It all goes back to 1968 when I was sixteen. No. Not the year of the Paris barricades or the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, momentous as these events were. No. Nineteen sixty-eight in my little world was the year my toenails were damaged, more or less for life.
I’d never been much good at sport and compulsory rugby football matches were something just a bit short of mental and emotional torture. In one particularly memorable game, a hulking brute of a boy deliberately stepped on both my big toes, out of sheer frustration, I suppose, since I’d just been responsible for being offside to the detriment of our team.
Shamed at my failure to be any good at sport and unwilling to be branded a snitch, I daredn’t tell anyone about this heinous act of bullying; it would have made my life miserable at school, and I didn’t want to burden my parents any further, as they had their own problems to cope with.
Weeks passed by and my two big toenails turned green, then black. When summer came, I passed it off as a routine rugby football injury akin to a broken nose or tooth. Predictably, each of my two big toenails grew gnarled and twisted, and after several months fell off altogether though not at the same time.
My mother pleaded with me to have an operation to have the nailbed removed. But this prospect filled me with such fear that I kept saying no. After all, I had a life to lead. And somehow, I didn’t really want to lose a part of me.
And so, the years rolled by. The toenails grew and fell off, then grew again and fell off. I lost count but still couldn’t bring myself to have the operation. Now I had an international career to develop; there just wasn’t time.
Two years after my mother passed away my partner and I visited her friend and former colleague Carmen, an octogenarian doctor in Zaragoza. Amazingly, she remembered the problem I had with my toenails, and advised me to get something done before old age crippled me irreparably.
So finally, fast forward to 2019. I now felt that I had the time and motivation to have the operation, and a painful ingrowing toenail finally prompted me to do something about it. Goodbye toenails! I’d been faithful to you for most of my life. Now it was time for us to be parted. In February this year, 51 years after the initial injury, I finally plucked up the courage to get referred to my local podiatry clinic in York, and a month later turned up for the minor surgical operation of toenail removal.
The actual intervention was in fact painless apart from the needle injecting the anaesthetic in both toes before the toenails were removed. That really hurt like hell!
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the podiatrist removed the nails and applied sodium hydroxide to destroy the nailbed. I didn’t feel a thing at the time. I’d asked to see the toenails as I thought they’d come in useful as relics if ever I was to be a candidate for sainthood. But on seeing them I mused that this was unlikely, and so suggested that they be disposed of. The toes were duly dressed, and I was sent on my way having been told that the operation had an 80% chance of success.
I returned the following week for the toes to be re-bandaged. The dear old British National Health Service provides you with bandages free of charge, and I noted carefully how to do it. I was advised to re-dress my toes every three days after I’d had a shower. I suggested that re-bandaging toenails after an operation was something I really needed to practise.
“Yes, you will,” said the podiatrist. “You’ll be able to get a job here when you’ve finished”.
There was no pain during the operation, but for several weeks afterwards the pain in the left toenail was excruciating. I couldn’t wear shoes; only open-toed sandals. And it wasn’t until week 10 that I was able to wear socks and walk normally with no discomfort.
For several weeks I had to lie on the sofa for several hours each day with my feet raised. The toe alternately tingled then throbbed. My usually active lifestyle was severely curtailed, and I was forced to spend hours reading and watching Netflix films. Above all, I missed my healthy passion – swimming.
Then I did something you’re not really supposed to do: I went online, mainly to see how long I could expect the pain to last. What I read filled me with dread! Online medics and NHS websites suggested 4-5 weeks were enough for recovery. What was happening to me? I thought. After 6-7 weeks there’s still discharge, and the toes keep hurting. I read about one woman who’d had to have her toe amputated!!!! Aaaargh! Perhaps they had, after all, accidentally cut through a nerve when administering the anaesthetic, and I’d have to live with the pain for the rest of my life. Help!!
My partner gallantly helped me to limp through a four-day Easter holiday in Prague and encouragingly thought that progress was being made. I wasn’t so sure.
People’s reaction was either shock, horror: ‘I don’t really want to hear the details’; sympathy ‘Oh! Poor you!’; or just laughter. I don’t know why stories about toenails are so funny, but I guess they just are.
Anyway, here I am at week 12. The podiatrist says I can now finally remove the bandages; they’re officially healed, and I’m without pain.
What have I learned over the past three months? Well, patience, and a realisation that we can’t take our feet for granted, not even our toenails. I’ve learned (I think) the virtue of slowing down a bit and taking more time out to lie on my sofa; and I’ve also discovered Netflix.
On the whole, I’m glad I’ve now parted company with my big toenails after all these years. I was told that if I’d had the same operation 50 years ago it would have meant a general anaesthetic and a week at least in hospital. So, no! I have no regrets about putting off the operation for almost a lifetime.