When a broken bone isn’t worth a doctor visit…. or is it?

May 25, 2023

As I hopped on one foot while holding the other with both hands, I knew I hadn’t just stubbed my toe. I’ve done that countless times and this pain was orders of magnitude worse. I figured I sprained it. Damn.

I thought of going to a doctor, but what was the point? They would just tell me to tape it, ice it, and elevate it. Plus, they’d probably think I was being ridiculous for bothering them with a sprained toe. So I went on with my day. I took the dog to the vet. I went to the grocery store, but used the electric cart to gather my food. I hobbled into the post office. I limped as I brought my groceries into my apartment in two trips and put them all away. Finally, finally, I was able to sit and put my foot up. It hurt a lot but at least it wasn’t broken.

The next day, I knew something wasn’t right. As I unwrapped the tape from my toe, the pain was intense. Even touching the toe with no pressure was excruciating. Maybe I should see a doctor after all? But it’s not like they can do anything for a sprained toe that I wasn’t already doing. Then again, I sprained my wrist a few years ago and had additional tendon and ligament damage and it wasn’t nearly this painful. Hmm.

As I continued to limp around my apartment, I still hesitated to seek medical help. They’d probably think I was being absurd, right? I had therapy that morning, and I thought I might ask her advice. Then I realized I’d asked her for this kind of advice many times, and I knew how she’d respond. She would ask if I had a doctor I trusted who I could reach out to. Well yeah, I have a podiatrist that I trust a lot. Ok, I could do this. I took a deep breathe, and made the call….

When the podiatrist’s office called me back, I’m not entirely sure what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this:

Me: (Describes the situation.)
Them: “It could be broken or dislocated. We’d need you to come in so we can figure it out.”
Me: *thinking that of course it’s not broken, but I guess it could possibly be dislocated or something else, right?* “Ok, what do you have available?”
Them: “How soon can you get here?”
Me: *oh shit, that can’t be good*

I went in that afternoon. At some point between hanging up the phone and leaving my apartment, I noticed a bruise forming on the top of my foot, not where I’d hit it. Hmm, not a good sign. And it occurred to me that while this wasn’t the worst pain I’d experienced, it was pretty bad. Maybe it was broken after all? At the x-ray, I noticed the bruise had gotten larger and darker and thought, Oh crap, I think it might be broken. The doctor took one look at the x-ray and immediately said it was broken. And to be honest, I was sort of relieved. At least I knew what it was. And I wasn’t ridiculous to seek help. But maybe I was a bit ridiculous for waiting? She turned the computer monitor and showed me the x-rays. She said it was a big break, going all the way across the toe. Yup, I could see that clearly on the x-ray. Damn. The good news was that as long as it didn’t get worse, I wouldn’t need surgery. And as soon as she splinted it, walking became significantly less painful.

So what did I learn here? I didn’t learn that I need to always seek medical help when I have an injury, because I have enough past experience to know that’s not always going to work out well for me. No, what I learned is that my past history of being treated like shit by many doctors over decades of my life has taught me to avoid seeking help even when I need it. I learned that I have to work on differentiating when I’m skipping seeking help because I really don’t need it versus when my near-lifetime of medical trauma is pushing me away from it. I learned that I have good reasons to want to avoid seeing doctors, but that sometimes, it’s worth making a phone call to ask for their advice. Oh, and I also learned that when looking at my broken toe is depressing me, pretty nail polish does wonders to brighten up my toes and my mood.

(Side note: the swelling and faint bruise on the left in this photo are from this injury. The scars on my two biggest toes are from a surgery several years ago. This poor foot has had a rough time.)

Picture of a left foot on a beige carpet. The two smallest toes are taped together. All of the visible toes are swollen and the foot is swollen. The two largest toes have faint vertical scars. The two largest toenails are painted purple, the middle nail is painted electric blue, and the fourth is painted bright blue. All toenails have a layer of gold glitter nail polish on them. The smallest toenail is not visible because of the tape.

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