Salt in the Wound

Content warning: this post describes pain and medical neglect

“Rubbing salt in the wound” is not an abstract phrase to me. It evokes deep visceral memories. My grandmother was a registered nurse for decades before beginning her faith healing cult. She had medical knowledge but didn’t share it. We didn’t even know basic first aid. 

I wasn’t vaccinated against infectious diseases and when a rusty carpenters nail went through my foot, no one got me a tetanus shot. When I flew off the handlebars of my sister’s bike with no helmet and landed face first, I was not taken to the emergency room. When I tore open the flesh of my forearm on a bit of metal doorway, I did not see a doctor.

What I got instead was salt in my wounds. First she’d wash me with rubbing alcohol then pack my wound with salt. Salt is acidic. That’s why salt water bleaches clothes. As anyone who’s shaved the morning of a beach trip knows, salt on a tiny cut stings. Salt packed into an open wound feels like being killed.  It’s flames and lava and napalm for a few minutes. I wasn’t allowed to scream though. 

The strangest thing is that I recognize that torture as nearly kindness. She could have rinsed my wounds in soap and water and sent me off to play. I never would have known the difference, or known of the need to prevent infection. Prayer only was our doctrine, so even salt was special treatment. It hurt like hell but probably spared my life. 

It was her fault medicine wasn’t an option. It was her choice to demonize doctors. It was also up to her whether I lived or died. She was callous as she pressed the salt down into my bleeding flesh. She did not register my pain as legitimate. But she kept me from dying. She was the coldest, harshest nurse a patient could end up with but she chose for me to live. 

That makes me special, at least to her. In her book Born in Zion, chapter two details my mother’s first home birth. My grandma wrote about things looking bad, and her praying to God, telling him it was okay to kill my mother so long as the baby survived. My mother is not mentioned again for the remainder; after grandma decided God could kill her, my mom was no longer part of the story. (She and baby lived.)

To me salt in the wounds means being loved, barely. Being valued, a little. Staying alive, for now. It is my childhood in summary. My family loved me just enough to make one effort to keep me alive, but not enough to put my life above their cult. Not enough to get me vaccines or tetanus shots or cold and flu medicine. Not enough to believe me when I said my hip was dislocated until I’d walked on it anyway for three whole years. 

They love me enough to pack salt in my wounds, and not one grain more. 

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