The saga of the toe goes back a long time. (“Before any of us could even pick up a baseball.” Name that quote.) It started last year, in November, while we were in the States.
By the time we landed in Missouri, my big toe on my right foot was hurting, but I didn’t think much of it. Within a few weeks, my toenail was totally ingrown and obviously infected. Mr. Mostafa, along with my parents, tried to get me to go to a doctor in Missouri. I refused because of the expense, and I insisted that if it got a whole lot worse, I would go to the doctor when we got back to Riyadh. Mr. Mostafa and my mother ensured that my foot was perpetually soaking in a bucket of hot water and Epsom salt, and they tsk-tsked and commiserated about me: “I knew this would happen eventually. She cuts her toenails too short.” “I know, I try to tell her not to do that, but she never listens!”
I deny this, and with some plausibility. I really don’t believe that my toe issues (or, at least, my current bout with my toe issues) have anything to do with my podiatric grooming habits, because lately, I’ve been really trying not to cut my toenails freakishly short, as has generally been my wont (partly due to my desire to have an appropriate toenail canvas for Jamberry nails, which I discovered recently via my sister-in-law and am obsessed with. Miracle product, I say, and the one thing that has managed to entice me to give up nail biting for the long term, after years and years of relapses).
But I freely admit that I have been guilty of such an offense.
In general, I have a thing about keeping my nails short. I’ve been biting my nails (or fighting the temptation to bite my nails) ever since I had teeth in my mouth; there has always been something very satisfying to me about gnawing on my nails. (No, I have never had a toenail-biting habit, although my dad will still tell you about the time when I was three years old and he came into the bathroom to retrieve me from my perch on the toilet and he found me happily chewing on my toenails. It’s literally one of his favorite stories.) When I was a kid, my mom did anything to discourage me from nail-biting. She tried that stuff that’s supposed to burn the kid’s mouth when they nail-bite; I laughed and kept on chewin’. She bought me erasers and pencil grips and encouraged me to chew on them instead. I obliged, but I just worked them in to my regularly scheduled chewing routine, along with my nails.
When I was seven, desperate for me to stop biting my nails, she paid for me to have a set of acrylic nails put on. As these were the days before Toddlers & Tiaras, it must have looked so strange, a little seven-year-old whose feet couldn’t touch the floor, sitting in the manicurist’s chair, getting her acrylics put on. I loved my fancy long nails while I had them…but you know what I loved even more? When they started to pop off a few weeks later and I discovered that the nail beneath had grown soft and pliable, ripe for the chewin’.
But something finally did make me stop. And his name was Prince William.
I am not even kidding. At some point during my adolescence, I decided I was destined to marry Prince William, because duh. (Please remember that I am a nerd who grew up in a town of literally a few hundred people. Imagination was necessary to my survival.) One day I looked down at my fingernails and I imagined Prince William down on one knee in front of the Eiffel Tower, holding out an emerald-cut diamond solitaire engagement ring in the requisite Tiffany box…and I realized that if something didn’t change, that ring would have to be placed on a finger with a gnawed stub of a nail, and oh, my God, what would the Queen think? So I stopped biting my nails. Just like that. (Ironically enough, when Mr. Mostafa proposed to me, my nails were the last thing on my mind. In fact, I now can’t recall at all what my nails looked like on that day.)
But even as my fingernail-biting habit was kicked, my toenail-cutting ritual was solidified. One day, during the same school year, a classmate of mine ended up severely tearing her big toenail during some sort of lighthearted roughhousing outside during our lunch break. I sat next to her in geometry class, right after lunch, and I remember looking down at the injured toe peeking out of her sandal, her ripped toenail still bleeding, and thinking, “Oh, my God, my toenails will never, ever get long enough to let that happen to me.” Even now, the image of that torn nail is burned into my brain, and as a result, long toenails totally gross me out.
But as it turns out, an ingrown toenail from cutting a nail too short is just as painful, and probably more dangerous, than having a ripped toenail because it’s too long. Huh.
By the time we got back to Riyadh, my toe was the size of a golf ball, and Mr. Mostafa and I were both beginning to panic. He made me an appointment with a doctor and off we went.
The doctor was an older man, Egyptian, and all smiles. He could best be described as jolly. He asked me what was wrong. I told him. He came around to our side of the desk and glanced at my toe.
“Oh, yes,” he assured me. “I will give you antibiotics, and a pain medicine if you need it. After you finish the antibiotics, come back and we will do a surgery.”
“A surgery?” I asked nervously.
He nodded. “Yes, a surgery. Very easy surgery, no problem. Take the antibiotics first.”
I looked at Saleh, slightly panicked. “I’m breastfeeding,” I told the doctor. “I can’t take some medicines.”
