Essay: Why I Decided to Have My Toe Amputated

May 12, 2014

Essayist Cari Taylor-Carlson says life is better off without her problem toe.
Credit ThinkStock

I inherited a toe with a hump.

It didn’t protrude like a bunion, nor did it jackknife like a hammertoe. This was a door knob attached to the second toe on my right foot. When I wore shoes it throbbed as if it had a migraine. Friends never mentioned my gnarly knob but my granddaughter did. “What’s that weird thing on your toe?” Then in her unfiltered nine-year-old voice said, “Eeeww, it’s yucky.”

I’m a plain Jane, nothing like women who cut off their little toes to wear pointy- toed shoes. I wanted an ordinary toe, so I could wear shoes like ordinary people. I suggested to my foot doc that perhaps it could be removed, the toe, not just the knob. He laughed, “We’ll talk about it later.

This amputation didn’t have to be major surgery, but more like trimming a branch from a dogwood. We’d do it in the doc’s office. He would give me happy gas after he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Then he would take a pair of scissors and with one quick cut, the toe would tumble off before I could say “ouch.” After a stitch and a bandage, I would drive myself home.

I’m a take-charge person, stoic, a guide who takes people on hikes in the mountains, not someone who whimpers and whines.

For years my stoic tolerance paralleled the increasing pain in the toe. The more it hurt, the more I faked indifference to the stabbing sensation in my right foot. I bought bigger and bigger shoes that never fit, even paid $300.00 for shoes that looked like something my grandmother wore because the salesperson promised the leather would stretch. He lied.

One day I decided to fix the knob myself and shaved the callous on top with a razor. That didn’t work. I took scissors and tried to slice off the top. That hurt, and the worst part, the thing was growing. I could not tolerate a door knob with a migraine for the rest of my life.

My complaints to the doc increased in volume. The first time he said, “You’re too young.” That’s not true anymore. The second time he gave a look that said gotcha. “If I remove the toe, it will interfere with your balance.”

“Well, maybe.” After the third request with an emphasis on, “It hurts all the time,” he relented. My mom used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Could she have meant something like maybe cut off a toe?

After they prepped me for surgery I asked, “Can I watch?”

“Absolutely not,” the nurse said and placed an opaque screen between me and the foot. As the doc snipped around the toe joint with a small knife, she measured my heart rate, blood pressure and the oxygen concentration in my blood.

“Why all the fuss?” I asked. “It’s just a toe.” After years of throbbing pain, the amputation took one doctor and three nurses exactly one hour and five minutes.

When it came off, it made a sucking sound followed by a quick pop as if the doc had pulled a tight cork from a bottle of vintage cabernet. A nurse placed the toe in a small jar, taped my name on it, and let me view the corpse. “It’s cute. Can I take it home?”

“No,” she replied. “Hospital procedure.”

“But it’s my toe.”

“Not any more.”

“Fine. You can have it.”

I donated my open sandals to the Goodwill. My four-toed foot is not pretty but I’m pain-free and happy to revisit my shoes. And the next time I get a pedicure, I’ll ask for a 10% discount.

Lake Effect essayist Cari Taylor-Carlson is a freelance writer, outdoor guide in the west and overseas, and a former environmental educator. She lives in Milwaukee.