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Volume 15, Issue 40 ~ October 4 - October 10, 2007

On Better Footing

A eulogy for my big toe

This little piggy went to market.

This little piggy stayed home.

This little piggy had roast beef.

This little piggy had none.

And this little piggy went wee, wee, wee all the way home.

–Old nursery rhyme

Alas, I can no longer recite this old baby rhyme using my left foot as the stage. There’d be one piggy too few to match the lines.

I took the first piggy to market — and it never came home.

Well, it wasn’t really to market, it was to Baltimore Washington Medical Center in North County. And I left it there.

Missing from my left foot is the big toe, the piggy that went to market. I had no choice; vascular surgeon Dr. Bill Flynn said it could not be left there, as it posed a risk to my health, maybe even my life.

It was a good toe: For nearly 81 years it served me well, though I had broken it several times when going barefoot in boats and elsewhere. But, it had used up its nine lives, or however many a toe has.

You see, when one has diabetes, this pesky malady hovers above waiting to claim toes. Its toll is many times that of chainsaws and axes combined.

The digits of the feet are the lowest of the lower extremities, thereabouts blood circulation is the lowest — and to further complicate things, diabetes also takes its toll on nerves of the lower extremities. Not only is the inflicted more vulnerable, but he/she is less likely to be aware of any budding infections.

Diabetics are cautioned to check their feet and toes daily, use a mirror to scan underneath them, which I did for 20 years. But several years ago after looking at the bottom of my toes thousands of times with a mirror and not once noticing anything unusual I became somewhat lax. The looking glass was set aside.

After all, I had given up going barefoot and the pleasurable feeling of grass and soil between my toes. I switched from hard-soled shoes to sneakers, gave up not wearing socks in the warmer months and monitored the toes daily from above. How precautionary can one get?

A few weeks ago I learned what can happen when one throws precautions to the proverbial wind. Despite very little feeling in my feet, something didn’t feel right in the vicinity of the big digit of the left hoof. I looked it over, nothing appeared wrong, but as a precaution I took boring, time-consuming foot baths for several days.

The slight discomfort persisted, finally prompting me to dig out the old mirror, which revealed — out of direct sight on the bottom of the big toe — an ugly ulcer developing. For any diabetic with common sense it would have sent him/her to the doctor. Pronto.

But, being of country-boy stock — confident that one can handle things like cuts, bruises and minor infections with home remedies — and not wanting to waste half a day visiting the doctor, I did what country boys do. I turned to salves, ointments and longer baths in Epsom salts and disinfectants.

Goodbye Toe

It didn’t take me more than a few days to realize I wasn’t the doctor I thought I was. So I went to one who had all the certificates on the wall and was promptly referred to the wound center at Baltimore Washington Medical Center. I arrived there on a Friday morning, expecting to go fishing that afternoon with a bandaged toe.

Think again, Burton. Before I knew it I was being wheeled down long aisles in a hospital bed with a bag of some clear liquid dripping drop by drop into a vein. Hey, I only came to get a toe fixed, what’s the big deal?

The big deal was an X-ray that revealed an ulcer infecting the bone of my big toe. The next morning, I was told the toe had to go; otherwise, there would be no way to make sure that the bone infection wouldn’t spread; if it did all hell could break loose.

“Okay,” said I. “I’ve got some fishing to do, let’s get it over with. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got fish to catch and columns to write — after all it’s only a toe. Only one toe.”

That’s when I was enrolled in Toes 101. It ain’t that simple.

Keeping an Even Keel

I had never before appreciated the job toes do. Until the other day, they were there to fill the void at the front of my shoes, certainly not as important as a thumb on a hand. One doesn’t pick up or hold anything with a toe. It’s like an appendix; it serves no real purpose for humans of today. Maybe it was useful or even necessary back when man climbed trees and cliffs to get a meal or flee from a predator, but we don’t do that any more.

I was informed that toes provide the flex of the foot in walking; equally important, balance when one is upright — with the big one doing the lion’s share of the job. But don’t belittle the little toe; its role in the balancing act is also necessary.

Also, toes support each other so they can work in harmony; lose one and the remaining digits on that foot get out of whack. You might say no toe stands alone.

When Chloe, an ancient woman who did her walking amid the pyramids of Egypt nearly 3,000 years ago, lost a big toe she or someone else carved her a replacement of wood — and it wasn’t just ornamental. When archeologists dug her up they found the prosthetic close by, with scratches and other signs of wear to indicate Chloe had used it.

I’m not about to get a replacement for the missing toe, but I do concede I’m rather curious how I’ll keep my left foot on an even keel in the four new pair of Crocs I acquired. They have spacious toe areas, and I have nothing to fill the vacancy in the left ones.

Looks like I’m gonna have to learn the nine-toed jig as an anonymous e-mailer suggested in a message to

The Billy who has nine toes had once as many as we.

It takes a balanced soul to lose one and still jig fiddle dee dee.

Thanks for the compliment. I think. Enough said …

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