(Re-Post from 3rd of April due to technical issues with the website)
“You’ll be in a sling for eight weeks, the first six weeks in a high-intensity device belted around your hips and shoulder and the last two in a more normal sling.”
“Right,” I nonchalantly replied, implying familiarity and competence, but apart from the small matter of being paralysed for a day or two after a somewhat horrific car accident out on the Nullarbor some 40 years ago, I’ve never even broken a bone, although I’ve been a hospital patient a couple of times over the years. I simply didn’t see a sling as being much of an issue, besides, the pain of the last seven months (since the original injury) would finally be gone. The suspected and therefore thrice injected (steroids) Bursa muscle damage, had, under the reveal of an MRI, proven to be grounds for what’s known as a Rotator Cuff operation. “A relatively simple operation Greg, we open the shoulder, dig out a channel in the bone and attach the muscle.”
Now the MRI experience provides a substantial clue to my biggest fear, claustrophobia. 17 minutes into the MRI, tightly bound with one hand above my head the damaged shoulder arm at my side and completely enclosed in a very close chamber, sheer uncontrollable panic took over and I screamed for them to get me out. Barely able to hold the proffered glass of water, I eventually agreed to go back inside for a final 15 minutes,“Otherwise we’ll just have to repeat it all again Mr Ross.” I knew I could not go through it again.
Fast forward three weeks and I’m on the table in the operating theatre. I’m struck by how delightful everything is, lovely friendly people, beautiful sunny Autumn day, nice background music. “Ah,” I said, as the anaesthetist began the flow of sedative into my hand, “I remember that cold feeling followed by a little pain.”He smiled and replied, “You won’t remember much after this.”
A couple of hours later, they wheeled me back into my room. I was sort of aware my fiancée was there and that I was lying in a semi upright position, but not much else. Two nurses were standing over me explaining I should not let “… the pain get away, call us as soon as you feel anything, it’s very important. Do you need to go to the toilet?” As they assisted me out of bed, I became dimly aware of ‘my attachment’ – a grey sling with some sort of internal cushion between my body and right arm. Leaving me comfortably numb and seated, I began to realise I really was going to have to use my left hand, for everything.
That night in hospital was interesting, in an ‘out-of-body’ sort of way – I drifted in and out of sleep, quickly adapted to pouring my own water and getting myself to the loo, occasionally standing by the window watching the dark still stretch of the Swan River, later even photographing the awakening dawn with my mobile phone and posting the pic on Facebook, then gazing almost wistfully at the multitude of planes taking off with FIFO workers to mines across this vast state, knowing I wouldn’t be joining them any time soon. All the while, only remotely aware of ‘my attachment’.
My fiancée arrived, followed closely by breakfast and the day shift nurses. “Blood pressure’s excellent, is your heartbeat always slow? How’s your pain?”
“Good. Always. None.” The surgeon arrived with various hangers-on and I really must compliment his bedside manner, he made sure Ann (my fiancée) was central to the conversation and was genuinely friendly. He told us while the operation had been a success he had discovered the injury also included a previously unknown torn and consequently frayed tendon above the elbow. He’d repaired and reattached it successfully, the only factor being that it would make the recovery process a touch more complicated and perhaps a little longer, but to all effects and purposes, the operation was a success. He then became more serious, explaining it was absolutely essential to keep the sling in place and follow his instructions and exercise regime rigidly, going on to say if I didn’t and he had to re-operate, the chances of an excellent (85-90%) recovery of shoulder use would diminish. He and the nurses explained how to put the sling on and remove it for showers etc and then he reiterated that pain management was absolutely essential, “Don’t wait for things to become painful, don’t try to be brave, unfortunately in two to three days time, as the blockers wear off, it will be painful, so please, please use the medication the nurses will give you, you can go home and I’ll see you in two weeks.”
My daughter picked us up, I sat in the front passenger seat and realised I couldn’t do up the seatbelt, premature role reversal set in as she gave me orders to sit back and stop trying to help! At home, we’d prepared as well as we could, we’d even purchased an electric recliner chair, by my count 20 years too bloody early!
I’d been practising using my left hand, but it remains awkward, eating is OK, but one does have to be careful and yes, there are times when your food needs chopping up, you simply can’t do it. I am a reasonably quick and competent two handed typist, but now it’s left hand one finger picking, while the mouse and my left hand have what can best be termed as a chaotic relationship.
The first evening settled in and we knew it was time to try a shower. Very tentatively, we began the seemingly simple operation of removing clothing and the complicated sling. Suddenly the task overwhelmed both of us, Ann’s an academic and never been involved in anything like the belts, whistles and velcro of ‘my attachment.’ Although she’d done her best to observe what the nurses had demonstrated back at the hospital, she’d been relying on the fact that I’d nonchalantly replied,”Yep, yep, yep, no worries” to everything, besides she knew I was quite practical. But of course, I was just being a bloke (we don’t read maps, or need instructions!) and I was also blissfully in the arms of Sister Morphine at the time.
We were both terrified of damaging the operation and too shocked at our joint inability to cope, to get anything right. We didn’t know how to put the damn thing back on, my daughter had our cars, we couldn’t call a cab – I had no clothes on – and we had no idea how to put the sling back on, with the useless arm resting on a pillow. We rang the hospital and got through to a bloke who said, “Oh, I know the slings you mean, but they’re complicated, I’m not very good with those myself, hang on while I ask somebody else.” Eventually it was decided I’d have to come into the hospital and they’d show us how to do it. There was no choice but to ring Jodie (my daughter) and ask her to come over and take us to the hospital. As we waited and calmed down a fraction, we thought we’d have another go, this time we managed it and rang Jodie, telling her to go back home, deciding to try the shower in the morning. Thus began the first night at home and so also began the Chair Shuffle.
