Part Thirteen - Pains in my Wrists
Six months of care taking a farm was about all that I could handle. Though the rest did me a lot of good, after awhile I became very restless. I had been involved in support work for American Indian Movement political prisoner Leonard Peltier for a number of years, and we had a Kansas support group. While I was in Kansas the prison authorities transferred Leonard to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, and having Leonard in our backyard gave us responsibilities that we did not have before. The lawyer working on Leonard's prison suits came into the area and suggested that we open up a support house in Kansas City. The idea seemed a good one because this would give Leonard's family a place to stay when they visited him. I also had my own reason to help open up this house and move into it, as I was bored as hell out on the farm.
We also worked on a number of related issues, including doing support work for the Dineh resistance at Big Mountain. In December of '85 another Wobbly and myself made a trip to Big Mountain and took a load of food with us. While at Big Mountain some of the Elders asked me if I would organize on-going food and supply runs, because the government was trying to starve these people off their land. I agreed to take on this responsibility, and on my return to Kansas City I went about contacting groups that could help.
Around this time a group of P-9 strikers came to town to speak about the strike in Austin, Minnesota. I do not remember how it came about, but as I talked to these workers the subject of Big Mountain came up. They were very interested in Big Mountain and I gave them material to read. About a month later I received a call from P-9 asking me if I would come up and do a workshop on Big Mountain for their big solidarity weekend. I agreed and they gave me the information of who to contact when I got up there.
When I got there I found a large encampment they called "Solidarity City". Saturday afternoon I did the workshop and they asked me to speak that evening at a social. They then asked if I would speak at the large solidarity day rally the next day.
After I spoke a middle-age woman came up to me with her hands raised in the air saying; "look what they did to me!" Upon her hands and wrists were visible scars from an operation. "They crippled me", she said, and then she told me about how she had gotten something called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This was the first I had ever heard of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I have always been very sympathetic to the pains of working people, and have heard many first-hand accounts. After I left Austin I could not get the image of this woman out of my mind. I kept seeing this woman with her raised hands saying, "look what they did to me!" Something was different this time; something seemed to be haunting me. Little did I know that her words were a prophesy of my future.
I was able to stretch my money out for about a year at the support house, then I had to return to San Diego and go back to work in the yards. I had no interest in returning to NASSCO, so I went to work at a smaller yard that only did ship repair and overhauls. I was sent to a ship that had just come in for a major overhaul and spent about a month cutting out pipe with an electric saw. After a while I started to notice a tingling sensation in my hands; shortly thereafter I would wake up at night with great pain in my wrists. From time to time my hands would go completely numb to the point that I could not feel a thing with them. One day I dropped a light torch because I could not feel my grip on it. The next day I went to see a doctor and after running some tests he told me that I had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. At that moment I realized the words of that woman in Austin were not just an expression of pain; they were also a warning to me.
One of the things that had haunted me about that woman was why she had come up to me? There were over 5,000 people there that day and I was just one speaker among many. The way she came up to me, looking me straight in my eyes; I always felt that there was something more there than I realized. I do not claim to have much of an understanding of spirituality, but I have come to believe there is something that was controlling my fate. It seems like things happened to me for purposes that I could not see at the time why they happen, but later, because they did happen, other important events accrued that would not have without fate acting upon me. That woman was meant as a warning to me, and I did not understand that until it was too late.
The doctor asked me what I did for a living and I told him. He then stated that my injury was job related, that the injury was severe and I would have to deal with it now. The next day I took the doctor's report into the medical department at work. I was told that there was a specialist only a few blocks from where I lived, so that was the doctor I agreed to go see. The doctor read the report then examined my wrists, and then said I needed to ware braces on both hands and needed to restrict my use of them. This meant not working for a while. If, after a month, there was no improvement the next option was surgery.
While I was laid up I started to do research on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. What I found was that Carpal Tunnel Syndrome starts out as a numbing condition that can become permanently debilitating. It occurs when the tendons, bones or ligaments in the wrist press against the median nerve causing it to short-circuit. It is estimated that I in 10 workers develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome to one degree or another. If your job requires similar repetitive movement of your hands the chances are 20% that you will develop it. Workers who use keyboards are among those that are the most affected. The condition can process beyond just a numbing feeling in the hands to complete loss of feeling and pain that runs from your wrists up to your elbow. If not treated in time it can permanently cripple your hands. The worst pains, for some reason occur at night when you are sleeping.
