It’s been two weeks since your thumb joint replacement surgery and you are now sporting a lovely, purple fiberglass cast on your left arm. You hold your hand up as though wanting to ask a question all the time. You attribute the complete lack of post-surgical pain to this funny-looking gesture, but hey, if it works, why not? Having a cast on your left hand puts a real damper on your ability to make jewelry, but on the up side, you’re off work for six whole weeks. You read dozens of books, nearly one a day, and watch movies on the new TV your son convinced you to buy. You learn to type one-handed, but it’s slow and cumbersome, so you limit your time on your computer. It’s a lazy summer and you take advantage of it.
Because diabetes makes you a high risk for infection, you return to the clinic each week to have your cast changed. They remove it to check you out and then re-cast you, always with a purple cast. A month after surgery, a purple brace replaces your cast and you start physical therapy. Your thumb and wrist are stiff and sore from immobilization and PT is slow and painful. As you loosen up, your range of movement returns, you have no pain and your hand seems to return to normal. But because you are a keloid former, you develop a mass of scar tissue under your incision. The therapist uses an acrylic implement of torture to break up the mass, while tears stream down your face and you bite your lip hard enough to make it bleed. Therapy is worse than the pre-surgery pain.
After six weeks, you return to work. The brace you must wear impedes your typing, but eventually, you get used to it. Before you left on medical leave, you made it clear to the other department supervisors that you would be gone for six to eight weeks. Your co-worker has done a great job of keeping up with the urgent work. Staff was good about getting time-sensitive jobs in before you left, but there is a huge stack of new work awaiting your attention. After a few slow days getting acclimated, you dive in and the flow returns to normal. A month after your return, the dean who oversees your department accuses you of always being late, missing deadlines and making excuses. (The only time you’ve ever missed a deadline has been when your client has not provided the necessary materials.) As evidence, he cites your announcement at the supervisors’ meeting reminding them all that you would be out on medical leave. In a meeting with three departments, in front of 11 people, he serves you a profanity laced indictment of all your shortcomings. Taken by surprise, you respond only with, “Don’t you talk to me like that.” You really should have left the room.
Soon after, you resolve to retire on the first possible date, 937 days away. You cross the days off on your wall calendar. Your friends help you. Outside of work, you spend a lot of time at your gallery/studio, curating, teaching and getting ready for the upcoming gallery walk. You attend the big industry gem and jewelry show and come home with thousands of dollars worth of glass and sterling. You are careful about packaging them; you don’t want to screw up your new thumb joint by abusing it. You enlist the help of some of your gallery artist friends and the job gets done. The gallery looks splendid for the art walk and the exhibit is hugely successful. Unfortunately, the building burns to the ground the following week. Not only do you have to salvage what you can, you will have to restore everything yourself, since your partner failed to pay the insurance premiums because she thought you wouldn’t “need them.” Yes, you let her live.
During the winter, your right thumb goes to hell. This is a major difficulty; you are [very] right-handed. Physical therapy is ineffective and the cortisone injections don’t help. You check in with your hand surgeon. This time, he seems much less arrogant and you wonder if maybe he was just having a bad day on your first visit. Your x-rays show advanced arthritic degeneration, no surprises there. You schedule surgery in June, once again taking advantage of the long summer to recuperate. Taking no chances this time, he will perform the surgery in the hospital, where if anything should happen, they will be prepared to deal with it. The hospital requires you to consult with their anesthesiology team, presumably to make sure they don’t kill you. Once again, your son accompanies you. Everything goes according to plan and you’re home alone by 3:00 p.m., hand up in question position, drinking coffee and watching a movie.
You already know that you will not be able to make jewelry, draw or paint with a cast on your hand, but your creative energy needs an outlet. You quickly discover that you can still shove the mouse around and click; before long, you have fallen in love with your iMac, as if you needed another reason. However, there are certain personal things it would be nice to know before having hand surgery on your dominant hand that no one bothers to tell you. The simple act of wiping your tush becomes a real challenge as you have no control over where your left hand wants to go. Directing food to your mouth with your left hand often results in you wearing whatever was on your fork, and learning to write or even to sign your name is all but impossible. Forget buttoning or zipping anything and don’t even think about fastening your bra! Even brushing your teeth or combing your hair becomes an adventure.
