They say 45 days is the magic number. I have laid here like a Christmas ham for the past six weeks yet there has been a frenzy of activity going on in my shoulder. It’s amazing that whatever the surgery — back, leg, arm, shoulder, brain — it’s always six weeks until you really turn the corner on your recovery. The human body is so predictable and efficient in this way. If it can make a whole new liver every six weeks, and an entirely new stomach lining every five days, then it can certainly make some real progress on a centralized trauma wound when all systems are focused on healing. Cells spewing out chemicals to get everything going, other cells replicating themselves to replace the damaged ones, the immune system ramping up to squash infection, tiny little fibers sprouting up to reattach the torn ligaments to the bone, collagen collecting near the wound to build up the scar tissue — a surgery marshals all the body’s resources in order to heal itself. When I think of how much is going on at my surgery site it’s really not surprising that I still have to take breaks when I walk up a flight of stairs.
It was really tough to go from being so physically active to this slug-like existence, but I have found that reading and learning about how it all works has been comforting during the more frustrating times. Apparently there is 100% turnover of the atoms that make up your body every five years. That means that you are literally not the same person you were just a few years ago. And we have 60,000 thoughts a day, yet 90% of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday. So even as our body gets constant upgrades, our thoughts tend to go around and around like a hamster wheel. I know mine do. ”What would we look like without noses?” pops up pretty frequently.
I also think it’s crazy that we are all made up of 65% water. Which means that when PCA says “I love you,” what he really loves most about me is water. And babies are 80% water! So weird.
Okay, enough about our bodies and ourselves.
Last night we hosted our Christmas party and it was wonderful! We hadn’t planned on doing it, with PCA out of town and me being of feeble body and spirit, but we rallied and it turned out to be one of those magical evenings where everything goes smoothly and you laugh all night and reminisce all the next day. I love our friends because they don’t care that I’m rocking a fetid sling and bad hair (still can’t reach my arm up to style it) or that we served ham, biscuits from a can and Peeps. PCA made chocolate peppermint martinis, my sister brought homemade marshmallows for the hot chocolate bar, my adorable nephews showed up in Christmas sweaters and flashing Rudolph noses, and although we had every intention of stopping early we ended up going until 1:30am! I LOVE when parties have a good ebb and flow and last night was one of those. PCA has to go back to work for a 20-day stint out of town the day after Christmas, and so we both felt very lucky to have the time to catch up with old friends, new friends, neighbors and family.
PCA is working so hard these days to pick up the slack. The surgeon has said it will be about a year until I can go back to work. Which I am reeling from. Speaking of thoughts going round and round, what does this mean? What will I do? I always had this vision in my mind of a time when I would happily say goodbye to my career with no regrets in order to try something new. I find myself wondering if that time has come, and whether I could ever make my peace with having that decision made for my by someone else’s actions and negligence.
I started physical therapy and have had two sessions so far. PT has been great for understanding why it could be upwards of a year out of work. The therapist told me that I had enough work done in my shoulder for 5 people, because all of the tears were so serious. I can’t lift my arm more than a millimeter at a time and all the exercises we do are passive range of motion — meaning the therapist flings my arm around and yells at me to relax while he does it and I grit my teeth and concentrate on not screaming. He asked me to make a muscle with my bicep and I couldn’t! Where did it go in such a short time? I love physical therapy though. It’s the good hurt. It is forward progress and it feels like someone is in it with me for the long haul. It’s hard for me not to push it and my therapist keeps telling me to slow down. He’ll say “do five reps” of one baby exercise or another, and when his back is turned I quickly do 10 or 15 reps. I can’t help it. I just want to get better quickly. It’s very hard to not feel in competition with the person I used to be before the accident.
Most days now I don’t think about the long term and I try to focus on the small successes. I can mostly dress myself now, and tie my own shoes. I can drive short distances if it’s a route I know and I can avoid the freeways. I can almost sleep through the night. I can cook, as long as I have a sous chef there to help me lift a pot off the stove or chop an onion. All of these seem like small miracles and I’m so grateful for them.
