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Recovering from Shoulder Surgery: My Odyssey
“This is one of the more painful surgeries you can undergo. You may want to consider the nerve block. This comes with the chance of infection and permanent nerve damage.” Oh thanks doc. This is where the differences between Dr. Long the anesthesiologist and Sean Rigsby the humanities student seemed to become truly apparent. I don’t even know if that first statement is true. Dr. Long struck me as someone married to the numbers, like and STEM educated professional might be. If it was a survey, conducted on the 1 to 10 pain scale and statistically more people thought shoulder surgery was at the upper end, that would allow for too many variables and be highly subjective. By the time it was printed, published, and peer reviewed, all Dr. Long probably had to know was the numbers.
It was in the pre-operating room where I waited alone, after I donned a surgical gown, hairnet for my head (though not my much thicker and longer beard), been covered in warm blankets, and had an IV installed that I began to ponder my mortality. There are millions of people around the world everyday thrust into much more dire and life threatening situation than what I was about to undertake. The likelihood of something going wrong during the procedure was very small. My surgeon had a discussion with me a few days before saying the success rate for the operation was 92%. That’s pretty good I guess. Would be an A- on my transcript. But when dealing with continuing my athletic career, something I have focused my entire life around for the past several years, sacrificing family, friends, relationships, a better standard of living, undertaken debt, and stunted the development of other areas of my life, I’m going to fucking need something better than 92%. I gave 100%, and even found a little extra. I think I deserve at least that much back.
Mind you, I wouldn’t trade any of it away. I love the life I have lead, and am always excited by where it has the potential to go. This is just a reflection on how absolutely single-minded and vicious the pursuit of a goal can become. 8% chance of maybe not being able to weightlift again. Still lead a fairly normal life, hell a lot more normal than some of the good boys and girls coming back from overseas who have real medical issues. But I want the weightlifting life, and that isn’t normal.
Dr. Long didn’t tell me that the nerve block would feel like a case of “phantom limb” for roughly 12 hours or so. He didn’t tell me that it would cause the left side of my face to droop. I can see my left arm and when I try to lift it, I find that I cannot, regardless of how hard I labor to do so. I lift weights for a living and I can’t even pick my arm right now. Gave me a little chuckle.
It’s time to do the dance, so I’m wheeled back to the operating room by a nurse who’s very petite and I’m frankly pretty surprised she can move this giant bed, let alone with me in it. I have to shuffle sideways, without messing anything up, and with the use of my left arm, onto the actual operating table, and I wonder now how funny it must have been when it came time to move me back while I was unconscious. Anesthesia is an incredibly effective art. Second time in my life having to use it, and the second time I remember absolutely nothing until I wake up several hours later. I’m given water and told to sit tight until I really come through and strapped to this unwieldy black sling that I have truly come to resent and attempt to relieve myself from it probably more often than recommended. Drug time was interesting. I watched the hands of the clock in front of me move much faster than I was able to perceive or feel pass.
They finally bring me back and grab Tayler, my handler in more ways than one sometimes, who tells me the Doc said I look in good shape and that everything went well. Fixed the Bankart Labral tear and did work on other tissues to prevent a possible SLAP tear in the future. Time to go home, drink water, eat plain foods, and sleep.
Word of advice to anyone who may have the surgery coming up. Don’t be hero. Take your pain pills. I wasn’t aware of exactly when the nerve block would wear off, so I waited. When you wait too long, it can take a while for your prescribed opiates to kick in. I have a fairly high pain tolerance, and it wasn’t unbearable. But if you breathe the wrong way you’ll feel it. Honestly, it’s just a pain in the ass to sleep when you’re afraid to scratch your nose. The first two nights are irritating, and do talk to your doctor about what dosage will be appropriate for you to take ahead of time. My pharmacy prescribed a dosage for much smaller individuals and I didn’t find out till after it cost me a night of sleep. Trust me when I say that sleep will be your favorite activity for a few days.
Prepare to stock up on lots of foods you can eat one handed. Soups, sandwiches, bowls of food. Dual action silverware is pretty much out of your future for a little while. I don’t know if it’s a hospital thing but I’ve had an addiction to jello. Have some sort of hot drink. I like tea and honey. Your throat will be sore from the breathing tube that was shoved down your throat, but is easily treatable and doesn’t linger. Despite the recent movement to the contrary, ice often throughout the day. This helps reduce a lot of the swelling and seems to calm the excess fluid in the operative area. Begin taking fiber or even laxatives, depending on how impatient you are. Be prepared not to poop for a while. Standard protocol for sleeping is to be upright, such as in a recliner or loaded up with pillows. I found that my arm was actually pretty mobile and I was able to just keep in propped up to the side, but it is not advisable to sleep without your immobilizer as you may move during the night.
List of things that become immediately impossible or exponentially more difficult you have one arm:
● Eating a steak
● Tying your shoes
● Walking two large, energetic dogs
● Typing on a keyboard, like right now
These are just a few, mostly regular activities, that I’ve committed to memory thus far.
It’s been a few days now and I’m finally coming around. Ready to begin physical therapy, get stitches removed, and, with Travis’ help, get really unforgivably strong for next year. I won’t lie that the day to day isn’t fun. The physical restrictions are compounded by an opiate fueled haze initially that make it difficult to think clearly and critically. However, I have it a lot better than most. My injury has a comparatively short timetable; I have an excellent support system; I’m afforded some time to focus on and refine my academic and professional goals. I intend to continue this series through different phases of my recovery so that if any of you have follow me down this road you will not be alone and have a some sort of blueprint for what to do. I hope you will follow me along on this journey to full recovery through next year and wish you all the best health for the New Year.
Sean Rigsby is a multiple time Senior National Medalist in Olympic Weightlifting. As a member of Team MDUSA, he has contributed to several National Championship Team Titles and risen through the ranks as a competitive 105kg+ lifter. Sean has worked with and studied from some of the best coaches in the country, including Don McCauley, Glenn Pendlay, Travis Mash, Chris Wilkes, and Zygmunt Smalcerz. Sean is currently in the process of completing his undergraduate degree in English and holds multiple professional certifications. He provides remote coaching, free CrossFit programming, and lifestyle apparel through Heavy Metal Barbell Club. You can visit www.heavymetalbarbellclub.com to find out more or follow Sean on Instagram @seanmrigsby.