PT begins as soon as you shed your cast. More painful than before, you take it slowly. Around week eight, a sudden sharp pain in the joint awakens you during the night. It stays with you, becoming progressively worse. Your surgeon advises you to wait it out; you probably have just done too much with it too soon. You live with the pain until you notice that your hand is beginning to look a bit deformed and the bones seem to be migrating south. When you finally see your surgeon, he takes one look at the deformed member and with a stricken look, apologizes profusely for dismissing you and the pain you’ve suffered. He had no idea. Apparently, the tendon graft has disintegrated without a trace, leaving you in worse shape than you were before surgery. He will have to perform a revision surgery, a do-over by any other name. You are his first real failure ever and he’s not taking it well.
He isn’t quite sure how to repair the damage, but he promises to do some research and figure it out. For the next two months, you wear a thumb spica and eat naproxen like candy. He injects the joint with cortisone once; not only is it ineffective, it’s so incredibly painful that you spend the next 24 hours either crying or throwing up. You continue working until the big day. Your best friend takes the day off to accompany you to the hospital at 7:00 a.m. for your 10:00 surgery. (Your son has begged you to find someone else this time.) You’re nil per os, NPO, nothing to eat or drink since well before midnight, as per instructions. A few minutes after 9:30, the nurse informs you that your surgery has been rescheduled for 11:30. At 11:00, you’re rescheduled for 2:00. By 4:00 p.m., still waiting to go to surgery, your body rebels, sending your blood glucose plummeting. Sweating, shaking and about to be sick, you send your friend to find a nurse. After a quick stick with a lancet, the nurse hurries from the room and returns with a bag of dextrose, which she hooks up to your IV. One bag isn’t enough. (Two bags of sugar water, billed to your account at $785.) You finally go to surgery at 6:00 and by 11:00 p.m., your weary surgeon sends you home.
He’s running out of tendons to harvest, so this surgery must be successful. Taking tissue from the top of your forearm, he makes a pad to insert into the joint, like before, but this time, he uses medical grade superglue to strengthen it, sews it in and sticks a pin in for good measure. The splint and cast go right up over the pin. After 10 days in the plaster splint, you will wear your purple fiberglass cast, not for two or three weeks, but for four or more, depending on your x-rays. Three weeks out you beg your surgeon to remove the pin. Each time you move your hand, it touches a nerve and sends shock waves up and down your arm. He takes pity on you and negotiates; he’ll remove the pin IF you will wear the cast for an additional two weeks, for a total of six. You’ll say yes to anything to get that damned pokey thing out.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, less than a week after your third surgery, the FDA convenes a public meeting for LASIK patients unhappy with their results. You and your non-profit’s executive director have composed a statement on behalf of your patient advocacy organization, but someone else will have to read it, as your surgeon categorically prohibits you from traveling so soon after surgery. Although you are unable to travel, you stay busy fielding interview requests during the week following surgery. ABC comes to your home to film an interview for World News Tonight with Charles Gibson. You try to hide your ugly splint with the Ace bandage wrapped around it, but they think it’s a great “prop.” CBS sends a car for you and puts you up overnight in a nice hotel in the city before interviewing you for their morning show. You go home in a limo. Yes!
You see yourself on TV. NO! Yikes! You look terrible.
After six weeks, you are ready to exchange your purple cast for a purple brace. You like purple. Your surgeon, however, determines that you need another week in the cast before starting PT and refuses to release you to return to work for at least another month. You read, watch more movies (Netflix loves you), eat bon bons. In midsummer, you return to work. While you still love what you do, so many things have changed for the worse at your job that you don’t even want to get up in the morning. Knowing that you will be retiring in nine months sustains you. Your thumb is healed and no longer looks or feels deformed, although since having both top and bottom tendons sliced and diced, you can no longer hold a brush, pen or pencil for long enough to paint or draw, and your formerly D+ handwriting is now an illegible F. Having had your hand in a cast two years in a row, you’ve already adapted and embraced your new medium. Digital art has opened up a whole new realm of creative possibility.
When life gives you lemons, make smoothies. They taste much better than lemonade and are a lot more nutritious.