One last anecdote. About 20 years ago there was an experiment conducted on mice at the National Institute of Health. A scientist, the Head of Molecular Biology, injected the mice with a chemical that stimulated and enhanced their immune systems. He had them smell camphor at the same time. After a while, just the smell of the camphor would stimulate their immune systems without the use of the chemical. Then he took some other mice and he injected a different chemical that destroyed their immune systems, and he had those mice also smell camphor at the same time. And so he ended up with two groups of mice: one group that could smell camphor and stimulate the immune system, and one that could smell the same camphor and destroy the immune system. Which is so crazy, because it means that it is the brain that is deciding whether to heal or destroy itself based upon external and arbitrary factors. It says so much about the mind-body connection when it comes to getting better.
One month down…eleven to go! These past four weeks have been an eternity and I’m glad to be crossing this milestone. I wish I could say it’s been easy so far but it has not. I have had pain like I’ve never experienced and moments of complete despair. There were days where I literally sat motionless for 23.5 out of 24 hours and other days that just passed in a haze of pain medication and Netflix. Those were the dark days.
Now, at four weeks, I am still so far away from recovery, but things are getting better every day. There are some scary developments, like being completely unable to move my arm out in front of me — not because it hurts too much, but because it is not responding to what my brain tells it to do. It just hangs there. I can move it in other directions and so I know that it is not a case of the muscle atrophying. It just feels like whatever muscle was needed to lift it slightly is now gone. In order to type, I have to pick up my arm and rest my hands on the keyboard. Once I do that, I can type (with my arm pressed in to my side). I have no idea if this is normal but I’ll be asking my surgeon when I see him on Wednesday. Until then, my orders from PCA are to stay positive and not freak out.
I had wanted to write more frequently so that I could keep track of my little victories. I would love to say that life got in the way, but I don’t have much of one. I’ll try to make the best of it now.
I made a lot of progress between weeks two and three. We went to Vegas for Thanksgiving, and PCA hooked up the ice machine in the car so that I could ice the whole way there. Then we spent most of the time relaxing in the hotel room. Occasionally I would put on the sling and stroll around the casino, but it sometimes got stressful because there are so many people who don’t look where they are going and I was constantly bobbing and weaving trying to avoid a collision.
We had big plans of going out to dinner and a show — PCA had planned the whole thing, including a Pretty Woman-esque day of shopping for something to wear since I only brought elastic-waist sweatpants and slip on shoes. Unfortunately, after a few hours of shopping, my shoulder was throbbing and it soon became clear that we had been overdoing it. I think that was the night that I took a few Percocet and watched a intensely detailed documentary on PBS about David Geffen instead.
I have no regrets. It was wonderful to be with my family, and also to be out and about socializing. We even found a craps machine I could play since I couldn’t throw dice at the table. It was the first time I had slept in a bed since the surgery. We got 6 pillows and made me a sort of inverted V shape and I slept on my back propped up with my arm resting on a pillow. My other triumphs were: taking a shower on my own for the first time (still washing my hair one-handed though) AND I managed to tear the TP off the roll myself. All in all, I’m so glad I went.
Today, at four weeks, I feel like I’m slowly getting better. It is so clear when I overdo it, and I pay the price for days. I tried to go for a long walk over the weekend, and ended up doing 3.5 miles, including some small hills. It took me an hour and a half to walk, including two breaks. I ended up having to sit on a wall outside someone’s home because I thought I was going to get sick. Once I got home I laid down and could not get warm for hours afterwards. That night we went to the tree-lighting on Main St and out for a drink, with a plan to walk to a neighbor’s party. But the walk was too much and we ended up having to turn around just half a block from their house. I went home and went straight to bed.
