Shoulder Surgery: Adapting to Change

Shoulder Surgery: Adapting to Change
Are you familiar with the expression “busier than a one-armed paper hanger?”
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Are you familiar with the expression “busier than a one-armed paper hanger?” How about a one-armed omelet flipper or button threader? I learned the hard way that some tasks require two arms. However, with a little ingenuity, you can get by...

My education came as a result of a New Year’s resolution to get fit.

Typical of someone with ADD--attention deficit disorder--I didn’t bother reading the instructions accompanying the new five pound weights. I plunged right in, making up for lost time. The resulting pain was initially felt in my biceps. Over time, it got worse until the act of pouring a cup of coffee became excruciating. Soon I joined the growing ranks of baby boomers lining up for the joint docs.

 Dr. David Fehnel, an orthopedic surgeon in Peabody, Massachusetts, studied my MRI results. “No amount of physical therapy will fix rotator cuff tears,” he said. With that, he showed me a plaster model of the shoulder. The structure resembled a golf ball perched on a tee with four bands (rotator cuffs) holding it in place. Many things can injure them, he said, such as repetitive lifting, falls and in my case, attempting to get buff in one afternoon.

Following the operation, I went home wearing an enormous black padded sling on my right arm. Called the “Ultra-Sling,” it’s designed for rotator cuff patients. I called it Big Bertha. Like the eponymous golf club, it is oversized and ugly. Nonetheless, I was instructed to wear it continuously, night and day for six weeks.
As a right-hander, I was now forced to rely on my left hand. In preparation for this outcome, I had previously attempted to use that hand with little success. Now I had no choice.

Nonetheless, I tried looking on the bright side: The latest scientific research claims that using one’s non dominant hand creates new neurons (brain cells). Thus, rather than swear when I flipped an egg on the kitchen floor instead of my plate, I reminded myself I was getting smarter...

During the first few days post surgery, pain kept me from attempting most ADLs (activities of daily living). As I took on more tasks I discovered--and developed--coping techniques. Necessity, I’m told, is the mother of invention.

One of the basics, getting dressed, was difficult due to restricted shoulder motion. Thus I wore pull-on pants, front button shirts, and under that, a front closure bra. As a former occupational therapist, I had worked with stroke patients who experienced total lack of sensation in the affected arm. My situation was the opposite: too much sensation. In either case, the basic rule applied: Use the “good” arm to help dress the “bad” arm.

My OT experience with the elderly also came in handy. Because of spills and stains, nursing home residents were encouraged to wear clothing with busy patterns. Likewise, I bought shirts in paisley and plaid. Still, dressing was time consuming and awkward. As far as I was concerned, the popular Las Vegas slogan applied: What goes on my body, stayed on my body. Some days, I was even forced to sleep in my clothes.

Which brings me to another basic issue: sleeping. Rotator cuff patients claim it’s their biggest problem. Not only are they required to lie on their backs, it must be in a reclining position to avoid putting strain on the shoulder. Nonetheless, it would happen--I’d wake up and discover I was on my back, with Bertha hovering over me like the Goodyear blimp.

Initially I slept downstairs on the sofa while my husband slept upstairs. I’d vacated our king-size bed in a futile quest for comfort. After much trial and error and bed hopping in the middle of the night, I finally discovered a solution. At the local Linens & Things, I found big, puffy pillows and bought four. Piled around the headboard of the twin size bed in our guest room, the pillows provided both softness and stability. Cradled in feathery comfort, I was finally able to sleep.

(Addendum: Over time I grew to like sleeping in “my own room,” something I never experienced as a kid. I could read in bed without keeping someone awake or go online late at night. In fact, I’m thinking of decorating the room in a Disney motif. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.)

During early recovery, pain often interrupted my sleep. In the dim morning light, heading to the bathroom, I navigated the hallway like a tugboat captain, avoiding bumping into walls. Reaching the medicine cabinet, I discovered the pills had a child-proof cap. My first instinct was to bash the plastic bottle with the electric toothbrush. Instead, I grasped the vial tightly between my knees and managed to open it one handed. Although capsules cascaded over my toes, I felt victorious.

As a result, I applied the “knee method” to other situations, such as when using a pepper mill. This action required setting a plate on the floor to catch the flakes. Not recommended when having company.

My knee was also useful when confronted with a loaf of hard rye bread. Placing the loaf on a chair, I anchored it with my knee and sawed away. Naturally, one must use caution while executing this maneuver. A more nimble-limbed soul might even use her foot.

Although I got better at developing adaptive devices, some things baffled me, such as putting my hair in a pony tail one handed, or making an omelet. On the other hand (no pun intended) I did a credible job of eating soup left-handed, though I probably wouldn’t be welcome at The Ritz.

Not all my adaptations were successful. When the first heat wave arrived, my husband and I went to the beach. Bertha’s sweaty, airless confines soon became unbearable. Fashioning a sling cover from a plastic trash bag, I went in the water. Regrettably, Bertha’s thick padding sucked up gallons of ocean. Although my husband tried wringing her out, she remained soggy for days with bits of seaweed sticking to the Velcro.
Despite the obstacles, during those six weeks I’d developed a dependence on Bertha. Thus it was a shock to hear Dr. Fehnel say I could start leaving her at home.  Life without Bertha?  Never. Yet soon I began, little by little, living sans sling. Once again I was sleeping on my stomach, washing my hair, and driving a car--all without Bertha. Eventually I weaned myself, although I never got rid of Bertha. She’s now in the trunk of my car, a reminder of where I was and how far I’ve come...


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