A procedure I couldn’t talk the patient out of

I looked down at the big toe

To see how the nail did grow

It sure wasn’t right

And it hurt day and night

So I fixed it, but not for the dough.


Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. I followed 3 years Community Health Center work with a return to traveling and adventures in temporary positions in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska. After 3 months in northern British Columbia, and a month of occasional shifts in northwest Iowa, I have returned to the Arctic.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

Medical school and residency merely start the process of lifelong learning required of my profession.

In residency, I saw one ingrown toenail removal before I did three under supervision. In the Indian Health Service, a podiatrist said, “This is the procedure that’s going to put your kids through college!” and gave me some tips on speed.  In the 90’s I did quite a few, but by the time the century turned, despite a large financial motivation to the contrary, I figured out how to get the patient taken care of without shedding blood.  A bit of cotton, an orange stick (a wood implement widely used to rearrange cuticles) and a bit of povidone dione (marketed most commonly as Betadine), with patience and about a week, can usually move the flesh away from the nail a millimeter a day.

Over the summer, researching the problem while in Canada, I came across the concept of a nail spreader, which can flatten out a curved nail over the course of several months.

But the patient yesterday (who gave permission to write more than I have) had already tried everything I had to offer, yet the problem persisted.  And I couldn’t talk  the patient out of the procedure.

Finding the right equipment takes up more than half the time of an office surgery when neither the physician nor the nurse knows where anything is.

I got trained to not only take out the nail plate, but scrape away germinal matrix (the tissue that makes the nail) down to the bone with an instrument called a curette, then apply a chemical, phenol, so destructive to human tissue that the nail would, hopefully, never grow back.

We had no curette, and no phenol, and I didn’t mind: less work for me and a good deal less blood loss.  At the end, I used a stick coated with silver nitrate to burn the heaped-up inflammatory tissue growing over the nail.

During the procedure we talked about high school sports (very important in small-town America) and music while outside, the gentle snow fell.

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