The Little Mallet

A small finger injury causes blogger Michael Robertson to pause and reflect on seeking medical care when cruising.

May 1, 2014

Del Viento- pelican

Pelicans are cool, but they are so numerous her in La Paz, that they come to seem like sea gulls; we shoo them off every chance we get. See the giant white stain in
corner of our dinghy floor?
Michael Robertson

And I waved back, just to emphasize how happy I am, and how great this is.

I wrote that, just weeks ago. I was relishing the joy of doing laundry on the foredeck, basking in the warm air of paradise as I stomped on clothes in a bucket of cool soapy water.

The joy was short-lived.


A few days ago I was at it again, stomping, stomping. But then I reached into the bucket to pull a piece of clothing from the bottom and…I don’t know. It happened quickly, my pinky finger on my left hand caught something and I felt a small tweak or snap. When I pulled my hand up, it hurt a bit, but worse, my little finger just felt odd, a combined numbness and stretched feeling.

And it looked odd too. The very tip hung limp. I could easily lift it with my other hand, rotating that tiny joint so that my finger was straight, but as soon as I let go that tip would just fall down again. I played with it a bit and decided I must have ripped a tendon off the top of the little bone at the tip of my finger.

I went below to consult Dr. Google and right away it was clear that my diagnosis was spot-on: I had ripped the tendon off the top of the little bone at the tip of my finger. The injury is called mallet finger. Treatment rarely involves surgery, a splint for eight weeks is the indicated approach. I made a splint. That was the end of it.


Until it made me think about my healthcare decision-making process as an out-of-country cruiser. First, though we do carry international health insurance, our deductible is $10K per person; we are self-insured for the small stuff like mallet finger. Seeing a doctor for this injury would be easy and cheap, not even an appointment would be necessary. If indicated, an x-ray would be more of a hassle, probably a referral and more walking and waiting, but I wouldn’t expect the total cost to exceed $40US.

So those were my options for care. I decided not to seek care. I think my decision is primarily due to the fact that the information I found online seems to align perfectly with my injury, the treatment approach seems universal, and I don’t feel like taking the time to visit a clinic and then an x-ray lab.

But I want to contrast this with the approach I may have taken in our old life, complete with a steady income and employer-based health insurance coverage. Let’s put me at home with this injury, it happens during a Saturday of yard work. Ice would have been so easy to get out of the freezer that I would have likely done that first. Then, without a thought to inquiring online, I’d have driven myself to nearby urgent care. I’d flash my insurance card, fill out forms, see a doctor or P.A., get in the queue for an x-ray, watch a nurse put a $25 splint on my finger, and then get sent home–with a prescription for pain medication I probably would not have filled.


All totally appropriate, and with a more certain diagnosis and a smaller risk that a rare complication went undiscovered. Old life or new, the out-of-pocket expenses would be about the same.

In our current, very-low-income life, every dollar spent moves us closer to the end of our travels, so maybe my decision making in this case is just a matter of $40US looming larger than it otherwise would. (Yet I know that if one of the girls suffered the same injury, I wouldn’t think twice before bringing them in.) But whatever the reason, and whether it’s foolish or prideful, I appreciate the self-sufficient approach, I embrace it.

Back in my Washington, DC professional life, I remember several times over a decade, returning to work after missing a day because a cold or flu had knocked me out. Invariably, throughout that first day back, one or two coworkers would ask if I’d been to the doctor. “No, of course not,” I’d reply, “it’s just a cold–maybe the flu–just had to wait for the fever to break.”


“I had that last week, my doctor gave me an antibiotic that just knocked it out.”

The whole over-proscribed-antibiotics issue aside, I couldn’t understand the knee-jerk response to seek medical care for something minor. The last thing I want when feeling sick in bed is to leave the bed to visit a doctor’s office. But I think that mentality is pervasive in a system in which there is an almost complete disconnect between health care seekers and the market that sets prices for that care.

But I digress. The worst part about my injury isn’t the care, it’s typing. I’m a writer, I type constantly. And my self-splinted left pinky finger can no longer manage its important job on the key and the letter (It’s in charge of the too, but I’m not a big user of the letter ) Fortunately, I’m not a quitter. I will quietly suck it up and learn to type quickly with my temporary disability. Damn, that was three q’s.


In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we slumbered through the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along at


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