Most accidents happen at home. Now, I can put a personal check mark next to that adage. On a cold, snowy day in December, I slipped on ice on my driveway. I learned, later, I had two broken bones in my dominant right hand and arm. I’d never broken anything, but now, in a crisis, I had to work through intense pain to make decisions that could make or break my recovery to regain full use of my hand.
After undergoing surgery, starting therapy, enduring physical and psychic pain--with more to come plus another surgery, I found a silver lining of lessons learned--that could be shared.
First lesson: Ask and research fast but know you have wiggle room. After a friend drove me to the emergency room of my town's hospital, two physicians' assistants told me I would have to wait an hour to see the attending orthopedist. However, they could treat my arm once it was X-rayed. I should have waited, but the pain was searing. They viewed films of my wrist and broken ulna and radius bones, gave me a numbing shot in my hand, and performed an anatomical reduction to move displaced bones into place. When a more senior PA studied a second round of X-rays, he did another reduction. A follow-up appointment for surgery with an orthopedist from their group was scheduled once swelling decreased.
Second lesson: Get a second opinion. Because I didn't know anything about the group, I asked one of my doctors for a second recommendation.The orthopedist I went to see the next day studied the X-rays and performed a third reduction because of how my arm remained bent.
Third lesson: Get thee to a specialist. Though the orthopedist seemed well trained, I learned his specialty can be a generalist or specialist. Turns out he wasn’t a hand expert, which more knowledgeable friends said was critical. He also operated at a hospital I didn’t know, planned for a general anesthetic, and said he would send me home that day. I agreed because I didn’t think I had time to research further. I did.
Fourth lesson: Weigh alternatives. Friends and family pushed me to get an opinion from a hand surgeon at a major medical center. I called a physician friend in New York City, two hours away, who explained: "You'll probably be fine in your area, but I don't deal in probably." He called a colleague, considered among the city's most respected who agreed to see me and if need be operate under a regional block and with an overnight stay to monitor pain. He also shared that only one anatomical reduction should be performed.
Fifth lesson: Surgery is only the beginning. My arm was put in a cast for 10 days, and then in a brace since today’s protocol is to start therapy immediately to break up scar tissue to avoid permanent stiffness. Exhausting and painful therapy with a certified hand therapist (CHT) became my focus three days a week for two-hour sessions with follow up at home four to five times a day. I was told I have 12 weeks to break apart the scarring. I felt I was in training for a marathon that demanded a positive mindset, healthy, calcium-rich diet, and few distractions as I started to squeeze putty or a sponge, turn a hammer, and do barbell curls with different size weights. Sadly, I found recovery isn't linear, which proved discouraging. That’s when I concocted a reward system: gold stars, a visualization board of positive images, and completed writing assignments despite pain in typing, considered good to move fingers.
Sixth lesson: Get off pain meds as quickly as possible. I struggled daily with intense burning, tingling and throbbing and was put temporarily on a narcotic. I gradually dialed down the number of pills but found one necessary to sleep and dull the pain before therapy. Periodic crying jags made a few friends suggest I see a psychologist. Only after I went off the med did I feel better emotionally and decide it had affected my mood.
Seventh lesson: Ignore but listen. Don’t reply to well-meaning but unhelpful comments: "You'll never regain total use" (too soon to know), "You shouldn't still have pain" (really?), and "Did you use a good surgeon?” (Yes, but everyone heals according to their body's time table). Pay heed to ideas from fellow patients you meet in your CHT’s office such as “recovery takes much longer” and “celebrate any victory.” I did when I could bend my thumb again.
Eighth lesson: If you don’t heal as quickly as you hope, push harder. My surgeon was displeased with my progress after four weeks and said, "It's your wrist. Decide what you want." I know I need full use--or as close as possible--to type, cook, paint, drive, do Pilates, and hold my new grandchild.
Ninth lesson: File away what helps you most to reciprocate for friends facing similar challenges. Instead of asking what someone needs, I will do something—flowers, reading material, pedicure, or food since preparation is difficult. Two separate gifts from favorite food purveyor (Zabar's) helped me temporarily forget pain. I've piled on pounds being more sedentary, but with spring in the air I'm stepping out--carefully.
Tenth lesson: Any break is a wake-up call to slow down. I slipped because I was rushing, yet sadly had no valid reason to do so. We rarely do.