My Left Hand

I want it back (stain = beetroot)

The sixth anniversaries of my injury and the subsequent amputation of my left hand passed on the meditation mat in the Dhamma Hall at Splatt’s House with a photo on the wall before me of the Mahabodhi Temple, near where it occurred in Bodh-Gaya. I got a little upset. “Anicca!” the teacher told me. Impermanence. “It’s in the past.” “Not in your past though, is it?” I snapped.

I told him how, during Vipassana instruction, I forgot my hand wasn’t there and felt it as vividly as the one that remains. ‘Vipassana’ means, to see thing as they really are, but I was feeling things that are no longer there. Things like fingers and a thumb. “But it is quite normal,” the teacher told me, “phantom limb pain.” “In your experience?” I demanded. To which he  gave his usual admonition, “No thinking!”

A kind man and a dutiful teacher, he came and sat with me at lunch. The food served at Splatts House is wonderful. It could see me through any crisis. The teacher reminded me of his expertise, working for the Red Cross with amputees in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They would pick up Russian butterfly bombs found in the fields. 80% of the amputees he worked with had no phantom pain. Their brains are wired differently.

“It’s all in the mind,” the teacher told me. I had already warned him that amputees – speaking for all of us! – don’t generally appreciate being told about our injuries by the able-bodied. I wasn’t going to go there again. “Never mind that,” I said. “What interests me now is why you’re not eating this butternut squash lasagne?”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it is superb,” I told him.

“In that case,” he said, “you may have my portion.”

At the end of the course, silence lifted, one kindly fellow brought up  a film he’d seen on BBC4 about phantom limb treatment. “This isn’t the chat about V.S. Ramachandran’s mirrored box tricking your mind into thinking the remaining limb is the missing one, so you can scratch it?” I cautioned him. Able-bodied people, especially those who enjoy the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, find the phenomenon of phantom limb hallucinations fascinating. Those of us who experience it find it frustrating and tedious.

The best advice I received about phantom limb came from my first prosthetist, himself an amputee. He lost a leg in the Omagh bombing as a seven year old. “I’ve turned it to my advantage,” he told me, making and fitting artificial limbs. Think of one’s stump as a telephone exchange box, like those one sees in the street with their doors open, dozens of wires bundled up inside. They are like severed nerves, still trying to complete the call that was so brutally interrupted. As phantom limb pain continuously replays the moment of trauma, never mind anicca, for some amputees the injury exists in the permanent present.

Happily for me, I don’t have that problem and I use meditation rather than opioid pain killers to manage the stump pain. I did have pain of the phantom variety for a couple of years, but found it strangely reassuring. I have no memory of the incident and mine host did not want to admit liability, so pretended that I’d done it to myself. However, my body knew better and it told me what had happened. I could feel my missing hand burning onto the shower tap.

Another topic people like to bring up to amputees is whizz-bang prosthetics, such as the Bebionic 3 bionic hand or the Deus Ex, which make Living With Future Prosthetics seem cool, rather than part of a sinister Transhumanist Agenda. The problems from my POV, though, are that they’re heavy – functionality adds weight – they cost more than the NHS can afford, and they will never be as good as the real thing. I want my lost left hand to regenerate.

Otherwise, there’s hand transplants on the NHS. I qualify and spoke about the possibility to my team at Bowley Close, the amputee rehab. centre in Crystal Palace. I went off the idea of having someone else’s hand attached to my body, which will never accept it unless I take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of my life. I’d delayed the referral by not yet booking a blood test and decided on the mat not to bother.

Regeneration it is, then.

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