Tuesday afternoon, feeling a little run down from a rushed morning and facing down a stack of student assignments to grade, I decided to make another cup of coffee in my French press. I’ve done this every morning for about five years: measuring 4 scoops of Starbucks Breakfast Blend, ground coarsely for just this purpose; filling the Pyrex measuring cup with just a skosh more than 2 Cups of filtered water; heating the water for 8 minutes until it boils; and then pouring it into the French press to steep for 4 minutes before I press the plunger, forcing the grounds to the bottom of the press and allowing me to pour off the fresh, toasty coffee.
I had just poured the boiling water into the open press. The smell rose up, rich and chocolaty and smoky, and I remember picking up the press itself–to move it? I can’t remember why. It was in my hand for about 1 second when something happened–this I can’t remember either, I flinched or stumbled or something. In any case, a soupy mix of wet coffee grounds and boiling water splashed onto my bare forearm.
Then I screamed.
I immediately put my arm under a roaring tap, and, for once, I was grateful for its numbingly-cold output. My arm lit up with pain from wrist to elbow, but the water’s impact seemed only to numb my hand and fingers, which were beginning to ache with pain from the cold water in only half a minute. My arm, on the other hand, did not change temperature at all, still radiating the heat of the boiling water.
According to Web MD, scalds from hot liquids are the most common form of burn injury, and more than half of these injuries occur in adults between the ages of 18-64. Senior citizens are the most prone to scalds of any age group, and children under five are also at high risk.
A first-degree burn is so named because it only affects the first layer of the skin, or the epidermis. A second-degree burn, often recognizable by blistering, penetrates deeper into the skin to the dermis.
A few weeks prior to Tuesday, I’d suffered an earlier burn. Oddly, it was in almost the exact same area–my right forearm–but much smaller, more focused. I’d spent that afternoon making Martha Stewart’s chicken soup recipe, which called for straining out the solids (chicken bones, sliced aromatics, and herbs) to reserve the broth liquid. As I carefully turned my stockpot over a strainer in the sink, the edge of the pot made contact with my arm just above where the oven mitt ended. The touch was brief, like a familiar kind of kiss, and left a small lip-shaped mark that, within a day, had raised a few small blisters.
That burn, healed except for an enduring red mark, vanished beneath the new burn, the Godzilla burn.
With my right hand numb except for its painful numb-ache and my arm no better, I took drastic action to cool the skin: I iced my arm for about five minutes. When I realized it wasn’t helping, I went to WebMD for help. The first thing I read: do not ice burn injuries.
The site recommended wetting a cloth with cold water and placing it over the burn, which is what I did next. While the dampness felt like it was helping, the pain was simply increasing too quickly for this to have any real impact. A few minutes later, I peeked under the cloth and saw a reddened area about five or six inches long with small welts raising randomly across it, like a three-dimensional relief map of a mountain range, if the mountains could visibly grow taller.
The pain–like the soreness that comes after falling asleep in the sun, a deep, searing, radiating warmth with knifish jabs up and down my arm–soon became very intense and I felt myself swooning a bit. WebMD explains that burn pain can be some of the most intense and unpredictable kinds of pain because its patterns of expression change frequently and rapidly.
I told Beau, who was patiently waiting by, that I thought I needed someone to look at it.
This would be not a huge deal for most people, but most people have health insurance and I don’t.
I don’t have health insurance because I left my full-time job and took up several more flexible part-time jobs, none of which extend the benefit of insurance to their contractors. When I applied for coverage from Aetna soon after my old insurance lapsed, their response was that they could not cover me.
Me, who does not smoke, who drinks on rare occasion, who exercises for 1 hour five days each week, who cooks low-fat food high in fresh vegetables.
The rationale for no coverage? It went something like this: “Because you have recently been under the care of a doctor, Aetna is unable to extend coverage to you.” I had seen a therapist for about a year to help me manage job-related stress and anxiety (without medication, he’d hoped), and, more recently, I had seen a chiropractor to help me recover from a weightlifting injury to my back. Both terms of care had ended a few weeks prior to my application for insurance, but apparently, those two experiences made me high-risk, too high-risk to cover.
Beau took me and my burn to the clinic at Target, which was pretty much the next best thing. As a show of defiance, I brought along the coffee, the perpetrator of my injury, and drank it in the waiting room. At least I got somebody in a lab coat to examine it, take my blood pressure (179 over 60) and temperature, smear some cream on it, and wrap it up for me. And they were nice about it, too.
Back at home, we ate a quick meal and I crawled into bed to watch some old episodes of Bones and fall asleep. The first episode: Brennan and Bones are called to a dessicated body in the woods with an internal temperature of 117 degrees–a body that, apparently, had been cooked.
The next morning I woke up, greeted by a blister two inches in diameter on my arm, rounded and raised like the “Easy” button from Staples. Surrounding it: an erratically shaped area of mauve skin, reminiscent of a birth mark. I applied the ointment to the burn and, awkwardly wrapped the area with some gauze using only my left hand and several stubborn pairs of right-handed scissors. I would be teaching all day–first consulting with an individual student I’ve worked with for several months, then changing lives through exciting composition instruction, and finally extolling the virtues of effective business writing throughout the evening hours.
Four hours into the day, as I set my messenger back on a chair in my composition classroom, I felt a sudden cool dampness on my arm. My blister had opened. Gross. I spent the entire class period seated at a table while my students peer reviewed each other’s work, trying to move as little as possible while I marked insightful comments on their work.
I showed Beau the sad, half-deflated blister when I got home. “That’s going to scar,” he said, maybe not meaning to say it out loud. But I knew he was right: I was going to spend a good 15-20 years with a slowly fading scar of some kind camping out on my right forearm, a place visible beyond the edges of short-sleeved shirts, of rolled-up sleeve collars.
I have one other scar, which, this summer, will celebrate its 16th anniversary of being part of my body. When I was 18, I was at a party at a friend’s house just around the time we graduated, maybe a week or so after. It was late, pitch black at her house on the outskirts of town, and pouring rain. I ran out to my car to grab something, throwing an overcoat on over my t-shirt and shorts. On the quick jog back, I found myself suddenly face-first in a huge puddle of water on the patio, a thin pain racing up and down my shin. I walked inside to gasps and a sudden flock of people putting their arms over my shoulders, leading me to the bathroom. When they started to clean the wound, I saw it: a six-inch gash across my shinbone, flaked with white spots where the bone was showing through.
Embarrassed, and maybe more foolish than I’d like to admit, I didn’t opt to take a 50-minute car ride to the nearest hospital. Instead, I went home, bandaged it up, and woke up the next day with a long, thick scab over the wound, a scab that took about six weeks to fall off. It left my friend behind–the scar, violet and mauve and pink, covering almost half of my shin.
Over the years, the scar has steadily shrunk in size. Today, barely visible under the hair on my leg, it’s lucky if it’s even three inches long.
The burn above my ankle, caused by a motorcycle tailpipe, has also faded now, almost 21 years after its birth. The tip of the graphite pencil ground into my left shin also fogged over with new skin, or perhaps finally broken down by my body, after the guy in front of my Civics class stabbed me for jiggling his chair during the lecture. The place where, in fourth grade, a classmate pressed her long thumbnail into my hand has also vanished, so long ago I can’t even remember what it looked like now–just a thin line, really, until it thinned itself away into nothing. The small dots above my eyebrow and bellybutton also vanished or vanishing now, as are the memories of the things I used to wear there.
Who knows how my arm will fare? By the next morning, the blister had redeveloped, returning to its Wednesday morning glory without any indication it had momentarily faltered at all.
These scars, all stories.
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