Foot in the Door

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Campbell went into Club Nails two years ago for a manicure and pedicure. Her pedicurist, a Vietnamese woman, dug into and cut Campbell's skin to supposedly fix an ingrown toenail -- procedures forbidden by the Arizona Cosmetology Board. The pedicure gave Campbell an infection that created an oozy, dime-size lump on her big right toe.

"You watch the TV programs that tell you do not go to Vietnamese salons, and you think it won't happen to you," Campbell says, "but I was in absolute agony after my pedicure. It was like someone sticking a knife in my toe."

The "great huge bubble" that formed on her toe kept her from wearing shoes for a month -- a problem for the aerobics instructor and ice skating trainer. Campbell missed 51 of her ice skating sessions that month and ended up losing her job along with more than $1,500 in wages.

It took almost a year before Campbell's toe, which doctors initially thought would never look the same, returned to its normal appearance. If left untreated, infections such as Campbell's could create ulcers on the foot that eat away at soft tissue. In extreme cases, the ulcers spread into the bone where doctors might have to remove a part of the foot or even the entire foot to prevent death.

Campbell was scared out of her regular visits to the nail salon and has only gotten two pedicures (both at Super Wal-Mart) since her injury.

"I didn't know a toe could hurt so much," she says.

For Marjorie Malarkey, it wasn't about pain -- and that's how her problem began. Malarkey is diabetic and has little sensation in her feet. Diabetics are warned against getting pedicures -- and nail techs are taught and tested to be extra cautious when giving them since the risks can be deadly. But Malarkey's nail tech, Kristine Nguyen, came from Florida, where, as in Arizona, there are no interpreters or translated exams. She took her nail tech classes and licensing exam in English, and when she moved to Arizona, she had her Florida license transferred, according to court records. Nguyen declined comment, but court records tell the story.

Malarkey walked into KN Nail Salon on April 4, 2003, looking for a manicure. While Nguyen did Malarkey's nails, she asked Malarkey if she wanted a pedicure. Malarkey initially didn't understand the question because of Nguyen's accent. When she got the message, Malarkey turned down the offer and told Nguyen she was diabetic, but Nguyen persisted and asked two more times if Malarkey wanted a pedicure. Malarkey gave in and thought it would be nice to have her calluses softened. Before the pedicure, Malarkey warned Nguyen about her diabetes more than once, she says, but Nguyen didn't fully understand what that could mean for her and her client. To someone like Nguyen, whose first language isn't English, such details are not always easy to comprehend.

According to documents and an interview with Malarkey's lawyer, Nguyen broke two pedicure scrubbers on the bottom of Malarkey's left foot, cutting her skin and giving her a bacterial infection.

Malarkey has neuropathy, a condition of her diabetes that leaves her feet practically numb to feeling. As a result, she didn't feel the break in her skin that allowed bacteria to fester long after she left the salon. Two days passed before Malarkey noticed a bright purple patch on her foot and headed to the doctor and then the emergency room, where she learned bacteria had spent days rotting the skin on her foot.

Ultimately, doctors removed so much dead skin on her foot they exposed a tendon. Malarkey had to have a skin graft and physical therapy. She spent almost a month in the hospital.

Minimal English fluency and newcomer status make it hard for immigrants to find jobs, but nail technology has become the Vietnamese ticket to success. The draw is simple: a small investment for a quick return. As long as you have proof of a high school education, you can be on your way to making an average of $430 per week doing pedicures and manicures after training 400 to 600 hours and taking a few exams. Not too shabby for knowing barely any English.

But there's the problem.

The number of licensed nail technicians in Arizona jumped from about 7,000 five years ago to 13,000 this year and continues to rise. California has more than twice as many nail spas per square mile as Arizona, and Vietnamese nail salons have saturated the market. The growth in California has been forcing nail techs to find more lucrative places to set up shop, and Arizona has become a prime destination with its low cost of living and empty strip malls. Arizona officials acknowledge that Vietnamese people dominate the business. And even though lawsuits and complaints against nail salon workers have increased, lawmakers have never formally considered legislation to provide interpreters or translated tests during nail tech licensing exams.

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Lynh Bui