The Day I Chopped Off My Thumb

This is a true story. And it hurts. At least it did. A lot.
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Once upon a time a long long time ago, I was a butcher. I worked for my dad in one of his butchers shops. I worked with guys called Steve and Pete and Andy. As well as fresh meat we used to sell tins of peas, beans, things like that.

Being enterprising and having some influence, seeing as it was my dad’s business, I thought it was a good idea to have some more shelving put up. To sell more tins of stuff. I had not worked out if selling tins was more profitable. They were more of a service thing, ‘oh, I’ll have a tin of peas with that pork…’. It helped the customer rather than make us money.

Anyway, I had new shelves put up all over the place. On the customers side of the shop, near the till.

And over the top of the butchers block.

We filled it with Heinz Beans in a nice pretty pattern. It looked good. I was happy.

Soon after I was serving a lady who wanted ‘freshly cut pork chops please’. And in our shop, not like an average shop you would go to these days, even though we had hundreds of pork chops ready to sell in the counter, if you wanted fresh, fresh is what you got. Jamie Oliver would gush if he came into my shop. That kind of service was just normal to us.

So I walked over to the fridge which was a cobbled yard away out the back, to fetch a loin of pork.


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I placed my hand on the loin to hold it firm. I cut the ladies chops with an extremely sharp knife with my fingers right next to the slice. I then picked up the heavy cleaver that was kept in the side of the block.

I had cut thousands and thousands of chops over the years so this was something that I did not even think about. I raised the cleaver to the height required, and what happened next was a reflex reaction.

As the cleaver got to its zenith, it clipped the new shelf which I had had fixed too low. That moment my reflex took over and I dropped the cleaver to chop the chop. Only because it had hit the shelf, it was now off target.

The cleaver came down with some force in order to cut right through the pork bone. Only because it was off target, it came down a bit left. The cleaver went straight through my left thumb.

It sliced deep into the flesh and stuck into the bone. Strangely it did not hurt at that moment. I knew though that I had made a real mess of my thumb. No blood came out at first. Just little red pin pricks in the white skin, flesh and bone.

No one else was in the shop at that moment. I pulled the clever out of my thumb, put it down, and clenched my fist. My thumb did not close. [I did not know then but I had severed my tendon which had disappeared inside my forearm].

I put my clenched hand, which by now was dripping with my own blood, behind my back into my tunic and carried on serving the lady. My tunic was soaking with blood. I then said ‘excuse me’ as I went to find Steve. ‘Can you serve this lady please Steve as I have cut my thumb’. Steve served the lady and I went upstairs.

When I got to the top of the stairs I had a look at my hand. I had chopped my thumb in half – it was still attached but it was cleavered across the middle where the knuckle used to be. The top of the knuckle was stuck inside the skin which was hanging off.

I sat down when the pain hit me like a train. I felt like I had been plugged into the mains as I went into shock, vibrating in agony.

Soon after the occupational nurse came and stitched up my thumb which no longer worked. She did not send me to A and E or to see a surgeon or anything. She stitched all the crap that the cleaver had accumulated that morning into my cut. It soon went septic and swelled like a black pudding, adding extreme pressure, stretching the stitches that were digging into my skin.

I was in so much agony I tried and failed to sleep in the bath, outside, tying my hand to a bannister above my head to relieve the pain. It was agony for days.

After much protestation, my dad asked his friend, a surgeon Malcolm Knott [whose son operated on former Prime Minister Blair’s heart], to fix my thumb, which had been curled up useless in my hand for months.

It has been fine ever since and I still have full movement and rather fine scar. If you look carefully you can still see the blue stitches that are still inside the tendon.

JL Matthews