Eczema Erased My Fingerprints

You never know if your mutilation will inadvertently force you to assume a role of political activism as a guest in a foreign university. Let me explain.
Publish date:
November 27, 2013
scars, hand creams, corticosteroids, eczema, fingerprints, Jenna Hipp

As a bachelor student in eastern France, I earned my keep as
a baker. Une pâtissière, to be

It all started with an unreliable industrial pastry delivery
at the local café where I worked part-time. We didn’t always get our frozen
pastries on time to bake them up and sell them to the lunch crowd with their
bagel sandwiches and American-style milky espresso drinks. Plus, next to the
rather delicious, fresh sandwiches, industrial muffins just didn’t seem to fit
in with the taste profile.

So with the help of a friend’s miniature toaster oven, I
made up a batch of six orange buttermilk blueberry muffins. My boss liked them,
and so I got to roll out a line of North American baked goods at the café, including a weekly cheesecake special featuring my dad’s 1963 recipe for New
York cheesecake.

Besides giving me the unique knowledge of how to locate a
bulk Philadelphia cream cheese supplier in Western Europe, I also now have the
remarkable accolade of having catered the rabbit-themed opening party of a
specialty men’s underwear store with hundreds of mini carrot cupcakes. It was
one of the most entertaining and liberating eras in my life.

However, a baker is not only responsible for the happiness
of her customers; their safety and health is just as imperative. Especially
when working with fruits and eggs, I treated my workspace like a laboratory to
avoid cross-contamination. For my personal hygiene, this meant lots of hairnets
and gloves, as well as copious and thorough hand-washing.

About a month in, I started to notice the skin on my
fingertips starting to flake. I slapped on a pair of gloves and didn’t think
much of it. By the next month, my fingertips had cracked. By the month after,
my fingertips were a bloody mess wrapped in bandages and stuffed into several
pairs of latex gloves that I changed on the hour.

My freaked-out boss paid for me to see a doctor, who thought
I was allergic to metal. My boss took over all dishwashing duties and bought a
bunch of hand creams to keep by the register.

It was only way later when I
relayed the story to my beloved family doctor in the states that I learned that
it was called contact eczema. I received a prescription for a corticosteroid
to treat it.

After a bittersweet goodbye, I left the café and headed
south in a rental car to start a new adventure with a master’s degree. My
fingertips healed, leaving me with thick, pink scars as a souvenir of my brief
career in the art of cowboy cookies and blackberry pies in the shape of the
Canadian flag.

Little did I know that my fingerprints would seek

I arrived at a university in Shanghai as an exchange student
from my French school. My host university was really into class attendance and
had a high-tech way of keeping track of it. They had a little machine that you
would stick your finger in and it would read your fingerprint and send your ID
number to a computer. To thank you for your trouble, the machine would then
say, “Xièxiè! Xièxiè!

On the first day of classes, the program assistant helped
each student record his or her fingerprint in the attendance machine. When it
reached my turn, I offered up my right index finger with a sense of foreboding.
The machine started screaming in
Chinese--I did not appear to be human.

The assistant started grabbing my other
fingers and twisting them around to see if the machine could read the side or
the tip or anything. After five minutes of flustered experimentation, we
finally heard the magic words: “Xièxiè! Xièxiè!”

The machine had chosen my middle finger.

Thus, every day of my séjour in China, before every lecture,
I was forced to walk up to the xièxiè machine with my head down and my middle
finger out. I gave the machine a big F-U before sitting down to my lecture. I
heard murmurs, real or imagined I shall never know, of offended classmates and
teachers who thought I had chosen our history lecture as the arena for a
demonstration of resistance against the privacy invasions of the Chinese

The moral of the story is, if your skin starts doing
something weird, see a doctor and get some treatment. Don’t be dumb like me and
wait until you have become a permanent freak of nature to get some help. You
never know if your mutilation will inadvertently force you to assume a role of
political activism as a guest in a foreign university.

Nowadays, older and wiser, all I can do is try to keep my
scars pink and healthy rather than cracked and bleeding. I treat any active
eczema with the corticosteroid from my doctor. But I also have good luck using
rich hand creams as a preventive measure.

On a Costco shopping spree during my last visit to my
parents, my mom and I bought a 3-pack of Essential Nail & Hand Cream from
Jenna Hipp. My
biochemist mama really liked the sound of 20% shea butter in the formula,
although we did a spot test to make sure that the essential oils wouldn’t
provoke an allergic reaction on my sensitive skin. It’s a strange texture--very thick and almost waxy--but feels really wonderful on dry winter hands.

Am I the only freak with no fingerprints? Please tell me
that I’m not alone.