A Shoulder to Lean On

A Shoulder to Lean On

Life gifted me with another opportunity to learn yesterday; long-awaited shoulder surgery. I haven’t written a lot about it- it’s not glamorous, and everyone has their own struggles to deal with. However, I always try to take away lessons and humor (where possible) from what comes my way, and the surgery – as well as the beginnings of my recovery- have provided both. I will do my best to peck out this post with one finger, as right now, my left arm is a useless, numb appendage in a sling…and that is a gift in itself, considering how it might be singing to me if the nerves were awake.  As a clarinetist who depends on fine motor skills, this whole experience has been quite unsettling.

After Mom’s passing, I finally started going to get some issues checked out that had needed attention for quite some time. Many years of lifting and slinging heavy clarinet and bass clarinet cases over my left shoulder, kickboxing, heavy yard work, lifting Mom… fifty one years of life, have left their mark on me. I had developed rapidly increasing shoulder pain that was beginning to affect my playing and my ability to do the exercise and activities that I loved. I went to see our wonderful orthopedist, Dr. Ponce, who just did Dan’s knee surgery a few months ago. After an MRI, it was determined that there was an impingement causing the pain, and I needed to have an open distal clavicle excision to remedy the situation. With a very busy performing schedule this fall, the question was when to do the procedure? As UAB has the entire week of Thanksgiving off, it seemed that right after my faculty recital and just before the holiday would allow me to miss the least amount of school and playing responsibilities.

The excitement began as I attempted to dress for the hospital- what to wear? They had instructed me to wear loose clothing and a button down shirt. Well, since my stint eating at the hospital when I was with Mom and not being able to exercise because of my shoulder, I don’t have any loose fitting clothes (except for my Victoria’s Secret overalls, but they’re a bit too ‘Rural Chic’ for UAB Highlands), and I don’t own any button down shirts. I tried on some of Mom’s clothes that I’ve saved for a quilt, but I looked like a bag lady (they were beautiful on Mom, but way too big for me, and the pants too short). Finally, a solution- I found my favorite black yoga pants, and Dan loaned me a long-tail white button down Oxford. Ready to go!

The happy camper before surgery...
The happy camper before surgery…

When I was taken into prep for surgery, my kind nurse, Brenda, gave me instructions and sent me to get a urine sample. I came back into my room and she stood in front of her portable computer and began to ask me a barrage of questions. All was fine until she said,

“Would you be surprised if I told you this test was positive? (Indicating the urine sample.)

Me: “Whaaaat? (As blood drains from my face). What test?”

Nurse: “The pregnancy test.”

Me: (completely white and shaking at this point, as I am a peri-menopausal woman who is no longer on the pill) “You’re kidding me, right?”

Nurse: (as reality dawns that she has just scared the living bejesus out of me) “Oh, no- you’re fine! Oh, Lord…”

And she starts to giggle, which gets me going. I mean, I am fifty-one, Dan is sixty-two…that ship has sailed. I told her that I was glad that she took my blood pressure before she did that, and that she gave me a good story to take home. I love children, but at this point, two dogs and a cat are all that I can handle, and though Dan would be a wonderful father, he has often said he doesn’t want to have a teenager in his eighties. At least it took my mind off of being nervous for a while.

Me in my puffy Bare Paw gown....sort of like I had a Hoover vacuum cleaner connected to me.
Me in my puffy Bare Paw gown….sort of like I had a Hoover vacuum cleaner connected to me.

Dan came in to sit with me until it was time to get the block done to my shoulder. As he always does in times like these, he made me laugh, being silly with the nurse and teasing me about my puffy hospital gown (a Bare Paw that has a hose pumping heated air into the gown…it is awesome in those cold rooms). I am so thankful for Dan, who is my soulmate and best friend, standing by me no matter what life throws our way. They came to take me to have the block done, and Dan kissed me goodbye. All of the sudden everything became very real.

I loved Anne, the silver-haired technician who sang and joked as she wheeled me into anesthesia. The anesthesiologist introduced himself and said he was glad I had chosen the nerve block, as distal clavicle surgery was quite painful. As they put the oxygen tube in my nose, I flashed back to Mom’s last days, where she had a terrible time keeping the tube placed correctly. I did my best to make the team laugh as they used ultrasound to find the nerve clusters, then worked to find the best place, making parts of my body jerk uncontrollably (supposedly a good thing). Once the suitable place for the port had been found, Annie sang that I was going to get some drugs…and then I was gone.

I awoke from crazy dreams, my throat irritated from the breathing tube, disoriented, my arm in a sling. My first words were, “When will Dan be here? I want to see him,” as nurses smiled at me knowingly. I heard other nurses trying to wake up other patients, some without much success. I was finally wheeled to a room, and then Dan came through the door, beaming from ear to ear. My angel. My vital signs were checked, detailed instructions given (I hoped that Dan was taking it all in, because I was still out of it). Dan helped me dress, having to button my arm inside the shirt, and we headed home to Chez Gainey, just four minutes up the hill from UAB Highlands. We’ve decided that they need to name a wing after our family, since Mom, Dan, and I have been there so often, between the ER, surgeries, and orthopedic visits.

The not-so-happy camper after surgery...
The not-so-happy camper after surgery…

I spent the night camped out on the big comfy chair in the living room, as I have to sleep sitting up for several days. Dan made sure I had everything I needed within easy reach, and very importantly, he stocked up on comfort food- mashed potatoes and Ben and Jerry’s. I have a pain ball hung around my neck that is supposed to keep my shoulder numb longer and help the pain meds. It is very strange to not have any use of my arm or hand, making even the most basic tasks challenging. Going to the bathroom with one arm, trying to get pants up and down and tear the toilet paper, have become Olympic events. The scariest part was an attack of claustrophobia last night, a side effect of the surgical block, that was very similar to what I experienced in the closed MRI that I had last spring. I was so relieved when I finally dozed off to sleep to the strains of calming music, Coops at my feet.

My recovery companions, doing what they do best.
My recovery companions, doing what they do best.

There are many gifts in all of this- my husband’s love, the kindness of friends who are checking in on me, quiet time spent at home, reading and resting. It’s rare that my busy world slows to a stop, giving me time to reflect and think about life. It also means that once the healing happens and the physical therapy is completed, I will be able to get back to the active lifestyle I love so much. My job now is to focus all my energies on healing and get back to playing clarinet as soon as I am able. Slowing down and savoring the moment are some of the most important lessons I hope to get from all of this. I have come to realize that every obstacle in our lives is a lesson in disguise- even the pain- and I am eager to learn and grow.


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