instructed me to go to my local emergency room. Could it really be that serious? I called my local emergency room and was told to come in right away. I got in the car and not ten minutes later was whisked into a curtained cubicle where an emergency room physician pulled a ballpoint pen from his coat pocket and drew a short blue line across my wrist. He left me alone in the room while he tended to other patients, returning about fifteen minutes later. "Look", he said sternly. "Do you see that thin red line extending down your hand?" Indeed, there was a faint red stripe on my wrist, snaking down from my injured index finger. That’s blood poisoning, he said, pointing out how it now extended a quarter inch past where he had marked with his pen just fifteen minutes before. The good doctor warned that a serious infection was marching toward my heart and if he didn’t start an intravenous penicillin drip immediately the consequences could be deadly. He didn’t have to tell me twice.

The memory of that experience came rushing back to me as I contemplated the golf ball on my arm on New Year’s afternoon, throbbing in a manner that seemed way out of proportion to the tiny wound. Still, I hesitated. Somehow, spending the first day of the new year in an emergency room seemed to portend dire providence for the next twelve months. And I had things to do. Surely it could wait until I could see my regular physician the next day. After all, there was no red line streaking up my arm this time that I could see.

Denial of distressing circumstances isn’t a healthy exercise. But it is very human. I went back to my typing, ignoring the pain until well after dinner. Just before bed, I called my sister in California, as I do every evening before retiring. Leslie is a medical microbiologist by trade, and she was adamant. I was to go to the emergency room immediately. I reluctantly agreed, pulling on my sweats and grabbing warm gloves and a water bottle and something to read. It would be a long night.

R.N. Mark Biagi strives to bring laughter into the emergency
room at Greater Baltimore Medical Center 

The physician’s assistant on duty in the emergency room at Greater Baltimore Medical Center ( when I arrived, Melissa Block Rogers, took one look at my swollen arm and ordered an intravenous penicillin drip. Over the next five hours I was attended by GBMC’s competent and pleasant staff, including triage nurse Susan Johnson, phlebotomist Tiffany Zorn, and a comedic registered nurse, Mark Biagi, who did his rounds in a Hawaiian shirt and whistled happy tunes while he worked.

Sent home at 3:00 a.m. with a prescription for powerful oral antibiotics and instructions prohibiting exercise class for the rest of the week, I was tired but relieved to have heeded my sister’s advice and sought treatment for my injury, however minor I might have initially thought it to be. And, philosophically, I have concluded that this was my way of getting the "bad stuff" out of the way early. By this reasoning, I should have smooth sailing for the rest of the year! The takeaway, however, is more somber. Such injuries should not be treated lightly, no matter how innocently they occur. Pay attention to symptoms, especially those which seem disproportionate to the affliction. Your body is trying to tell you something. Lesson learned.


  1. Hope that this is just a blip in your year. Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year!

  2. You need a kevlar jacket to wear when you are playing with those kitties! Take care, Peg