Sunday, October 18, 2015

On-The-Job Injuries (Part 1): Busted Toes and Fish Spines

There are many perils in our job, especially in the way of painful-but-not-serious injuries we incur.  I mean, it stands to reason that if you are actively moving around all day, chances are you're going to hurt yourself.   Animal care professionals in the zoo and aquarium world are not wimps, let's just put it that way.

Look.  Those chicks are tough.

I am typically more prone to injury than the average earthling.  I'm unsure of the exact cause, but confident that I have accidents 39% more than my other coworkers.  Yes, I'm a little clumsy.  I think anyone who knew me as a child would never have imagined me voluntarily working in a place with work conditions such as: slippery.  They likely felt I was better suited to a job where I sat down all day, like my dream job of Senior Cheese Taste Tester.* Working in a wet environment does provide a higher probability of injury, but my particular issue with this matter appears to be supernatural in nature vis a vis, Murphy's Law.

For example, it's pretty common to see marine mammal trainers with busted toes.  Some of us work in bare feet or in sandals.  It's really only a matter of time before your toe meets an immovable object, which I'm pretty sure Newton discussed in one of his laws that went something like, "A toe meeting an immovable object will explode in a bloody mess."

No, you're right, he didn't say that.  But he would've if he worked around fish all day.

But me?  Sure, I stub my toes both at home and work like any other average bipedal simian.  But I went through a period of time where every week, one of my tarsal digits would open up and let loose its innards simply because my toe would get "caught" on a flat surface.  This happened to nobody else.  I'd just be walking along the edge of some of the dolphin habitats, like I did a trillion times before, and suddenly the atoms in my left big toe would become attracted to the atoms in the cement surface upon which I strolled.  This caused a sudden hitch in my gait, at which point my forward momentum forced my seemingly-fused toe to rip forward, leaving a healthy helping of skin still on the surface of the ground.  And the blood.  Oh god, the blood.

The first time this happened, I thought it was just a Classic Clumsy Cat Catastrophe, of which there have been plenty and I expect plenty more to occur in my lifetime.  I hobbled over to our first aid kit, where I tended to my wound and laughed with my coworkers about it.  But then, just after my toe had healed, I did it again.  

And then again.

And then one more time, just because.


Each time, I was in a different location in the habitat.  But it was the same toe.  My boss at the time actually held a staff meeting to tell me that I really needed to stop ripping my toe open.  He was pretty unhappy, which I assumed was because either a) workman's comp insurance increased for the facility by about 395% due solely to me, or b) he was sick of seeing my blood.   Or he could've just been looking out for me in a Papa Bear way.

Exploding toes aside, there is another injury that I really, really, really, really, really, really hate.  It even pains me to write about, but I feel that so much of you out there have experienced it and it's time we all talk about it and start to heal from the trauma.

Fish sp

Oh god, I can't even finish typing it.  Okay, I'm taking deep breaths and envisioning a happy place.  Oh, yes, there it is.  Willy Wonka's factory and I'm there, pushing Augustus Gloop into the river so I can eat all the snacks.  Okay, I'm ready now.

Stop. Help. Police. Murder.

Fish spines under the fingernail.  GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.  Fish spines are no joke, especially when fish are alive.  You think you're safe when they're dead, but you're horribly mistaken.  Their final vengeful act lies in wait, just below that two-inch layer of ice.

I remember the first time I saw this happen to a coworker of mine.  I was in Miami at the time, and I was observing one of the trainers doing a dolphin interaction program.  In the middle of the program, she stuck her hand into her cooler.  I saw a slight wince and a quick glance at her hand, and then back to the session she went, smiling and laughing.

But afterwards, when all the guests were gone and the session with the dolphins was ended, she got out of the water and ran over to a group of us waiting on the dock to discuss the program.  She was no longer calm, and kept sticking her hand out for us to see my first and horrific vision of my future.

A spine from the dorsal fin of a herring had gone completely under her fingernail, like from the top all the way to the cuticle.  She ran inside the office and attempted to get it out, but the top part broke off, leaving the rest of the spine securely wedged under the nail.

I'm barfing.

Silly optimist that I am, I thought, "Oh man, that looks so incredibly painful.  I'm NEVER going to let that happen to me."

I'll pause briefly to allow you to have a hearty laugh at my stupidity.

I don't really believe that I thought I could avoid this common and excruciating workplace woe.  I think I was so terrified of experiencing the inevitable that I just simply went into deep denial.  A denial that lasted until I got the first spine under my fingernail, which feels like a fat and sharp, white hot needle stabbing into your body.  The pain does not change until you remove the spine, unlike other types of splinters when you're like, "OW!" and then it's okay unless you touch it.  No.  Fish bones or spines under the nails produce searing pain, not to mention provide all kinds of nightmarish possibility for infection.  And another fun fact: removing the spine is more painful than the insertion. But that momentary brutality is better than what happened to my aforementioned coworker, because it's far worse to realize you can't get it out for a while.

Not my finger.  Because why would I want to document that.

Here's the other element to this particular injury: you often experience it when you're with the general public.  It is the ultimate test of your professionalism.  The occasional times when I've just been around coworkers when I've gotten some sharp fish part slammed under my nail, I say some words and we can quickly wrap up the session or someone can take over for me while I run like I'm on fire to the nearest first aid station.

But when you're in a public presentation/show setting, or doing an interaction, well...your reaction has to be different.  It might be alarming to a guest, for example, if a trainer suddenly banshee screams, grabs his or her hand and runs off stage during a show, never to be seen again.  Also, studies have shown that guests may complain if you use words of the four-letter nature, even if they are used while in pain.  

What goes through my head.  Sort of, but not really.

Alas, many of the fish spines and bones that wind up under our nails occur in these settings.  So we must contain the white hot pain in our brains while we continue with whatever we are doing.  It's lucky that the animals are so good at distracting us from this situation, but it doesn't mean we don't torture ourselves by taking quick peeks at our injured nails, desperately hoping that the spine is high enough that we can quickly remove it.  But no, so often this is impossible, so you just power through for 20 minutes, letting all the swear words in the world build up in your brain and wondering if the bathroom walls are thick enough to cloak your screams.

Well, that's all I can write about this topic today, because just remembering how this feels makes my spine compress and all my organs shrivel up, in an attempt to disappear into nothingness (a place where I'm told there are no fish spines).  But I'll recover enough to read any of your comments about your fish spine or toe-busting injuries, because misery loves company (or something).

* I have never received any call-backs for interviews 

1 comment:

  1. Right there with you sista friend! I had a finger severed 3/4 by a gate/dolphin. Got zapped by Christmas lights that were strung across the floor (as I jumped out from waterwork), Had a dolphin kick a ball and hit my whistle, breaking several of my teeth (yay veneers), bounced my big butt off the rockwork while bending over to feed dolphin in a show...he thought I was doing waterwork in my clothes...proceeded to do waterwork as he wouldn't leave me...towed me in, had a dolphin jumpon top of a net..pulling me underwater....and of course many spines under the nail...never got hurt around pinnipeds or 3000lb walrus. .just darn tursiops!!! I am clumsy though...mackerel spines are the worst!!!!