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Learnings from My Rotator Cuff Surgery
by Hannah Seda on May 05, 2016
Shortly after graduating high school, I became adamant about going to the gym. Okay, I’m lying. I became obsessed with going to the gym. I loved it (and still do). Everyday, I’d wake up at 4:30AM to be at the gym by 5AM, and spend the next hour doing something fun and physical. For a while, I was shredded. I worked out with a personal trainer two days a week, got two solid days of cardio via spin class or running outside, took a butt-kicking plyometric agility class every Friday, and joined the rest of the “A-team” (yes, I was part of a group of die-hard gym rats the trainers called their “A-team”) for a bootcamp class on the weekends. Six days a week you could count on me to be at the gym, and loving every sweaty minute of it. But then one day about 5 years ago, I picked up a 15-pound body bar with my right arm extended out at a 90-degree angle, and everything changed. A sharp pain shot through my upper bicep, and I immediately stopped what I was doing. When the pain persisted for the next week, I decided a doctor's visit was in order. Well, good news! I got a referral for physical therapy, started going, and things started looking up. Sort of. My arm got better, but there was always this little tinge of pain that persisted. Of course, I ignored it. I was part of the “A-team,” a shining example to gym rats everywhere. (Seriously, if I had an iPhone back then, I would have been one of those people taking shameless mid-workout selfies in the gym mirror.) Flash forward three years: I finally finish community college, got accepted to an out-of-state university, and ultimately traded in my spin shoes and dumbbells for weekly 3-mile runs and heavy amounts of studying. The halting stop to my physical activity was so sudden and severe that had it been a car, it would have left skid marks. Realistically, that little tinge of pain I still felt in my shoulder three years after I’d initially hurt myself should have gone away. And after two years of college, when the only lifting I was doing was bring cup after cup of coffee to my lips, whatever injury that once existed in my right shoulder should have had ample time to heal. Annoyingly, it didn’t. The pain never went away, and sometimes, it got worse. Flash forward to December 2015 (five years after my initial injury): I graduated college, moved home, eased myself into my old gym routine, and found myself back at the doctor’s office complaining about the same pain. Only this time, I was in a surgeon's office––not my PCP’s. After reviewing my X-rays and MRI, he told me it looked like I had some labrum tearing, a bone spur that was rubbing the rotator cuff and bicep tendon causing them to tear, and that there was a boat load of scar tissue making all of it worse. The bottom line was that there is no way to know for sure what needed to be fixed until they opened me up. It was time for surgery. Now, I’m not going to lie. There was a small part of me that wore my surgery diagnosis like a badge of honor, a rite of passage. I was among the few who went so hard at the gym, that I’d found the limits my body had set, and now I’d have the scars to prove it. (I’m so lame, I know.) Fast forward to March 8th, 2016: I arrived at the hospital at 6:00AM, flanked by my mom and my boyfriend, and by 6:30AM, I was back in a room getting prepped for surgery. A comedy of errors ensues. First, I can’t pee in a cup on command. And honestly I think anyone would have trouble doing so when the door to the single stall restroom they’re in doesn’t lock. Second, when I was told to change into a hospital gown, not only was I grossed out by its weird smell, I discovered just how awkward it is to be braless in a room full of complete strangers. Third, I’m not scared of needles, but when a nurse tried and failed three times to get my IV in correctly, it didn’t matter that I was a 28-year-old woman, I cried and asked for my mom. Fourth, I know why anesthesiologists aren’t known for their people skills. Because at about 6:45 a.m. mine was completely ignoring me, my mom, and his two nurses when we told him my IV was in wrong. Instead he proceeded to boss his nurses into flushing my IV three times (a task that resulted in my forearm filling up with fluid and me almost retching everywhere), all while he impatiently held a large needle (filled with a nerve blocker) to my neck. It was only after he was called to leave the room to see to another patient that his nurses removed the ill-placed IV and fixed the problem. Once that IV was in correctly and the nerve blocker was administered, I was out like a light. I woke up about an hour later felt like a million bucks, insisted on putting my bra back on, and acted like a complete millennial by shamelessly snapchatting the wheelchair adventure from my hospital bed to my mom’s car. Flash forward to two months post op: As of May 8th, I will be two months post-op. The road to recovery will be a long one, but if all goes well, my arm should be 80% back to normal by October. When the general surgeon cut me open, he decided to fix my arm by shaving down a bone spur and clearing out a lot of scar tissue that had built up over the years. There are still tears in my rotator cuff and my bicep tendon that my doctor felt could heal on their own, but only time will tell. So what did I learn?
- Listen to your body. If you’re exercising and something hurts or feels funny, pull back. That doesn’t make you weak, or lazy––it makes you smart.
- When getting surgery, bring a bra with convertible bra straps. That way it’s easy to get back on when you can’t move your shoulder.
- Wear a tank top you don’t mind cutting open the strap on. Why? You’re not going to be able to get it over your head or your newly fixed shoulder. You’re gonna have to step into it and shimmy it all the way up.
- Bring people with you who will stand in your corner and fight for you when something goes wrong (such as your IV not being attached correctly). Even if the doctors and nurses don’t listen to you, you’ll be glad someone was there to tell you you’re not crazy.
- Don’t snapchat! Surrender your phone to the people you bring with you and make sure they know not to give it back. Better yet, don’t even bring your phone.
- Have some prune juice or laxatives on hand. Pain medication and the anti-nausea pills that go with it will make you constipated. Trust me when I say you will want to get that ball rolling ASAP.
- Don’t freak out when you look in the mirror and the person staring back at you is a large, bloated version of yourself. IV fluids and anti inflammatory medications are going to make you retain a ridiculous amount of fluid.
- It’s your surgery, you can cry if you want to. Multiple times if you want.
- Get a loofa with a long handle. You’re not going to sponge bathing it for a few days or weeks, and having to ask for help showering may not be something you’re into.