Journeyman Journalist, 1979: If nothing serious happens

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The first snowfall of the season arrives in North Hero, Vermont, on the same day as the first hard frost: November 1, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

Only a week after turning down the Hanover Gazette’s offer of a full-time job with benefits, I learned how useful and reassuring a health insurance plan could be. I felt unwell, and in a small town with no doctor, very much alone:

I’m worried about myself, however. This morning I noticed (showering) that my left arm felt cold, tingly and a little numb — basically from the armpit down. This could be the result of one of those frightening midnight experiences where my arm “falls asleep” — perhaps I didn’t catch it in time. Perhaps it will get better — or perhaps … well, I worry too much, but I am worried. Maybe if it continues, I’ll have Mom schedule an appointment with Dr. Orland for me. If, that is, nothing serious happens.

Journal, Volume III
7 November 1979

Especially in those early days of living on my own, I was a bit of a hypochondriac — and I knew it. But I was also familiar with basic first aid. Numbness and tingling on the left arm sounded like the early signs of a heart attack.

That’s what I meant by “if nothing serious happens.”

If it had been a heart attack, I would know it. The numbness and tingling would give way to sharp, debilitating pain. I wouldn’t be musing about it at my desk 12 hours later.

It would have been useless to ask my mother in New Jersey to schedule an appointment with our hometown doctor, five hours’ drive away. If it were a heart attack, I’d be dead before I picked up the phone.

But it wasn’t, and I wasn’t. The symptoms were also not the sort of thing that our family physician, a Doctor of Osteopathy, or D.O., would know much about. In the days before ergonomics, repetitive stress injuries were not easy to diagnose. Carpal tunnel syndrome was already known, but such diagnoses were rare.

Nevertheless, that’s probably what it was. I’ve had it since — still do, in fact — on the right side. Today that is my mousing hand. In those days at the Journal Opinion and my own desk, I used the left hand to hit the carriage return lever at the end of a line, maybe 10 or more times a minute.

Moral of the story: Newspaper work and deadlines give a whole new meaning to “repetitive stress injury.”

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