After a month of no improvement, I was ready to have the surgery and get on with my life. I was tired of waking up a night in pain, and I do a lot of writing, which had become difficult. The doctor decided to do the surgery on my right hand first and it was done at a local hospital. After surgery my hand and wrist was placed in a cast. This made for interesting and some times comical situations. I had a son, Dylan, who was only 6 months old at the time and my wife had gone back to work when I got laid up. This meant that I was taking care of him most of the time. Before the surgery, I could take off the brace when I needed to, but with the cast on my right hand (and I am right-handed) doing things like changing diapers took a bit of creative thinking to accomplish. Never having learned how to type with anything more than one finger, I learned to type with one figure on my left hand.
Being the type of person who could not just sit a home all day, I would put Dylan in a stroller and go out for long walks. I must have been a sight to be seen; a cast of one hand a brace on the other and pushing a stroller with my left hand. I also did not take a break from my movement work; I would show up at meetings and events with Dylan, cast, brace and all.
Around this time some of us local radicals organized together as the Borderlands Anti-Authoritarian Network. Among the projects we worked on was a march and rally to protest the Vatican's plans to beatify Junipero Serra. Serra was largely responsible for the genocide and enslavement of the California Native peoples. The beatification ceremony was to be held in Monterey at an old mission, but because of protests, and the much publicized fact that on the grounds of the mission were buried some 500 Native people who had been killed by the missionaries the ceremony was move to the Vatican.
We held our march and rally on the day of the ceremony. I found myself leading the march with Dylan in a stroller, and an anti-Serra sign on the front of the stroller. I was very pleased with the march and rally; we had a good turnout and a number of Elders from the local First Nations came out for the event.
It was at this time that I began to notice something that I had not noticed before about radicals. That was their attitude about children. Being a man with a young child gave me a new perspective on the subject. The vast majority of white radical men would not only not offer any help with kids, but they did not even know how to talk to a child. I use the word white because the situation was just the opposite among people of color. Here were all these men thinking they were so liberated and radical, and in reality they still believed that caring for children was women's work. Now, it is true that this is something that is conditioned into white men, and is an unconscious reaction, I myself had that reaction with my first family, but I now believe that men caring for the children equally are an important part of liberation. I decided with Dylan that the only things that I could not do was to give birth and nurse him. Once he was on the bottle there was nothing that could stand in the way of my caring for him.
My second wife and I split-up while Dylan was still a baby and we made an agreement of 50/50 care for him. This has worked out so well that I fail to understand why more people do not do this. It gives you the best of both worlds, half of the time you are caring for the child and the other half of the time you are able to lead a single life. If the two parents do not use the child as something to fight over, then the arrangement works nicely. I also noticed that radical women did not help out with children either, but I believe the reason for that was that they did not want to be expected to do so, and that reason is justified.
After my cast was removed I started into physical therapy. It was then that I started to notice a new problem. There was a large build up of scar tissue in my hand and the more they worked my hand the more that tissue swelled and it became very painful. They had to back off on my therapy and try again, and the same thing happened. They hooked up an electrical devise that would deaden the median nerve so that rather than having pain, I had the feeling of electrical charges in my hand, wrist and forearm.
I was placed on light duty at work, but unfortunately they did not understand that the problem was not in lifting, but in repetitive actions. I was put into the toolroom where I had to count out things like nuts and bolts. After a while I gave up on my doctor and physical therapist and was sent to a new doctor. The new therapist was good and she understood the problem I was having. She told me that I should consider a new line of work. But what kind of job could I find where I did not have to use my hands?
Month after month I kept going through the same cycle with no improvement. So I decided to take matters into my own hands, so to speak. First I wanted to see if I could go back to working as a pipefitter, so I asked to be taken off light duty. It did not take long before I found that I could not do the work. I went into the foreman's office and asked him to lay me off, which he did. I decided what I had to do was to work on loosening up the scar tissue and slowly build up the strength in my hand. My other hand had not been injured as badly and was feeling better. I packed up all my stuff and Dylan, and we left San Diego and moved to Tacoma; Dylan's mother came up about four months later. My method of dealing with my hand worked to some degree. I still have a lose of strength in that hand and it does cause me pain from time to time, like when I type for too long, but it healed enough for me to work again.
The medical system in this country is just like the rest of the economy, it exists to make somebody money. It is getting worst all the time. I believe that the unions should take a larger role in the education of working people about the prevention of injuries. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, like most other injuries, is preventable. First, workers should not be forced to do repetitive work hour after hour; they should be rotated around to different types of work. Then, when repetitive work has to be done it is important not to bend your hands at your wrist while doing it.