WOW, it has been a long time since I was last on here. At least I’m posting now!
Today I’m going to write about something I had not seen addressed when I was looking into life after shoulder surgery. But first, I will update you on my life.
Going Back to Work…Kinda
On March 26th, I returned to work. My principals seemed surprised to see me even though I had e-mailed them. I learned later that HR had not distributed my return note…whoops.
It was a bizarre and intense experience to be back. I prepared all of the ukuleles for the third graders who would be meeting me for the first time (I would have started their lessons in January). I was so happy to deliver that first lesson to each group and excited to teach them the ukulele. All of my lessons went smoothly and wonderfully.
Band was a different story. At one of my schools, some very sweet children who weren’t even my students came in and asked if I needed any help setting up my classroom, so I directed them as they moved the chairs and stands into place for me. It was wonderful. At the other school, I had no help. I had to lift the cafeteria benches to move them into place, and they were HEAVY.
It was a shock to see how many students were still in my bands…not many at all. I’d left in December with over 140 total band students, and I think I only saw about 40 or 50 that week. It was the week before spring break, and maybe the kids didn’t know I was back, but it wasn’t something I expected. It happens over time, and I was seeing three months of attrition all at once.
There were a lot of things about work that I found physically overwhelming. The fact that I had to lug my laptop around to do any kind of digital work was hard. I went to my partner teacher’s classroom to work, carrying my laptop bag. Because I knew I would be there awhile, I also brought my lunch, water bottle, purse, and books. Because the school is gated and I had to walk through the office to get to the room, I walked about a quarter mile with all that heavy stuff.
Every school was like that. Every place I went, I had to carry a million things. Plus, there was stuff in front of my stuff that I had to move. NOT ideal for a shoulder healing from surgery. I was tired, very sore, and hungry because I kept forgetting to buy food to prepare lunch at home.
Mental Health Is Important Too
The straw that broke the camel’s back was on Wednesday, the 28th of March. I was originally going to help my friend lead the district honor jazz band, but here’s the thing…I was out late on Monday going with my other colleague’s band to festival, I was out late on Tuesday for regular band practice. On Wednesday, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and heartbroken that only three students had shown up to my last class of the day.
I could not even show my face to the honor jazz rehearsal. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed that I could not make it through one week of teaching.
The truth is that teaching music, band, or any kind of program where you build something throughout the school year is contingent on consistency. Leaving it for three months and then coming back is DIFFICULT because March and April are the pinnacle months of the school year.
And the truth is that I overlooked that. Because I wanted to be back so badly. I wanted to be normal again so badly. But I’m not normal yet.
My therapist (counselor) insisted on Friday (March 30th) that I ask for more time. I called my doctor’s office the following week (spring break) and got two more weeks.
And then, faced with trying to figure out what the remainder of the school year will look like, and feeling completely hopeless that my program for this year has essentially been ruined, she suggested last Thursday (April 12th) that I don’t go back.
It’s Okay to Feel Feelings
The normal that I used to be is gone and I am sad because of that. My situation is different from other kinds of situations, my work is different from other kinds of work, and my surgery was different from other kinds of surgeries.
Things that I used to do, tools such as exercise that I was using to manage my emotions and process my thoughts, are not available to me the way they had previously been. Other things that I do to help myself, physically and emotionally, take more time right now. I have to respect that.
I am nervous about asking my doctor to extend my leave through June. My therapist said that if he doesn’t write a note to take me out, she will.
The important thing to consider is, who am I helping by being overwhelmed? Is it healthful for me to work in that state? Is it safe for my shoulder? If my work allows me to stay out, I can start again in August with every system in place to be my very best self in my teaching practice. That’s what the students deserve.
In the mean time, I’m doing everything I can to just breathe. And making some damn good videos.
To start from the beginning of the shoulder saga, click here.
My work release note was much more intense than I expected. I’d timed my surgery so that I’d miss one week before winter break started, and I figured maybe a week or two after winter break ended.
But considering that my job as an elementary band teacher is fairly active, that most of these restrictions are ones I couldn’t avoid even with modifications, and that I don’t even have a desk from which I could perform “admin duties,” my district HR director and supervisor agreed that it made more sense to use up all of my sick days (I had 46 of them accrued!) and take the full 3 months off as recommended by my doctor’s note.
It is really strange as a teacher to be taking 3 months off of work in the middle of the year – especially as a band teacher, where subs who know about music come along but once in a blue moon. My supervisor and colleagues have assured me that the kids will be okay and will not be ruined from not learning from me for 12 weeks. But my shoulder will be ruined if I go back to full conducting, white board writing, and band room set-up too soon. So that’s that. Once the sub plans were written, people were aware of where my stuff was, and people who needed to know I’d be gone were informed, I’m now gone until the doctor releases me back.
