Fried Green Toenails

February 19, 2011

My Right Big Toenail Pre-Op, February 17, 2011. Donald Earl Collins. Note the black color of and the White Cliffs of Dover effect underneath my nail. Yuck, right?

Right Big Toe Post-Op, February 19, 2011. Donald Earl Collins. It feels like it looks right now, but I hope it becomes passable in time for sandals this spring and summer.

Well, not exactly green toenails, but a toenail story that might turn your face green. It’s a story that begins on Monday, June 26, ’89, my first day working for Valerie Johnstone at the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health’s Mount Vernon Clinic on First Avenue and First Street. My first week without my stupid ass ex-stepfather at 616, my first time feeling like my future was truly my own.

I was hired to help get the clinic’s Medicaid and Medicare re-billing in order, as they had a five-year backlog in unpaid bills for psychiatric treatment, and not enough staff to do the work. That’s what I was hired to do, at $5.90 an hour. To eventually and successfully re-bill $371,000 worth of diagnoses and treatments to New York State, all the while learning DSM-III codes (that’s the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Psychiatric Disorders for those of you who are not psychologists or psychiatrists) and the drugs that went with them. Xanax and Thorazine were among the most commonly prescribed medications to patients. I learned, sadly, that there were a few folks I knew who were also in need of psychiatric help. It was a sobering and valuable experience.

But that’s not what the boss woman had me do on my first day. Johnstone was pissed with her boss, Bob Beane, the director of clinics for the county, who had hired me because the Mount Vernon clinic was easily the furthest behind in billing, re-billing, and in covering their expenses. And she took her pissyness out on me, as well as I man I called Mr. Charles. He was in his mid-sixties and within months of retirement, but at least looked the part of a strong ex-athlete, very stout in the chest and muscular in the arms. His son had graduated a year or two before me, a trophy-winner on the Mount Vernon High School wrestling team.

Mr. Charles should’ve been taking it easy. But not with Johnstone as his boss. She berated him, yelled at him when he made mistakes, and generally treated the man as if he was less than the dirt that needed to be scraped off the bottom of her shoe. She sent the two of us to the warehouse in Tarrytown to pick up some old furniture — for her office! They had folks who worked for the county whose job it was to move furniture, but she sent a sixty-four-year-old man with arthritis and a nineteen-year-old who weighed 175 pounds to move cabinets and heavy wooden tables around. The two Black guys in the office, of course. Mr. Charles was still angry at Johnstone, though he tried to act as if he wasn’t.

I could tell anyway, because he was moving way too fast with the furniture for slow and weak young me. He moved so fast that he yanked a piece of heavy furniture out of my hands as we were carrying it downstairs, with part of a fifty-pound table coming down on my right big toe. The impact split the nail almost completely in two.

I should’ve gone to see a doctor. No insurance, no longer a regular resident, my mother and family still on welfare, and me being nineteen, I didn’t give it a second thought. I was mostly angry at Johnstone because she was an asshole of a boss. So I worked through that summer on a sore toe. It had bothered me all that fall when I went back to Pittsburgh and Pitt as well. Finally, in the middle of a snowstorm on Friday, December 15, ’89, I felt a popping sound on the top of my toe. The cold and snow had caused my toenail to fully crack, revealing a two-layer, ingrown toenail that had developed in the six months after my run-in with a wooden table.

I removed that nail, but I’ve had problems with that right big toenail ever since. Between basketball and hundreds of pickup games, with big guys stepping all over it. Years of walking everywhere, with me tripping on it. And a year of turf toe in ’05-’06, where I constantly played on it, that toenail grew darker and darker. Finally, in ’08, after dropping another, much smaller piece of furniture on the nail, it became susceptible to fungus, and that took over the growth, color, and thickness of the nail.

After removing it myself twice, I finally went to podiatrist, who told me that the best solution was to remove the nail and cauterize the nail root to stop it from growing — permanently. On Thursday, February 17, ’11, at 4:28 pm, after twenty minutes of bloody surgery, my right big toenail was gone. I’ll miss you. You didn’t deserve this. What should I do now? Maybe I should send pictures of it to Valerie Johnstone, thanking her for driving the office pool crazy, literally!


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