May 07, 2012

The nail clipper con

For some reason, no one in the hospital is allowed to cut my mother-in-law’s fingernails. This doesn’t really make sense to me. They did surgery on her hip, cut into her stomach to insert a feeding tube, stuck a catheter tube inside her, and poked her with needles so many times that she has the arms of a heroin addict. But apparently, cutting her fingernails might be crossing some kind of line.

Even though the rest of her body is getting weaker, my mother-in-law’s fingernails seem, ironically, to be growing faster and stronger than ever. I knew that if they grew much longer, she was going to look like that comic book superhero with the adamantine claws. She kept moving her fingers against her face, because her dry skin was itchy, and I was afraid she was going to scratch herself.

“I’ll bring a nail clipper and cut your nails tomorrow,” I assured her. She smiled and looked relieved. It wasn’t until I was leaving the hospital that I began to wonder about my promise. The hospital has the kind of high security that I normally associate with airports, including a metal detector and a receptionist who won’t let you through unless you give them your driver’s license to make into a name badge. It’s possible that they wouldn’t let nail clippers through.

But last winter, With-a-Why and I watched multiple episodes of White Collar, a show about a con man who works as an FBI consultant. With-a-Why liked the show because the writing was smart, and I liked it because I’d always wanted to learn how to be a con artist. I’d seen enough episodes to know that smuggling nail clippers into a hospital was definitely do-able.

So the next day, when I walked through the hospital doors with nail clippers in my pocket, I didn’t walk straight through the security area like I usually do. Instead, I veered over to the coffee-and-muffin stand, muttering, “Oh, coffee” as if I were an addict in need of a fix. For the record, I don’t even drink coffee, but I’ve seen the way my conference friends act when they finally come upon a coffee shop in a strange city so I was able to do a convincing impression. It was a fine bit of acting.

I bought a muffin, which came in a little paper bag, and an orange juice. I knew a true con artist would buy some coffee to stay in character, and I considered that, but I was afraid I would gag if I had to actually drink the stuff. Then – and here’s the part where I imagined television cameras zooming in for a close-up – I sat down on a nearby bench, slipped the nail clippers into the muffin bag, drank my orange juice, and then walked away, leaving the muffin bag on the bench. Dramatic music was playing the whole time. But only in my head, of course.

I went back to the entrance, walked through the metal detectors, and then handed my driver’s license to the bored receptionist, who ran it through the machine and gave me the label to stick on my shirt. That’s when I looked down at the orange juice in my hand and muttered, “Hey, where’s my muffin?” in a distracted sort of way. Another fine bit of acting that was mostly missed by the receptionist, who had already turned back to her computer.

I slapped the label on my shirt, walked back to the bench to pick up the muffin bag that held the illicit nail clippers, and then went straight to the elevators, walking right past the security guard. As crimes go, it was almost too easy.

Once I was in my mother-in-law’s room, I whispered, “Don’t tell anyone,” and pulled out the nail clippers. “What are you going to do with the clippings?” she whispered. I shrugged. That’s a detail that I hadn’t considered but I figured I’d improvise.

I’d just finished with her right hand when I heard the footsteps of an approaching nurse. This looked bad. One hand with long nails – and the other newly cut. If I didn’t move quickly, I was going to be caught in the act. Thinking fast, I slid the nail clipper under the blanket and put my hands over my mother-in-law’s right hand, cleverly covering up her fingernails. I shifted our hands to cover the little pile of clippings. “It’s going to be okay,” I murmured sympathetically, as if I were comforting her. I hoped my mother-in-law would pick up on the cue and look properly distraught, but instead she looked amused.

The nurse ignored me. Her attention was focused on the little machine that makes beeping noises so often that we’ve learned to ignore it. She replaced the IV bag, pushed some buttons to make the machine stop beeping, said something cheerful, and left. Quickly, I finished cutting my mother-in-law’s fingernails, and then swept the clippings off the sheet and onto the floor, where they disappeared from sight in the speckled linoleum.

Mission accomplished.


Bardiac said...


(But I bet they would have let you through with nail clippers. This was way better, though!)

liz said...

(To the tune of Secret Agent Man)

Secret Agent Man lyrics

There's a Jo(e) who leads a life of intrigue.
Her mom-in-law's nails could bring a facial blitzkrieg.
But the hospital is strict, don't get caught with those clips
Odds are she won't get past the detector.

Secret agent Jo(e)
Secret agent Jo(e)
You bought a muffin
And got those daggers clipped.

jo(e) said...

Liz: I'm laughing. Too funny.

jo(e) said...

Bardiac: Yeah, you're right. I stuck the nail clippers in my coat pocket and forgot about them, and the next day, noticed them there AFTER I'd walked through the security. So it's possible that the con was completely unnecessary.

AnnetteK said...

I'm really glad you aren't a terrorist because I think you'd be pretty good at it!

jodi said...

The con may have been unnecessary but so much fun for you and your mother-in-law. Hope she is doing better.

Melissa Sarno said...

This. Is. Amazing. I love it.

Cindy said...


susan said...

too funny. every day an adventure. Hope your MIL gets out of the hospital soon--will she head to rehab next?

jo(e) said...

Susan: She's moving to a nursing home near us. It'll be easier to visit her often when she's close by.

Lilian said...

that's hilarious and the comments even funnier!

Zhoen said...

Most nurses I've known would have winked and mouthed "thank you." Oh, the weird legal loopholes in hospitals. Good on you for your Mission Impossible.

jo(e) said...

Zhoen: Oh, you're right. It was a nurse who gave me the idea in the first place. She said, "I'm not allowed to cut her fingernails," and then whispered, "but you could ...."

Martha Spong said...

Whether or not the subterfuge was required, it's a great story.

Belle said...

Infection. When my father was in the hospital, he got a nasty infection from some tiny little nick he got from getting his toenails trimmed.

But I love the sneakiness! Go Jo(e)!

Kyla said...

Haha! So awesome. I love this.

kathy a. said...


kudos to liz for musical accompaniment.

Sarah Sometimes said...

Great story! I'm sure the little caper cheered your mother-in-law up.

Natalia Singer said...

This was such a great post! You totally captured how normal acts of kindness and grooming end up feeling transgressive in the age of Big Security. Wow. Perfect tone, and I felt the suspense. Thanks for this!

BrightenedBoy said...

You're a regular secret agent.

Quite the covert act you pulled off there, Jo(e).

On a serious note, how much is our healthcare system failing when medical staff can't administer to basic hygiene needs?