Pinterest Is My Friend
Something that has really helped me understand my condition and what I might be in for was to look up “Shoulder surgery” and “Labrum repair” on Pinterest. I found a handful of blogs from people who have gone through similar experiences to what mine would be with tons of ideas on how to make recovery life easier. Sometime when I’m less lazy I’ll link those pages up, but for now I’ll just link my Pinterest board.
I saw a lot of advice from surgery blogs about meal prep and making sure you just have food easily available for when you can only use one arm. It seemed like some people went all out and did individual meals but I like adjusting based on how hungry I am. So starting Thanksgiving week, each week my hubby and I made a different giant pot of soup, ate one or two bowls from them as our meal that night and froze the rest in a large Pyrex container. When it’s time for a new soup, I’ll switch it to the fridge to thaw the morning before consumption. I like doing it this way because in each bowl I can also throw in a handful of fresh spinach, something that everyone on constipation-inducing painkillers could always use more of.
Three of my four soups were from the How Not to Die cookbook which just got released. I wanted my meals to be as health-promoting as they could possibly be. All of the recipes in this book are nutrient-dense, and whole-food plant-based.
Something I did not get, that I would recommend should you be on this journey, is saltine crackers (the low sodium kind). Especially in those first few days when eating a whole meal seems like too much, crackers give your stomach just enough to feel like there’s something in there. I didn’t expect to be so sensitive to intense flavor in the first few days, so that may be something you want to take into consideration when planning food. I usually love spicy food and soups, but even bland store-bought hummus was too much flavor for me in the beginning of recovery.
I’ve been trying to have a smoothie every day to make sure I’m getting enough fruit. I use the new “Purple Crush” juice from Trader Joe’s that is fairly hearty, bananas that I froze, frozen blueberries, frozen raspberries or strawberries, fresh spinach, flaxseed, maybe almond milk, water, ice, and a tiny bit of maple syrup. It’s soothing just to slurp it down.
I’ve been able to just do my regular overnight oats for breakfast. Usually I pre-soak steel cut oats overnight, and in the morning add flaxseed and frozen berries and microwave for 2 minutes. After that I add whole-grain cold cereal (I like this for texture), walnuts, almond milk, cinnamon and some maple syrup. The one complaint is that it’s hard to scoop up the last bite of something with only one arm.
Comfy and Cute
It occurred to me that, while I did have a small variety of yoga clothes and jammies, I would definitely want to be changing my clothes every day and night (especially since, realistically, I’m not bathing very much). I needed more easy, loose, stretchy clothes I could wear all day and most importantly, pull over my head/legs without full use of one of my arms.
So I did a thing I’ve been trying to avoid doing as someone who tends to hoard T-shirts, and I went to Target and TJ Maxx and scoured the clearance aisles for tops in soft fabrics in sizes larger than my usual. I also found some cheap pairs of plain black pajama pants that could kind of look like real pants if I went out somewhere.
Zip-up hoodies have been my friend for going outside and for keeping my ice packs in place while I sleep. I bought this one for a steal not even realizing I’d be living in it.
I bought some cotton sports bras online but I have yet to wear a bra 6 days into recovery. I’m starting to doubt that I ever will again. Some of the blogs suggested “bandeau” bras, but I was not able to find anything that matched that description at Target. So, no bra it is! (Plus my giant immobilizing pillow sling covers everything up anyway, so it doesn’t matter and nothing matters.)
Think about shoes. When you’re in a position where you can’t really use one arm, tying shoes doesn’t quite compute. I invested in a very comfy pair of flats I’ll be able to wear to work after this is done. I also have been wearing a slip-on pair of knock-off Keds out to walk to the dog.
I’d had a pretty luxurious mane of hair that I loved, and then I realized it would get in the way of everything after a surgery. So I cut it all off in the easiest haircut ever – shoulder length with no layers. (It took longer for our hair guy to do my husband’s hair!)
The week before my surgery I made the mistake of switching shampoos to one that makes my hair about a thousand times greasier than it ever was before, two days after the previous hair wash. So on Monday after my surgery, when my hair had last been washed on Thursday, I was feeling pretty disgusting.
The suggestion from several of the blogs was to get your hair washed at a salon. There were only two ladies working this week before Christmas so we had to wait 40 minutes, but it was SO worth it to finally feel human again! She did a wash and blow dry for $17. For future reference, she told me, a wash by itself is $6 and a wash and French braid is $13. Three days later, it still looks cute.
So that takes care of the hair washing part. But what about the rest? Umm…people have their different ways. I’m not a super obsessive showerer and can go a few days without. I thought I would need Brian’s help the first time and it didn’t turn out to really be the case. I have waterproof band-aids to go over my stitches and I bought a loofah with a wand. I was careful to not splash anywhere near my shoulder. The hardest part was getting my armpits since I am generally keeping my right arm to the side at all times per doctor’s orders. So reaching across with my right is a no and lifting my arm to get that armpit is a no…
I wore a shower cap to not undo the lovely work of the stylist.
