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The little knife that could

It had been a long day at work that ended with a little celebration honoring our boss whose retirement is imminent.  Receptions in France are famous for the abundance of ambrosial treats, and this one was no exception.  I took good advantage of the offerings, feasting on tiny delicacies as stunning in their appearance as they were in their complex taste.  Going home I felt as if most of my nutritional requirements were met.  The only missing ingredient was vitamin.  Arriving home, I remembered the grapefruit I had bought a few days earlier and took to it with my favorite pairing knife.  However, instead of doing its job, the little dagger got stuck in the thick orange peel of the Floridian fruit, reminding me of something I noticed every time I've been using this knife lately.  Something I've wanted to fix but never actually done.  The blade was blunt.

The sharpening steel was easily found despite prolonged neglect, and soon I was striking the knife against its ruffled surface in rhythmic strokes, diligently alternating left and right for maximal sharpness.  I got into a groove, patiently working my way, slowly approaching completion, the perfect edge of a Damascened sword.  With my hands not far from finishing a mechanically repetitive and consequently rather dull task, my brain dozed off in anticipation of the sweet delight about to come.  While I try to buy locally as much as possible, picking French fruits and vegetables over anything, with a pamplemousse I prefer the American variety.  Nothing beats the juiciness of a ripe grapefruit from Texas or Florida.  They're so sweet the addition of sugar isn't even necessary.  Just thinking about it whetted my appetite.

All of a sudden I was yanked from my peaceful contemplations.  The knife, as if having a mind of its own, had widely overshot its target and buried itself deeply in the hand that was still clutching the sharpening steel.  At the base of my left thumb, an inch-long cut gaped where unblemished skin had stretched only seconds before.  The bright white of something better left covered under skin and flesh reflected the horror in my eyes but was soon drowned in a sea of blood.  On the positive side, the thumb was still attached, and the sharpening was clearly done.

I finished peeling the fruit, without much effort now thanks to an exceptional tool, but came short of halving it and skinning the wedges as my hand started to leak blood all over the kitchen table.  With a few feet of paper towels I mopped up the mess and stopped the bleeding—or at least kept my eyes from having to behold the disaster.  They seemed to have had enough anyway and were sending waves of blurred dizziness to my head.  A little rest seemed like a good idea.  I took some more paper towels, fed Liszt to the stereo, and stretched out on the sofa.  Good music calms and helped me get my heart rate down, avoiding excessive pumping of blood.  At first the red patch soaking through the tissues around my hand grew bigger but soon slowed expanding.  I was comfortably numb and on my way to recovery already.  When Kurt Masur was done directing the Gewandhausorchester, the bleeding had stopped, and I had collected enough strength to venture outside.  While I felt good enough to make it through the night without medical attention, I needed to go to the store for supplies to keep the wound clean and contained.

I taped my thumb up with the few Band-Aids left lingering in my toiletry bag, memories of the previous century but still good enough to let me leave the apartment without triggering horrified screams in those seeing my mutilated hand.  Through the cold and dark night I walked to the downtown Monoprix to restock my dwindling Band-Aid inventory.  Hardly anyone in France gets the joke that's in the concerts' name because the eponymous bandages are absent from the shelves.  What I found amply was something called Mercurochrome, a name that does not necessarily inspire confidence.  Thankfully, none in their vast line of care products suggested treating wounds with either mercury or chromium, and I got what I needed.  There was even something that looked like medical duct tape, appearing perfect for doing to a cut what every sane person would get a few stitches for.

For a while I contemplated a bottle of antiseptic but put it back eventually deciding that I wasn't quite ready to grow up and become practical.  In all my years of mountain biking and crashing, out of habit, on almost every ride, I found water perfectly adequate for keeping cuts and lacerations clean.  I've never had an injury-related infection, and there was no reason to think I would get one now.  I was convinced the immune system would take care of it, appreciating the little exercise of battling and eventually defeating invasive bacteria.  Returning home, I finished preparing the grapefruit that must have surely got lonely sitting on the countertop all this time and ate it, thinking of it as a little booster shot for my immune system.

A little while later I went to bed without pain or worries and got up early the next morning with the bleeding still quiet and the hand functioning almost normally.  With some unease but unfazed did I ride my bike to lab where lots of little tasks were waiting for me impatiently.  With a glove hiding what might have otherwise disturbed the sensibilities of my colleagues, I went about to do what I had planned the day before.  It turned out that working with an injured hand is not trivial, and the most basic tasks turn into veritable challenges.  It's hard to open twist caps with only one hand.  Balancing heavy objects is delicate.  Every now and then my concentration would slip and my thumb, as if attracted by magnetism, bang into one of the many inert objects filling lab space – shelves, benches and hoods.

So I was happy when I had finished what was on my list and could retire to the computer in my office to work on problems that don't require any manual dexterity besides hitting the right key.  The day went on, as days tend to do, slowly and without surprises.  Though the bustle that characterizes the time right before Christmas, even in a scientific laboratory, lay in the air, it did so in a calm and unobtrusive way.  I was contently stuck in my stubborn self-sufficient ways, as far from seeking medical attention as ever, when the unprecedented occurred around noon.  The feeling that what I was doing was not very smart started growing inside me and knocking on the inside of my forehead with persistence.

Eventually, I let it out, showing my office-mate my taped-up thumb surrounded with specks of coagulated blood, not an appetizing sight right around lunchtime.  She went off as if I had just hand-fed my neighbor's pit-bull terrier and insisted on my going to see a doctor right away.  I had already made peace with this idea mentally and didn't argue.  Fate agreed and sent another coworker over who was in the process of going to the hospital herself.  She gave me a ride and dropped me off at the emergency room, where I promptly impressed the triage nurse with my bloodied, mangled hand.  My first run-in with the French health system was about to begin.

16 January 2007