As I’m sitting here now, my shoulder is hurting. I still do my routine of icing and passive exercises and Tylenol. I stopped taking the pain meds about a week ago and stopped taking Ambien two nights ago. The nights are still very difficult as I am still sleeping in my sling and lying on my back. I’ve had terrible nightmares and insomnia. The pattern seems to be one very bad night followed by a good one, over and over.
What else to report? The days are longer now since I don’t get as many visitors and I can’t sit in the chair for one minute longer than I need to. I feel like I can’t watch any more TV and I’ve never been much of a movie person. I do lots of crossword puzzles and am reading a book about every three days (“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” was unbelievable. David Mitchell is a virtuoso). PCA has been working a lot and that’s a good thing. We were together every minute for three weeks (except for breaks when my sisters or mom came to take care of me) and he has been there pre-tearing TP, fastening my bra, getting me dressed, putting my hair up (still a source of frustration), tying my shoes, filling my ice machine, washing my hair, making tea, hosing me down in the shower, cleaning the whole house, cooking to order, running errands, grocery shopping, doing laundry AND working. But more than anything, he has been my cheerleader. He has patiently listened to me through the worst of my fears, anger, doubt and sadness. He forced me to follow the doctor’s orders exactly, and forbid me to overdo it. And through it all he stayed positive and always brought me back from the “dark place” to one of hope and excitement for the future. Had I any doubts about marrying him — which I never did — they would certainly have been squashed by now. He is the most wonderful person on the face of the planet and he’s my rock.
Right now he is dozing in my reclining chair. I so wish I could wrap (both of my) arms around him.
Anyway, the past few days have seen huge milestones.
- We had people over for brunch on Sunday and I felt great the whole time. That night we went to the movies and although I was uncomfortable sometimes, I found that shifting my arm around seemed to help. P.S. “Lincoln” was incredible.
- I drove for the first time — to the gym 1 mile away. I don’t think I’ll be driving any farther for a while, as it’s still one-handed and it’s hard to do any type of twisting to look behind me which makes parking a small challenge BUT it’s so great not to feel trapped
- I went to the gym and rode the recumbent bike for 20 minutes, then walked to the library a few blocks away to get a few new books. A guy in the gym told me I was hardcore. So true.
- And…I finally managed to reach my hair with both hands! By crouching over and tilting my head down to my right hand, and keeping my arm firmly pressed against my side, I could almost sort of put it up. It’s a weird-looking retro side bun but it is huge progress!
Tonight we are heading to the Promenade to get a little Christmas spirit. I’m about to make coffee with cinnamon whipped cream and can’t wait!
Here’s a pic of my messy side bun:
Finally pulled the bandages off my shoulder and got a look at the mess. I have huge bruises on my shoulder, scabs from 15 different puncture wounds, swelling and four tiny cuts that have healed over pretty well.
The surgeon did exactly what he planned on doing, which as far as I know is the following:
- (Right) shoulder arthroscopy
- Subacromial decompression
- Rotator cuff repair
- Superior labrum anterior posterior repair
- Distal clavicle resection
- Biceps tenodesis
Well, I made it to the one week mark and I get to celebrate by taking time out of my sling during the day! Unfortunately, I’m still not allowed to do anything useful with that injured arm, and so it just hangs there like a sausage link while I struggle to do everything with my left hand. Baby steps.
When I was preparing for surgery, I scoured the internet for information on what the recovery was going to be like. Even with all the research, I was pretty unprepared for the tougher aspects — the ones that I dreaded beforehand are as bad as expected. I feel like I did everything possible to prepare for them, but it has still been more draining than I anticipated and in some cases preparation just doesn’t help all that much. I hope that by writing it all down I’ll be able to see how far I’ve come in the ensuing weeks and months.
I hate not working. My job is very physical and spending 22+ hours a day in an orthopedic chair is its own particular kind of hell.
