Adventures of a ‘One-armed Man’

  I buttoned my shirt this morning for the first time in two weeks. 

  Last week I drove for the first time, and I’m almost to the point that I can go up stairs without grasping the banister for dear life.

  Going down stairs is another matter.

  The event that led to these minor accomplishments: shoulder surgery.

  It was my second shoulder surgery in less than a year, which doesn’t seem fair. It wasn’t as if I was in a car accident, fell or otherwise injured myself. Both shoulders just started hurting for no obvious reason.

  The most likely explanation, according to the doctors, is that they were old injuries that caught up with me. I played a lot of baseball as a kid, some football in high school, skied a lot as a teenager and have played a fair amount of tennis. Sports injuries that seem to heal when you’re young can come back to haunt you later in life.

  Or maybe it was just some stupid accident. Like the time I got up in the dark on the wrong side of the bed, tripped over a guitar and fell on it, snapping its neck neatly in half. That’s probably more characteristic.

  The first surgery, in March, was a piece of cake. Hardly any pain and a mere two weeks in a sling. How much different, I naïvely thought, could another shoulder operation be?

  Answer: Night and day different. 

 The first operation was a relatively simple procedure to fix torn cartilage. The second was multiple procedures for multiple problems . I won’t bore you with the details except to say that it was a lot more involved, with a significantly longer recovery time.

  The worst part of shoulder surgery isn’t the surgery itself. You’re unconscious for it, and they give you a nerve block so you don’t feel any pain for several days afterwards. They also give you some high octane pain pills to use after the nerve block wears off. The worst part, without a close second, is the sling you have to wear after the surgery.

  The sling has what’s called an abduction pillow. The part with your arm in it is attached with Velcro to the outside edge of the pillow. Your arm is separated from your from body by about six inches and sticks straight out, as if you were reaching to shake hands with someone. You wear this night and day for as long as the doctor says, in my case six weeks.

  The sling is about as easy as a straitjacket to put on without help. One of my physical therapists laughed when I told her I was thinking of burning it when the six weeks were up.

  “You have no idea how many people I’ve heard say that,” she said.

   Unlike my first surgery, this operation was on the right shoulder. I had almost no appreciation of all that this would entail. Like 85 to 90 percent of the world’s population, I am right-handed. This has proved to be a continuing and – continually infuriating – problem.

  You have no idea how much you rely on your dominant hand until you can’t use it anymore. My first clue to what the next six weeks would be like came the first time I brushed my teeth after the operation. If you’re right-handed, it’s insanely awkward to brush your teeth with your left hand.

  Flossing your teeth with one hand? Forget it. 

  Putting on socks with the wrong hand is about as easy as typing wearing mittens. The same is true of putting on pants, shirts, coats, etc. Things you normally do in seconds without thinking about them are laborious, time-consuming, painful. It takes me half an hour just to get dressed in the morning. 

  Typing is a challenge at best. I’ve been typing ever since high school and normally type about 60 words a minute with pretty good accuracy. Now it’s strictly hunt and peck. 

  A five-minute shower takes 15 minutes, with the ever-present risk of slipping and further injuring yourself. 

  Eating with a spoon using the wrong hand is clumsiness personified. I’ve spilled more cereal and soup and dropped more things since the surgery than I did in the previous year.

  All of these pale, however, in comparison with trying to sleep. Injured shoulders hurt most when lying down. Bottom line: you can’t lie down. You have to sleep, if you want to call it that, sitting upright on a couch or a recliner. Add wearing a bulky sling and abduction pillow to that and you have a recipe for insomnia. There are nights when I could be mistaken for a character in “Night of the Living Dead.”

  No complaints, though. Yes, it’s been a bit of a grind. But it also has given me a better understanding of what those who permanently have lost an arm or leg go through every day of their lives. Compared with that, this is nothing. 

  Nor is any of what I’ve written meant to reflect negatively on my doctors or their co-workers. I have only good things to say about my surgeon, Dr. Michael Curtin, and his staff at the St. Luke’s Sports Medicine clinic. Ditto for Dr. Kurt Nilsson at SLSM, whose care bought me some pain-free years before the surgery, and for Physician’s Assistant Kati Johnson, Physical Therapist Jami Garver, and all the other good folks at the clinic who have helped in so many ways. They deserve medals just for putting up with all my questions.

  But not for much longer. Today is Day 30 of the six weeks in a sling.

  No more trying to sleep sitting up after that.

  No more dropping and spilling everything thing from pills to pillows with the left hand.

  No more clinging to banisters, taking forever to get dressed or shrieking four-letter words in the middle of the night because the sling has come loose, the blankets have slipped off of the couch onto the floor and you have to wrestle with whether to be up for the rest of the night or take a sleeping pill.

  Thirty days down, twelve to go.

  But who’s counting?

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at  

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