As the name implies, ectrodactyly is a prominent feature of EEC. Ectrodactyly just means missing fingers (or toes). If you ask me about it, I’ll say that I don’t think about ectrodactyly much and that it really hasn’t been that big of a deal in my life. Which in some ways is true. It has not caused me much physical discomfort, and in general I have not let it affect my self-confidence or social life. I had no difficulty learning to walk, tie my shoes, write, draw, play the piano, sculpt clay, or even type. Ectrodactyly never holds me back! Except that at times, my perception of it does hold me back. I have never had a professional mani/pedi because I don’t want a stranger touching (or even looking at) my feet. I’ve never found a pair of high heels I can walk in without agony. In fact, most ‘cute’ shoes are uncomfortable for me. I’m still timid when it comes to baring my feet in public, though I’m working on that one.
I was lucky because my ectrodactyly did not limit the function of my hands or feet. I only needed to have surgery on one foot, and that was because the “big toe” stuck out so far that wearing a shoe was a challenge. The surgeries were done when I was really young, before I started school. I have tons of pictures of little me walking around the house with a huge boot on my foot. It’s amazing I was able to walk without tripping, when I can barely do that now without a cast on my foot. . . .
The first toe surgery didn’t work, so we went to another doctor and I had a second surgery. The doctor was really nice and the day of my surgery he actually came into the pre-op waiting room and picked me up and carried me into the operating room. It was much more comforting than being wheeled in on a gurney. That may also have been the time that they offered me different fruity scents for anesthesia. Regrettably, I chose banana.
The procedure was simply to cut a wedge of bone out of the toe and fold the toe inward a bit. They stuck a surgical steel pin through the tip of the toe to hold it in place while it healed. I still have the pins from both surgeries – I’ll post pictures of them in a later post devoted to the various medical paraphernalia I have collected through the years.
I’m sure I was aware that my hands and feet were different from a young age. I would look at my mom’s long, graceful fingers and wonder if mine would ever look that way. I knew I was different, but everybody was different in some way or another. My hands and feet weren’t a big deal, especially since my cleft lip and palate issues required much more attention.
The first time I remember becoming acutely aware of my hand difference was when I started school. There were probably instances before that where someone might have noticed my hands or feet and asked about them, but nothing sticks out in my memory. What I vividly recall is walking down the hallway at school and seeing kids pointing and staring. It was the first time I saw anyone look at me with fear in their eyes. It hurt to be called names and to be feared by other kids when all I wanted to do was make friends and learn.
Of course, not everyone treated me differently. Some kids were able to look past my outward appearances and were friendly to me right away. Before long, kids got used to me and stopped noticing my hands at all. My feet were always covered by socks and shoes, and so it was easy to forget about them.
One of my favorite places to go as a kid was Sesame Place. I loved the water slides most of all. One year, my cousin Karen took me and my friend Joanna there for my 9th birthday. It was a Saturday, and the park was more crowded than usual. The lines for the water slides were long, and looped back and forth on each other. Karen waited while Joanna and I went on the slides. As we inched our way up the stairs in line, there was a group of boys right in front of us. They were being typical boys, talking roughly and pushing each other around. After a few minutes one of them noticed my feet. “Eww!” He shrieked, “Alien feet!” My heart lurched. The other boys looked and made exclamations of disgust and laughed. They lost interest after that, but this kid wouldn’t give it up.
The line moved agonizingly slow, giving him plenty of time to torment me. In hindsight, I don’t know why none of the other people in line told him to shut up, or why I didn’t use one of my alien feet to kick him in the groin. All I remember is the feeling of shame, that I was gross and scary and shouldn’t be showing my feet in public. When we finally got to the top, I had to get on the slide right behind him. I was so flustered that I didn’t wait for the attendant to tell me to go ahead. I just went, and the cruel forces of gravity pulled me right up behind him. “Eww!” he shrieked again, as my feet brushed up against his back. “Don’t touch me with those monster feet!” he yelled. Miserably, I grabbed at the slippery sides of the slide, trying to slow myself down somehow. I bent my legs to try to keep my feet from touching him, but our fate was sealed and we slid down together, hating every second of it.
Once I escaped from that nightmare and met up with Karen again, she asked me who the kid was that I’d been talking to. Did I know him from school? I feigned ignorance. I didn’t feel like going on any more slides after that. I dried off and put my shoes back on. We had lunch in the park and then we went home.
I didn’t talk about that moment with anyone after that, but from then on I was hyper vigilant about who I saw my feet. When we went to the beach, I would wiggle my toes down into the sand to shield them from the eyes of strangers. I was embarrassed about the footprints I left in the wet sand as I walked down to the water. I dreaded occasions where I’d have to expose my feet at school. I eventually learned that no one was going to make a scene like the kid at Sesame Place did, but I still felt ashamed and did not want to give people any more reason to think I was creepy.
As I grew up, as a teenager and a young 20-something, I only let a select few see me barefoot. I had such anxiety about my feet that I always kept them covered in public. When I was 28, I decided that I wanted to take swimming lessons again. I’d always loved to swim and thought it would be a great way to get exercise. So I took a class at the YMCA. I wore Crocs in the locker room and on the pool deck, slipping them off for only the time it took to get from the bench to the pool. No one ever commented on my feet, and most likely not that many people even noticed. It helped me build a little confidence, but I wasn’t about to parade around town in a pair of sandals.
It wasn’t until I went to the NFED Conference in 2011 that I really showed my feet to anyone else. I was inspired by the kids I saw running around barefoot or in sandals. Kids whose feet were just like my own. I remembered how good it felt to wear sandals and to feel the breeze on my feet. I went home and bought a pair of flip-flops. I was still shy about showing my feet, so I only wore them around the house and around people I was comfortable with. But it was a start. The next year I brought the flip-flops to the conference and I wore them the whole time. Of course, as soon as the conference was over and I had to return to the “real world”, I covered up my feet again.
Each summer I grow a little braver. Last year my company had it’s summer picnic at an amusement/water park (not Sesame Place). I decided to go in the water park. It was the first time in 20 years that I showed my feet (and my thighs) in a really public place. Most people didn’t even notice. In fact, most people were far from perfection in their bathing suits.
It might seem silly that I could be so affected by that kid at Sesame Place. Of course, he wasn’t the only kid who ever commented on my digits (or lack thereof). Maybe he was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Despite all the physical pain I’ve been through with my oral/maxillofacial/dental surgeries and my ear surgeries, it seems like the hardest thing for me in this life is accepting that I look different, and that people notice. It is something I have battled as long as I can remember – this feeling of not looking the way I’d really like to. I have come a long way in terms of accepting my looks, but I still have a long way to go.
I am always grateful that my hands and feet work so well. Not everyone with ectrodactyly is so lucky. I have enjoyed compliments on my drawing and penmanship skills. I can walk for miles and hike mountains without my feet giving out. I am fortunate, I know. Feelings of shame about one’s appearance are incredibly powerful and difficult to break away from. I know I am not alone in struggling with this. I have had friends who struggle with body image for other reasons, and so I know it is a common struggle, especially for women.
So there it is. My experience with ectrodactyly. I forgot to write about being called Ninja Turtle hands or Three Fingered Monster, but the moral is the same. Pick on someone about their looks and they get a complex about it. Don’t do it. Don’t make fun of fat people, or people with crooked faces or disfigurements. They didn’t ask to look that way. Look past whatever outward flaws a person has. You might just find that they are worth getting to know.