One of my favorite possessions for the last few weeks isn’t a material possession.
It isn’t something worth a lot of money or a possession treasured for its sentimental value.
It isn’t something you’d put your hands on, unless you’re a family member or a close personal friend.
It’s my left arm.
It’s surprising how we take things for granted, even body parts, until we don’t have them or can’t use them any more.
Last year, my left shoulder started to hurt. It didn’t seem particularly worrisome; the right shoulder and both knees had hurt in the past and gotten better. I figured the same thing would happen again.
It didn’t. It got to the point that I couldn’t lift my arm without it hurting. Sometimes, for no better reason than a slight, seemingly harmless movement while driving or riding in a car, the pain would strike with such intensity that the resulting shriek made fellow passengers wonder if I was having a stroke.
An MRI identified the problem as torn cartilage.
The doctor said it was common for old shoulder injuries to catch up with us. I may have hurt the shoulder playing football or baseball or skiing in my teens. Now it was collecting on an overdue debt.
A steroid injection didn’t help. Physical therapy didn’t help. The only option left: surgery.
In that I was lucky. The doctor and nurses at St. Luke’s Sports Medicine couldn’t have taken better care of me. The surgery went well; the prognosis was positive. All I had to do was wear a sling for a week, followed by physical therapy.
The worst part wasn’t the surgery. It wasn’t the anesthetic. It wasn’t even the pain. There was so little pain from the operation that the high-powered pills the doctor prescribed weren’t necessary.
The worst part, hands down: the sling. The seemingly simple act of wearing it literally kept me up nights.
We tend to think of slings as simple pieces of cloth that tie around the neck and are wide enough at the bottom to support an injured arm, which rests comfortably against the chest. The sort of sling seen in old movies.
The sling prescribed for my surgery had almost nothing in common with the old-fashioned variety. It was more of a combination sling and brace. The brace is secured with a strap around the waist and rests against the hip. The arm rests on the brace and sticks straight out at a 90-degree angle from the elbow.
Picture sleeping on your back with one of your arms sticking straight up all night. You can’t sleep in bed; you have to sleep sitting in a recliner.
If you’re a back sleeper, this might be at least marginally comfortable, arm pointing straight up notwithstanding. A side sleeper, I can’t sleep more than a few minutes on my back.
This meant that for a week I probably averaged two or three hours sleep a night. Just scooching onto the recliner and trying to get the pillow and blankets situated with one arm all but useless was a practically a gymnastics feat. It was a good thing my wife was two floors away, unable to hear the grunts, groans and increasingly colorful language.
Dressing oneself with an arm in a sling can be equally challenging. How, for example, do you put socks on with one hand?
Answer: With difficulty, accompanied by inordinate grumbling.
How do you wash your hands with one arm in a sling?
Answer: Same as above.
The sling can be removed for showering and dressing, but how do you get dressed when you can barely move one of your arms?
Answer: Same as above, with help from spouse.
It was a happy day when the physician’s assistant cleared me to “wean” myself off of the sling as she put it. The weaning lasted as long as it took to get to the car, take off the sling and drive over it.
Just kidding. I didn’t really drive over it, tempting as it was.
It was wonderful to get my arm back. Certain movements were forbidden, however, such as twisting a lid off of a jar. I dealt with a particularly stubborn lid by taking it to my workshop, putting it in a vise and twisting it off one-handed. It was the most use I’ve gotten out of that vise in months.
None of this is meant to be taken as whining. I’m lucky, actually, only having to be in the sling for a week. If the shoulder tear had been in the rotator cuff rather than the cartilage, it would have been six weeks.
And look at all the people who lose the use of an arm permanently. Compared with that, shoulder surgery is nothing.
With the sling no longer needed, the question was what to do with it. My first thought was a bonfire.
It was kind of expensive, though, and who knows when it might be needed again? Prudence dictated hanging on to it; I just don’t want to see it or think about it.
It’s resting comfortably now.
In the attic.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblogcom the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.