Here I am on a past job…just lounging on the Ross Ice Shelf while my sexy helicopter pilot fiance approaches for a landing:
Here’s me now:
I have a barf bag on my head (I was on a LOT of meds). Sitting here like a milk-fed veal, with nothing to do but wait, I find myself reviewing the events leading up the boat accidents again and again. It seems inevitable now that something bad was destined to happen on our shoot, given the circumstances and the willful negligence of the people in charge of the logistics of the production. There are so many stories about production companies cutting corners on safety in order to pocket those line items. The glut of reality shows means networks push for more and more danger in their series and it means incompetent production companies line up to make the shows, thinking that because they have a concept (usually involving a bunch of tough guys doing dangerous jobs), they can be the next Thom Beers.* I can’t believe how close I came to dying because of someone else’s stupidity. It makes me very, very angry and determined to right some of the wrongs in our industry.
I have learned a valuable lesson from my injuries. I will never again work for a production company that does not have experience with dangerous, overseas productions. Nor will I ever work on a show where the star of the show is given total logistical and financial control over the production. When I see promos for “Bamazon,” I want to kick in my TV. It seems incomprehensible that I will still be sitting here recovering while the series airs in early December. By the time it runs, I will only be at the halfway mark, with another eight weeks to go before I can think about resuming my normal life or getting back out in the field. That’s a long time to sit here thinking.
I am tethered to an ice machine, which circulates freezing water around the surgery site. I have to ice my shoulder for 15 minutes every 15 minutes. This means that my life revolves around the “off” times, when I can unplug from the machine, hit the button on the reclining chair to elevate me to my feet, and struggle out of the chair to the kitchen, bathroom or front porch. Unfortunately, the ice machine connector requires one to push a button and pull the plug at the same time, which can’t be managed with one hand, and so I have to call PCA on walkie to unplug me. He carries his walkie everywhere, and even brought it to the supermarket during one of his rare forays away from my side. Soon enough, my 15 minutes of break time are up, and it’s time to repeat the process. PCA plugs me in, I slowly lower the orthopedic chair, take a pain pill and resume my life as a slug.
Things I can’t do one-handed: open bottles of medication, tie my shoes, put up my hair, put on socks, turn the pages of a book, carry a laundry basket, crack an egg, zip up a sweatshirt, pull on skinny jeans.
I wonder whether my recovery is typical. It’s incredibly painful. Far more so than I ever expected, and much, much worse than either my back surgery or my knee surgery. My surgeon says that he expected it to be tougher for me because I am “emotionally invested” in my shoulder and he’s right. I blame someone else for my injuries and for the pain. I have a lot of flashbacks about the boat accidents. It makes it hard to move on. I have yet to sleep through the night, or for more than two hours at a time, and the lack of sleep is messing with my ability to stay positive. I dread going to sleep sitting up, and no matter how many pills I take I’m unable to get the pain lower than a 4 or 5 at night. I can make it through most of the day without the pills but the nights are miserable.
Yesterday we went to the library for my first field trip out of the house since the surgery. It was so refreshing to be in Santa Monica among the living, although it was hard not to yell mean things at the happy, two-armed people strolling in the sunshine, swinging their shopping bags, doing pushups down by the beach, or walking arm in arm, blissfully unaware of my mono-limb jealousy. I felt like a troll who had emerged from under a bridge with my greasy hair in a side ponytail, giant sling, smeared lipgloss (impossibly to put on left-handed) and my ugly sweatpants. Still, it was a successful mission.
I’m looking forward to the week ahead. One down, eleven to go.
* My boss on “Deadliest Catch,” and the creator of “Ice Road Truckers,” “Bering Sea Gold,” “Ax Men,” etc etc.
Spending 24 hours a day in a chair is soooooo boring. Here are a few survival tools, assembled within easy reach:
2. Gingerbread tea
3. Metamucil (blech)
4. Fresh mint (for nausea)
5. Oxycodone, Ambien, Advil, Vitamins
6. Red rose from the garden from PCA
7. Walkie for summoning PCA
8. Vanilla caramel candle
11. Lip balm
12. Ice machine (out of sight)
13. Apple TV with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Arrested Development queued up.
14. Notebook for recording misery
Day Five feels kind of like Day Four although about a million times better because I finally got to take a shower (with PCA’s help). it took so long that we actually ran out of hot water, but it was wonderful! now my sister is here, making mini pizzas and keeping me company. PCA just made a fire. Between the two of them they take care of me and change my ice every 15 minutes. i’m so lucky to not be in this alone.