“You are American?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
He shuffled papers on his desk and began writing out a prescription. As he did so, he said, “I know a man from Egypt, he married American woman. She loved the food so much. She ate all the time, all the food. Like this.” He mimed the action of shoveling food into his mouth. “She got very fat,” he added.
I patted my stomach and said jokingly, “I have the same problem.”
The doctor’s eyes lit up as he laughed and said, “Yes! Yes, she was just like you!”
Well, thanks, Doc.
He wrote out a prescription for antibiotics and instructed me to take them for two weeks and then come back for the surgery, which he never was very specific about.
“I don’t know if I like that guy,” Mr. Mostafa said, as we walked out of the hospital. “He looks more like a butcher than a doctor.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. Just a feeling. Like, he’s nice and everything. I’d buy meat from him for Eid, but I don’t want him cutting on your toe.”
“I don’t want him cutting on my toe, either.”
“So…we’ll wait and see if the antibiotics fix the problem, and if it does, we won’t go back to the doctor. Is that the plan?”
“Exactly,” I said.
So that’s what we did. I took the antibiotics and luckily, within another week or so, my toe was back to normal. It stayed normal for several months. Then, a few weeks ago, the toe began to hurt again. And it began to swell again. And before I knew it, I developed a hole in the top of my toe, where (icky overshare warning) the infection was oozing out.
“Um, Saleh?” I said one afternoon. “Remember how my toe got ingrown and we had to go to the doctor?”
“Well, it’s doing it again. But now there’s a hole in my toe.”
“There’s a hole. In my toe.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to have a hole in your toe.”
“Me, either. I didn’t have a hole in my toe last time. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, though. Like, I didn’t have a hole last time, so all the infection was trapped and my toe got all swollen and stuff. Now that I have a hole in my toe, all the infection and nastiness is coming out. So…like, does that mean it will heal faster because all the infection can come out instead of stewing in my toe? It seems to me like the hole is a good thing, but I don’t know.”
“Huh. Well, should we go back to the butcher or should we try to find a new doctor? Personally, I prefer that we go to a different doctor. But that’s just me. What do you think?”
“I think I don’t want to seek medical treatment from anyone you refer to as ‘the butcher.’”
“I don’t want you to, either!”
“Okay. Just go to the pharmacy and buy me a box of the same antibiotics that I took last time.” (Here in Saudi Arabia, pharmacists can sell antibiotics and certain other medications without having a prescription.)
“What kind did you have last time?”
“Uh…I don’t remember. Just ask the pharmacist for a course of antibiotics that are safe for breastfeeding mothers.”
“It was called omega-man-teen. Or something like that.”
“Yeah, I swear it was Omega-man-teen. Just Google it, honey. You’ll find it. Omega-man-teen.”
“Google doesn’t read minds, Saleh.”
“Yes, it does. Just put in the first three letters and it will tell you the rest!”
“I remember now. It was Augmentin. Not Omega-man-teen.”
“Yes, that’s it! Augmentin! I told you, just Google it!”
“I didn’t Google it, I remembered it!”
“But now that you remembered it, you can Google it and make sure it’s what we’re looking for!” He paused. “You know what, never mind. I think we need to go to the doctor. It’s a bad idea for you to just prescribe yourself antibiotics. But not the butcher. I’ll make an appointment for you with a different doctor.”
So the next day, we went back to the hospital, to the office of a different doctor, a Pakistani lady with whom I was very comfortable. She asked me many questions about my health and about the toe. She sat me on the examining table, put on examining gloves, and looked closely at the toe. She touched the toe. She nodded and explained exactly what she would do.
“We will give you antibiotics again,” she explained, “because I cannot do an operation while the toe is infected. After the infection is gone, I will do a very simple procedure in which I will inject your foot with a numbing medication; you won’t feel anything after that. Then I will take off about half the toenail.”
“Half the toenail?” I repeated fearfully.
“Yes,” she said. She went to her desk and retrieved a blue marker, and then drew a vertical line down the middle of my toenail. “Just this half. I will take it out, since this is the second time you have had this problem.”
I thanked her sincerely for her opinion and her thorough explanation, and I assured her that if the toe had not healed by the time I finished the antibiotics, then I would be back for the surgery. She agreed and handed me a prescription for antibiotics–Augmentin, of course.
I admit that at first, I thought, “Are you nuts, lady? You’re not taking off half my toenail! I need that toenail! Jamberry nails, man!” I thought the nail would be removed permanently. But I did some research, and it turns out that after a simple surgery like that, it does grow back. So I’m not as scared of the possibility of the surgery as I used to be.
But so far, my toe seems to have healed well, and I’m hoping that I don’t have to deal with this ingrown toenail issue again. But if I have to go back for a surgery, I’ll be returning to the doctor who drew the pretty blue line on my toenail. When it comes to doctors, I much prefer an artist over a butcher.