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Coffin: Fixing the Thumb

One autumn day in 1954, when I was 12, we kids were playing football in a back yard off Woodstock’s Pleasant Street. Somebody fumbled, I dove for the ball, and a big guy from down the street stepped on my right hand. Ouch! A sharp pain, which promptly turned into a mighty throbbing ache. But when I grabbed my hand, things got worse. My thumb had disappeared. I stared at my hand in disbelief, then in terror. My thumb simply wasn’t there.

That thumb had been driven straight down into my hand, and there was no visible sign of it. I went moaning down the street toward home where, when my mother saw the damage, she later confided it was the closest she ever came to fainting. Though she said something like, “It’ll be OK dear,” she didn’t believe it. Mom called Doc Eastman, and he arrived within minutes.

Doctor Albert Eastman, the beloved white haired town physician, put me on the living room couch and tried, for the next hour, to bring my thumb back from the palm of my hand into its normal position. The pain was excruciating; there was nothing to deaden it. Finally, conceding defeat, Doc placed a call to the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire. A nurse said to bring me right over. That 17 mile ride may have been the longest of my life.

In the hospital emergency room I was given a general anesthetic. When I awoke, my hand was in a cast. The doctor, whose name was Staples, smiled and told me everything would be all right. Was my thumb there, I asked? Yes, he said, though it had taken two hours to retrieve it. To tell the truth, this veteran E.R. doctor confided, he’d never seen anything quite like it. Almost sixty years later, I still have a scar.

The other day I found the hospital bill my parents received, neatly typed on hospital stationery, for the emergency room visit and two follow-up appointments. I instantly thought that what it contained might be of some interest as the state of Vermont, and the nation, struggle to control the spiraling cost of health care - i. e., health care reform.

The bill said:
Closed reduction of fractured thumb - $30.
Anesthetist’s fee - $10.
Office call, Doctor Staples - $5
X-ray right thumb - $5.
Office call, Dr. Staples - $5.
X-ray right thumb - $5
The total bill for fixing my once disappeared thumb was $60.

Oh, yes. If I recall correctly, Doc Eastman’s charge for his hour-long work in the Coffin living room was $3, his standard house call fee.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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