A few years ago, a sloppy surgeon butchered my right foot. I went to Dr. Garrett for routine bunion surgery and left his office traumatized. He lopped off a full third of my second toe and made bending my big toe ever again impossible. I used to be a distance runner and suffered significant foot pain from my bunions whenever I ran more than ten or twelve miles, which I did regularly. I felt desperate to run pain-free. I also didn’t want to end up with big, old-lady bunions like my mom, so I sought a podiatrist. What I wouldn’t give to have those running feet back now. The chronic pain in my right foot from the surgery is infinitely worse than the previous bunion pain. Before the surgery, I had considered my feet flawed, imperfect. I wasn’t grateful for their strength or beauty. I guess at the time, I thought having surgery would be an act of self-nurturing. It wasn’t at all. It was self-sabotage and I’ve spent the years since learning how to nurture and love my broken, maimed, ugly foot.
Dr. Garrett was the second doctor I had visited for my feet. I would have gone with the first if her surgery schedule hadn’t conflicted with business travel. In retrospect, I understand that the patience to delay surgery would have been far more gratifying. I’ve since put a checkmark in that lesson learned box. Dr. Garrett had a big friendly smile, charisma, and seemed so confident that it was hard to refuse putting something as important as MY BODY in his hands. I was so blinded by desperation to repair my foot that I ignored his dilapidated waiting room and offices with peeling wallpaper and crooked pictures that looked like they were remainders from a 1970s flea market. I suppose I just thought he was too busy and important to redecorate. Now I look back to the putrid brown and orange palette of his suite encapsulated in dust and the sad-looking display fish unfortunate enough to live there and I only see mindless neglect.
When Dr. Garrett explained to me that he would shorten my second toe a couple of millimeters to relieve the resetting of my big toe, I trusted him and assumed that was standard practice. I was foolish not to do my research or visit a third doctor. I’ve checked that box too. I can never take back my decision to trust Dr. Garrett. I remember waking up from surgery and realizing that barely half an hour had passed. I asked the nurse if that seemed fast and she told me that the doctor was very efficient. That was the moment my new reality started shifting into focus.
Its Only Cosmetic
My once beautiful, perfect toe that had in no way required modification, was now two-thirds its size. Also, I can’t bend it. I can’t bend my big toe either. The spell that Dr. Garrett had cast upon me was absolutely and irrevocably broken when I looked at him with tears in my eyes and asked him what happened and if there was anything we could do. Waving his hand dismissively, he said simply, “Don’t worry. Its only cosmetic.” That was his actual response. I’ve been lost in a nightmare ever since. I lost part of my foot and can never wake up to find that it’s whole. “It’s only cosmetic.” “It’s only cosmetic.” His words haunt me.
By the time I finally contacted a lawyer, the two-year statute of limitations on medical malpractice suits was almost up. In the months following the surgery, I was juggling work, traveling back and forth from DC to Pittsburgh twice a week to care for my mom, undergoing multiple IVF treatments, then having and caring for a newborn with no sleep for weeks. In all the chaos, a year and ten months slipped right by. It was always on my to-do list. Sometimes I think my distaste for conflict kept me from prioritizing it too. I’d had enough conflict in my life without instigating more, especially with an already full plate. Suing him wouldn’t put my foot back together anyway.
I’ve been to two other foot surgeons over the last couple of years to discuss my options. I would have to undergo a bone graft to lengthen my toe again but the surgery would be extremely painful and risky. The existing scar tissue is so deep that the graft could cause narcosis and I could lose the toe altogether. Even if I didn’t, I would risk even more chronic, life-long pain and my repaired toe would have so much scar tissue that it would look like loose sausage in a casing. I decided that I could better serve myself by trying to find acceptance and learning to love my foot again. That is a long, uphill road. I am by no means there but I’m getting closer.
After the surgery, I stopped taking care of my feet because I was afraid to look at them. Every accidental glance at my right foot was met with renewed trauma and revulsion. I would wash my feet quickly in the shower without looking down. I stopped putting lotion on them because I couldn’t stomach the thought of touching the hideous little stump where my toe used to be. Consequently, my feet got dry and chapped. I used to love painting my toenails with bright colors and fun designs, taking great care to color coordinate them with my outfits for special occasions. I stopped though because no color was pretty enough to cover the crooked little stump and I certainly didn’t want to draw attention to it. I loved wearing fashionable open-toed shoes, always with a toe ring. I go through socks really fast now. Since my second toe is now shorter than my big toe and my third toe, the sock fabric stretches across my big toenail and rips my socks all the time. My feet fell into a sad state of neglect after a couple of years. They weren’t smelly or gross, just unkempt and visibly unloved. That neglect spread from my feet across my body and my brain. I just felt so ugly. That’s a terrible way to think of oneself. I had stopped taking care of myself the way I used to. Now I need to take care of myself though not only for my own sake but also for my son’s. I want to be around for him as long as possible. I do take care again, usually, and am much kinder to myself.
Acceptance & Gratitude
Acceptance is hard. Not thinking of my foot as ugly requires conscious effort. To not do so is tantamount to self-abuse though. I need to love the body I live in despite its flaws. This is the only me I’ll ever know. If I don’t make peace with all of my parts then I’m just at war with myself. That war is far uglier than my mutilated toe.
When I catch myself thinking ugly thoughts about my toe or otherwise, I try not to chastise myself. Instead, I remember to love my humanness. I practice gratitude for my feet and their strength and important functions that keep me mobile and healthy. Slowly, I am learning how to manifest the negative feelings into positive love and kindness toward my feet. Sometimes, I joke around with others about my “frankentoe”. I do that to make light of it but it’s still self-deprecating. I should probably stop but in a way I feel like that helps me to own my toe again; make it mine instead of Dr. Garrett’s.
I was and still am embarrassed by my right foot. I hate explaining to pedicurists that they have to be careful with it and then examining their vague expressions to read if they’re repulsed that they have to touch it. So far, all have been tender and kind about it. I always keep my toenails painted now but I usually let the paint chip to a pretty inexcusable state. I rarely put fun designs on them because it just looks like I’m trying to cover up a massacre, badly. I’ve seen people check out my toe at yoga and other places in public when I’m wearing flip-flops or sandals. A few people have asked me about it over the years but most people give it a glance and look away.
Finding Beauty in the Difference
I attempt to carry my flaws as banners of wisdom instead of burdens of regret. I find so much beauty in the difference. Our flaws have the power to become our charms, our secret sources of power that we can use to be stronger and kinder once we learn whatever lessons they teach us. For every bit of toe that Dr. Garrett stole from me, I have found strength in my ability to love myself and move forward.Our flaws have the power to become our charms, our secret sources of power that we can use to be stronger and kinder once we learn whatever lessons they teach us. #selfcriticism #judgement #loveyourself Click To Tweet
To anyone reading this and identifying with that feeling of ugliness and pain, hit the pause button. Seek your beauty from within and be kind to yourself, no matter your flaws and how they came to be. All that ugliness you feel festers on the inside and shows up on the outside. Likewise, the beauty you nurture within yourself radiates to everyone around you. We are so hard on ourselves and we let society and men dictate the value of our bodies. They cut us down, literally in my case. Give your body gratitude, every part of it, period. Don’t say things to yourself that wouldn’t say to someone you love. You wouldn’t call your child ugly or your parents or your partner. That would be cruel and abusive. It’s no less abusive to treat yourself that way. Give yourself the power of acceptance and kindness. It’s freeing. At least it has been for me and my beautiful ugly foot.
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