I’m getting more used to the sling, and its getting a little easier to take care of day to day hygiene (although i would never leave the house in my current outfit).
heres a pic of the ice machine, my current best friend. GAME READY!
First day of passive exercises and i cant believe how much it hurt. thought i was going to be sick from the pain. still recovering from less than two minutes of exercise. i cant believe how tough this recovery is. the exercise consists of hanging your arm down and then slowly swinging it in a circle without using any muscles. chris had to hold me up because i amost passed out. the pain literally made me sick. good Lord. its going to be a loooong recovery. its amazing how different i feel from just five days ago — the day before the surgery. i felt so great back then; i feel so awful now. i cant wait to start feeling better, even just a little bit better.
still taking 2 oxy every 4 hours, 3 advil every 8 hours, ice every 15 minutes. my day is spent watching the clock and waiting. this aint living.
Day three. (dictated via Dragon, so excuse the weird punctuation and lack of caps). lots of pain in the morning but I finally slept well. I woke up to the sound of rain. it was wonderful. sleeping is hard as I have to sit upright the whole night in the recliner chair and I tend to want to roll from side to side trying to get comfortable. it’s like sleeping in an airplane. right now my shoulder hurts a lot. the pain is deep inside and it’s a throbbing ache that even the Percocet doesn’t seem to change too much. every once in a while i get waves of feeling really good and I want to go out to breakfast or go for a walk or go see a movie but within five minutes of standing up I just want to sit back down again. I’m so tired.
today Chris made me a smoothie and a cup of tea and he just headed out to bay cities (the deli that heals all wounds) to pick up some mac n cheese and a Godmother. the ice machine is a lifesaver — it circulates cold air all around my shoulder and I run it on for 15 minutes and off for 15 minutes all day long and it’s fantastic. Im attached to it with a long cord and i feel like a cyborg on a charging station. going to the bathroom is a process. Chris has to disconnect me from the ice machine, I have to take off blankets, pull all the pillows away that are wedged in around me, and then slowly elevate the chair so that my feet are underneath me and then he helps me stand up. Once im in the bathroom its mostly okay but he had to pre-tear off pieces of toilet paper because I can’t twist my body and tearing it off the roll is a two-handed job.
every day is a new experience and filled with things I have to learn to do all over again, whether it’s putting in my contacts, putting on my socks or even just getting a pair of sweats out of the drawer. it’s very tiring but I am so lucky to have Chris here to help me, and one surprise has been that I’m able to use the fingers in my right hand from time to time to hold a piece of paper or brace something when I try to twist the top off or even just take the lid off of Chapstick.
I’ve been learning what works the best. definitely wear comfortable clothes that you can pull on and off with one hand. I borrowed a bunch of pull-up stretchy top sundresses from my sister and those been a lifesaver I wear those with no bra over a pair of elastic waist sweatpants. I have a stretchy headband that I can put on one handed to keep my hair out of my face. We got a reclining chair which and I’m in that thing 24 hours a day. we also lined up a lot of movies and TV shows to watch but I don’t have a lot of patience for them yet. I’m glad the air date for Bamazon got pushed or I would have probably pulled my anchors out throwing something at the screen. It had been set to air on the date of my surgery but I don’t think I could’ve taken that irony. I have all my medication set up and Chris keeps track of what I need to take. I have a bundle of fresh mint I inhale when I get nauseous: I drink a lot of water and I’m trying to eat as many vegetables (along with mac n cheese, of course) as I can and I’m taking my vitamins.
