Health Care and the Table Saw
October 13, 2009
“If you use a table saw, regularly, you will get hurt, eventually. It will happen.” Gary was the master of mechanics, of force, geometry, physics – the pope of production woodworking, all-knowing, emphatic, protective, a tough shepherd tending and warning his flock of whiz-bangers, local high school grads and the occasional seminary dropout who had found their way to the small, sawdusty dollhouse factory on Central Vermont’s own B-M road.
“You will get injured,” his words repeated softly in my mind as my eyes sharpened their focus on the fierce circular carbide-tipped blur that hummed just in front of us. “Not me, not me, nope, not me, not gong to happen,” was my silent mantric response. “Really, Gary?”I burst out, What if I’m really, really careful?” He stopped and smiled that annoying smile. I had taken the bait. “Yes, you will. And being really, really careful will only make the injury worse, and more likely.”
“Safety around power equipment is not about being careful, but about understanding the forces that are in play, respecting them, and mastering the proper techniques and procedures. If you waste your attention on being cautious, being careful, on trying not to get hurt, you only increase the chances. Injuries happen to everyone, but if you know what you are doing, do it well and consistently, work within the limitations and constraints of the tool, your injuries will be fewer and more likely to be minor, and you’ll be back working the next day.”
Gary shared that wisdom in the Fall of 1984 and I have yet to sustain a serious table saw injury, though I use one almost every day. I have lost control of the wood a few times, had it veer away from the fence and into the path of the back of the blade – the dangerous part- which seized it and flung it back towards my torso at a dangerous speed. There have been times when I’ve broken the cardinal rule – keep the workspace open, clear, and unencumbered – and had a stack of completed parts that were teetering on the table fall into the carbide blur and scatter across the shop like pellets from a shotgun. Once I did push a fingertip directly into the blade – the front, the cutting edge, the ‘safer’ part. Safer because it only cuts, doesn’t wrench, seize, twist or fling. It bled, it hurt, but was easily cleaned, stitched, healed. I couldn’t use that finger for a month but now have to search for the scar to identify it.
I do remember the P. A. though, the physician’s assistant, at the Health Center, her firm grip as she injected the pain killer, cleaned and scrubbed the wound, examined it, cleaned and brushed some more, uncautiously, carefree, relaxed, talkative, confident, master of her workspace, my finger, and technique as she reached for the needle and sutures and proceeded to sew right through my fingernail. Two stitches, a dressing, some instructions and she’s showing me the door. “How can you do that, sew right through a fingernail? so casually, without flinching, without fuss?” I asked. “It’s what I do. And it’s the only way to suture an injury like yours. It will be fine.”
The word I’m trying to get to here is care because health care reform is all the rage in D.C. and around the country. Care is etymologically a fairly negative term; it’s root meaning groan, growl. The same root yielded cur, annoying, growling dog. Care as worry, anxiety about fearful things – injury, sickness, death. Over time it also comes to mean alleviating those cares; it comes to mean cure, a word that looks similar but has a different root.
We’re all going to get hurt, table saw or not. We’re all going to suffer injury, sickness, and death. Will we be careful, anxious, will we avoid medical attention because we can’t afford it? or afford the insurance? Will our insurance pay for it? Will our concern over cost delay our visit to the doctor and make it worse? and more costly, for everyone? And is the medical workspace itself, the interface between patient and practitioner, ‘open and unencumbered’ or do insurance company shareholder concerns hover and crowd around the operating table, the examination room, the pharmacy? Does a for-profit business model free our practitioners or hem them in? Will a government regulated public health model provide less interference?
And will we have the discipline and courage to have a clear and open discussion about these issues or is the money that is streaming into the pockets of our Representatives, Senators and Cable News hacks cluttering and polluting our public thinkspace? There are plenty of things to worry about here. How much better might it be to think clearly about them, and calmly? And make decisions with the public health in mind? Will we understand the ‘forces that are in play’ and learn to master them, as a society, or will we just worry about vague fearful things and try hard not to get sick?