Whilst the sling is on (eight weeks) you have to sleep in a sitting position. Fine in theory, but in practice! It should all be perfect, but that car accident so many years ago left me with a crushed – chalked was the word they used I think – tail bone, I always have to sit more or less upright, or with cushions etc stuffed behind my back to be comfortable. Armchairs simply aren’t built that way, then there’s ‘my attachment’, it’s big and needs support, although not too much, or it scrunches up the shoulder. The result is you do drift off for an hour or so, then you wake, uncomfortably numb in the bum. So you get up, whereupon your alert and loving partner, who’s also not really sleeping as she’s concerned for you, calls out, “Are you OK?”
You go and stand on the balcony, remembering to drink copious water, then 20 minutes later, try the same chair. Things ache straight away, so you move to another chair, drift off for an hour or so and the whole process repeats itself. And so it is every night … and day. The good news is, I now have a selection of chairs I rotate to throughout any given 24 hour period; The Recliner in the corner of the lounge, the outdoor setting chair on the balcony, the swivel chair in the study, an armchair in the lounge and a dining chair at the table. And a routine has now developed, where by about 5.10am every morning, I’m so tired, I collapse into whatever chair is next and sleep for about three and a half hours. And all the while, ‘my attachment’ is with me, every bloody where I go and that segues into my claustrophobia.
Inevitably, at some stage, once a day, usually in the early evening, unreasoned blind panic and fear overwhelm me, I get hot, sweaty and terrified, the sling has to come off, immediately! By this time I’m short of breath, short with Ann and incapable of rational thought. We rest my arm on pillows, Ann takes the sling off and I sit there, feeling both relieved and foolish. After about ten minutes we put it back on and I’m OK again. It’s quite bizarre and ridiculous, but you have no idea how real the fear and panic is, nor how hard it is on Ann.
Ablutions are interesting. The first thing I discovered is that although I’ve always been a wet shave guy, it’s decidedly unsafe to try shaving using a razor in my left hand, so we splashed out $25.00 on a Braun electric shaver and it works, using my left hand! Last time I tried an electric shaver was about 1973 and it didn’t work, anyhow, problem solved, although trimming an Edwardian style beard is currently impossible, gotta pay somebody to do that.
This next bit falls into the too much information bracket, but it’s important info for others who may be facing similar issues – the toilet, or lavatory as we were taught to say at boarding school (by Rigamortis, our alcoholic Latin master, but that’s another story). One doesn’t consciously realise the extent to which two hands are of value in completing the task – one for balance, the other … But when you’re restricted to one hand and not your normal hand, certain operations become major issues and you can’t get it wrong, asking for help is simply out of the question.
We’ve worked out a shower routine, (my two or three shower a day habit is impossible, there aren’t enough hours in the day!), clothes off, ‘my attachment’ off, simple shower sling, with plastic milk bottle on – yep, standing naked in the shower clutching an empty two litre plastic milk bottle is not one of my most dignified moments! Ann joins me and throws on the body wash and shampoo, then proceeds to hose me down. Out of the shower, she dries me, reminds me of the need to diet, sprays on the deodorant, shakes a bit of talc and then we reattach ‘my attachment’ and go through the dressing procedure – no T-shirts, it’s only possible to get into open neck short sleeve shirts. Then it’s the under daks and sensible baggy shorts. But joy of joys in simple pleasures, I can splash on the aftershave and run a brush though my hair, even use the hair dryer, after a fashion. Afterwards I take a walk to get the newspaper, before settling into the Chair Shuffle, although it is easier during the day, when you’re constantly doing things.
I did try to stop taking the pills the other morning, but by early evening, I could see myself that I was becoming very grumpy and aggressive, so I quickly returned to the chemical regime. I fortunately haven’t experienced the severe pain the surgeon warned of and it’s now been exactly one week since the operation. Perhaps because I’ve taken the pills as directed and done the exercises as directed, the issue / problems seem to be psychological rather than physical and I think Ann is paying a far worse price than me. Realistically she’s got a bombastic, frustrated overgrown child to deal with and she has to do everything, with very little help from me. Because I’m so aware of this and probably because I’ve always been such an independent cove, the situation makes me doubly frustrated. And all the while, ‘my attachment’ clings to me, silently screaming, “I’m helping you!”
Both ankles and feet are currently quite swollen, no doubt due to the lack of normal movement, so it’s obvious I should do more walking, the trouble is I don’t have my usual energy, but I guess that will return. Frustration at not being able to do so many mundane tasks is a core issue and I find myself apologising to Ann for asking her to do things, which drives her mad. So then you don’t apologise, but feel bad for not doing so.
It’s obvious that I’m the problem, rather than the operation and I think it’s here that patients need post-operative guidance. A good friend of ours has also undergone a similar operation, a week earlier than me and she is experiencing almost exactly the same mental issues, yet we are quite different personalities. It also disproves the theory I’d developed that it was probably me just being male.
One thing is absolutely certain, day to day living would not be possible without a committed loving partner, I would need outside assistance every day, not 24 hours, but certainly a daily visiting routine for showering and later to change back out of clothes. The price a partner pays, is colossal and they’re right in the firing line when frustration boils over. I now have some understanding of the impossible role family members play as 24 hour carers for injured or disabled children and spouses. I know I’m going to have to give Ann some sort of pampered holiday at the end of this eight week period and strangely, I’ll need it too, as I’ll then be facing a rehabilitation period of several months, that’s something I still need to get my head around. But right now, we need to navigate our way though the next seven weeks, ‘my attachment’ isn’t going anywhere!