Someone just delivered flowers but I couldn’t get up to get the door!!!!! I’m dying to see them!!!!! Hurry home, Chris!!!!!!!!
my first thought this morning: I am SO glad it’s over. Then: pain meds please.
it was a long and restless night and i didnt get much sleep. i simply cant sleep sitting up. i kept wanting to roll onto my side and then half-waking up to realize that i also wanted to throw up. my meds are on the most annoying schedule possible — every 3, 4, 6 and 8 hours. the “mint corsage” that PCA made has been really great at staving off nausea. every time i feel sick i take a bundle of fresh mint out of its Snapware container and inhale until it goes away. we even brought it with us to the doctors office.
the meds seem to have kicked in now. i take one Oxy every 4 hours and 3 Tylenols 3x/day.
during one of my Feelgood Happy Funland stages i managed to change out of stanky sweatpants into more formal “going to town!” sweatpants. and PCA helped me wiggle in to a stretchy tube top sundress (which i wore over the sweats). that felt a lot better as the strap from the sling velcro is super scratchy. oh and we also discovered an EKG pad still stuck to my stomach. what a day of discoveries!
heres my goin-out outfit. note the messy ponytail from PCA.
the nurse removed my bandages…
ACCCCCKKKK its just as gross as i imagined!! there are four holes, from where he did five different repairs. turns out my biceps was also torn, longitudinally. and we counted 15 different punctures from the anesthesia guy (too tired to look up how to spell anesthesiologist, who, by the way, also administered anesthesia to President Reagan. Fun fact from my surgeon). Dr Knapp said when they were doing the bicep repair that it was clearly a high impact injury, shoulder meeting immoveable object. could have been tree OR rock! so many boat accidents, so many choices!
Strapless wedding dress, here i come.
here i am with new bandages.
so…plan from here is rest and heal. i have to wear the sling for four weeks then i go back in to see Dr Knapp.
now im back home in my chair with my giant ice pack on. finally got some food — crackers, a little bit of peanut butter, and some steamed squash. i am so grateful for the windows of feeling good and i feel so much better than i did yesterday.
I can’t believe how much it hurts. As someone with a freakishly high pain tolerance, I’m actually very surprised — it hurts a lot more than my back surgery did a few years ago and as far as I can tell the Percocet aren’t doing much. I got out of surgery at 4pm, after going in around 2pm to the OR. We are finally home. It was only a 4 mile drive from the hospital to home but we hit tons of Election Day traffic at 5pm.
Speaking of Election Day, I did manage to get out and vote before heading to the hospital! I wore my sticker proudly in pre-op…
…and then also on my sling.
I have been really nauseous since I woke up in the recovery room. Had one bite of toast but almost threw it up. PCA made me some mint tea and I’m drinking it now, hoping to settle my stomach so I can take my next dose of pain meds. The pain feels deep in my shoulder, like someone has been taking a jackhammer to my bones. It’s steady and distractingly intense. Deep breaths don’t help. Why are deep breaths always the answer? PCA looked up post- surgery nausea and most suggested five minutes of deep controlled breathing. I find myself clenching my hand and hunching my shoulder up to try and ward off the pain.
The surgeon told PCA that my injuries were clearly from blunt force trauma caused by high impact. In fact, he said my injuries almost exactly matched those of one of the Tennessee Titans whom he operated on last week. He also found a tear in my biceps and repaired that too. That’s about all I can manage for now. I’m icing 15 on and 15 off for the next forever. The recliner is a Godsend!
**** 9pm now. I hope im not in an Oxy haze hallucinating Obama’s re-election!!!! I must be dehydrated. Haven’t had any water since 945pm last night — almost 24 hours ago now. PCA just brought a handful of crushed mint from the garden. Inhaling that seems to help too. My hair is driving me crazy. I can’t put it up in a ponytail and PCA couldn’t manage it either! It’s like his man hands just don’t work that way. I have a million little tendrils hanging down, sticking to my sweaty face. Something tells me this will be the first in a long line of challenges in the getting-me-dressed department.
Ah, so it wasn’t a hallucination!