Clark Proctor is a tough guy who says for decades he'd rather suffer pain than see a doctor or go to the hospital.
“I had a spinal tap for meningitis when I was about 10,” he recalled, explaining the genesis of his antipathy for all things medical.
Once, after punching a window pane in anger, Clark avoided the emergency room by using pliers with his good hand to extract glass shards from the palm of his bad hand.
“One of the pieces was stuck in there like a fish hook,” he said. “I had to kind of twist it out.”
So it was with a bit of humble machismo that Clark was literally brought to his knees last November by a little sliver embedded in the middle finger of his left hand.
“It folded me like a taco.”
The intense pain came after he used a razor blade in a failed attempt to extract the splinter and avoid doctoring. The resulting staph infection almost killed him.
“The doctor said we either operate, or you die.”
Clark reluctantly chose emergency surgery, and today he thanks doctors and staff at Pullman Regional Hospital for helping him live to be maybe a little less tough, but a lot wiser and forever thankful.
“If I had to go to the hospital anywhere, it would be here,” Clark said. “They were really cool. They knew I was a big baby.”
The owner of Clark’s Roofing, LLC in Pullman, Clark is married to Mari Spencer. They have two daughters, the youngest attending seventh grade in Pullman and the oldest studying to be an EMT in Spokane. Ironically, Clark said, his father-in-law is David Spencer, a retired physician who practiced in Pullman for decades.
“I'm still afraid of doctors,” Clark confessed. A rough-and-tumble boy growing up outside of Deary on a farm, Clark said he got tossed out of school twice, was shunned by another school and got his GED while serving time in jail for assault. But that was two decades ago, and if anything, his fight with the splinter underscored the need to continue policing his own behavior, including his tendency to tough it out.
“This thing, all of a sudden, started hurting. And it swelled up huge,” he said of his finger. “Every time I grabbed something, a screw gun, whatever, it would just throb. It was the first time I noticed it.”
Clark was on the job at the time with an employee, and a property owner was present. But he didn't want to whine. “So I told the guys that I had to step around the corner and make a phone call or whatever. And I kind of went back there behind the bushes with a razor blade.”
Unlike when he pulled glass out of his hand with pliers, this self-administered surgery with the razor blade didn't work.
“It hurt so bad. It was incredible. It like put me down on my knees. And within half an hour my elbow swelled up to like four times its size. It just went ba-wham!”
But he continued to work, finishing the job and going to another before the day ended. On the drive home, his swollen arm stiffened up to where he could hardly move it. “And I knew my wife was going to be all over me, because her dad is Dr. Spencer.”
So Clark tried to hide the situation, iced his arm and finally told Mari to leave him alone. “I was trying to will it away, that's what I was doing.” He made it through the night, woke the next morning and returned to work...for about an hour.
“It hurt bad. Oh my God, the pain was just stupid,” Clark said. “It's probably one of the worst pains I've ever had.” Employees convinced him it was serious and went to urgent care. Personnel there immediately sent him to the emergency department at Pullman Regional Hospital. Fluid was drawn from his swollen elbow. A serious staph infection was diagnosed.
“When Dr. (Edwin) Tingstad came in, he said, 'Clark, you've got a staph infection and it's moving quickly.' And he said, 'You're going to have to have surgery on your elbow.”
But Clark balked.
“Then he says, ‘It's either surgery or you could die really quick.’”
The fear of death, Clark said, finally trumped his fear of doctors.
He speculated that the sliver came from old rough-cut barn boards he'd been handling weeks earlier. Once the splinter (about 3/8ths of an inch long and as thick as pencil lead) was removed, Clark said he woke from the surgery to relatively no pain. But he remained in the hospital five more days for treatment of the staph infection.
Meanwhile, another concern set in. How to pay for the care? The roofing business, said Clark, has been challenging amid the recession. He carries health insurance for his employees, but opted to have none of his own.
“I worried about it, even when I was laying in there, man it's going to cost. And Dr. Tingstad said, 'Don't worry about that. Just worry about getting well. As far as your bill, I'll accept a penny a day if that's all you can afford.'”
The hospital, through its hardship program, also gave Clark a financial break. He's still paying for the sliver, but said the roofing season is in full swing and he's on target to pay all his bills soon.
“If they hadn't given me that break, I'd never pay it off.”
He still harbors a healthy fear of hospitals, Clark said. But Pullman Regional Hospital has convinced him that even tough guys need to be smart.