This part is difficult. I’d be lying if I said the drugs don’t absolutely 1000% help me with falling asleep faster. I have generally had trouble with falling asleep as my body gets restless when it’s uncomfortable. But guess what? Now I have no choice but to sleep in one position, and that is upright. And somehow that weirdly makes sleeping easier. That, and drugs.
The prominent suggestion in my preparation literature was to sleep upright in a recliner, but I don’t have one of those. I thought for awhile about sleeping downstairs on the long part of our couch, but several factors about that concerned me (it’s too cold downstairs, the dog might jump up and try to cuddle with me and bump my arm, I wouldn’t be able to wake up Brian if I needed something). So we set up shop up on the bed. It’s a pretty glorious pillow fort. I sit on one regular sized pillow that’s laid flat, and another is upright for my upper back. I bought two “lumbar support” pillows from Target, and one does go behind my back while another goes under my right forearm. Another pillow supports the upper part of my right arm so it doesn’t fall backward. I use Brian’s travel pillow around my neck while sleeping so my head doesn’t get into a weird position.
Because I’m so cool, the surgical center gave me mechanical compression socks that go on my legs to keep blood clots from forming when I’m being sedentary. The on-and-off pressure actually soothes me and gives me a physical sensation to focus on. It really helps me sleep.
I don’t know if I have ever in my life developed a sore butt from sleeping upright all day until that second morning after the surgery. Sitting on a pillow helped. Also, walking during the day. Slowly I’m starting to recline during the night more. Because my sling has my arm sticking straight out and not across my body, I think I would quickly lose circulation in my hand if I reclined all the way.
So yes, I know there are a thousand lists like this everywhere online, but these are the things I got to prepare for my surgery/recovery time or would recommend.
Important: All links in this post are affiliated links. If you click one and purchase the item using these links, I receive a small commission.
Chromebook (Actually this was my early Christmas present. You can’t carry a full laptop and you can’t raise your arm to type at desk-level.)
Sippy cup or something reusable that makes smoothies easy to drink
Oatmeal or whatever is easy for breakfast
SUPER IMPORTANT: Various gel ice packs. I got these on Amazon, and then after fruitlessly searching CVS was able to find a specific shoulder ice pack at Albertson’s, kind of like this one. Definitely pricey, but if there’s ever a time you need something like this, the time is now.
Comfortable clothes, at least 7 changes worth. Someone else will hopefully be doing your laundry.
At least one zip-up hoodie
A storage bin or box for your recovery wardrobe so you don’t have to fish around and pull drawers.
Shower cap to protect your amazing salon-fresh hair do
It was on a long run, while training for my second half marathon. The sun was high in the sky and it was longer than a 7-mile run, so I carried a water bottle with me. It just started to sting a little bit in my right shoulder joint as I swung the water bottle. Casually I switched it over to the left side. Oops, I changed hands without noticing. Switch again. Oops, again. (Habits of hand dominance)
Maybe I slept on it wrong, I figured as I continued to do everything in my life that demands right-handed strength. Setting up the tables, chairs and music stands in my classroom. Conducting my band classes. Playing ukulele in my classroom music classes. Taking apart difficult clarinets and tinkering with stuck trumpet valves. Maybe I just need to strengthen it, I thought in my yoga class as I winced a little bit from the pain of pushing into upward dog.
I continued to train for the run and feel my shoulder. It didn’t concern me a huge amount. I finished my half marathon (kind of, that’s another story) on May 13th. I was darn proud of my performance. I started focusing more on yoga. I wanted to appear toned and feel strong for my upcoming wedding July 1st.
Maybe it was the constant crafting, use of a hole puncher, cutting of thick materials…maybe it was the carrying of heavy boxes during wedding decorating, or some crazy combination of all those things that broke my shoulder’s back right around then. I told my chiropractor, “I don’t know what has happened that makes my shoulder so sore. I’ve just been crafting so hard!”
The first morning on my honeymoon in Portland was the most painful. My whole shoulder, arm, and hand were sore. What had I done now that was so different from anything else? Why was I in so much pain suddenly?
I spent four weeks away from home. Honeymoon, music workshops. I attempted one yoga practice. I thought, “It’s been long enough. Maybe my shoulder won’t hurt anymore.” Nope. It was worse. I imagined my arm falling off carrying my heavy double flugel/trumpet case around.
Upon return, early August, I saw my trusty chiro again. I said, “My shoulder is still really sore after all this time. I don’t know what else I can do.”
He referred me to physical therapy, which I started August 28th. The PT was very nice and gave me plenty of strengthening and stretching exercises. About three weeks in he asked me, “How is your shoulder feeling? Better or worse?”
I had to really think about it before I answered. “It feels…the same.” And his very short “What?!” confirmed for me that this was something that needed further resolution. The PT said it was time for a doctor’s visit.
The doctor said, “Well, I think we should have an MRI before we decide what to do.”
Except that even when I did an X-ray as my insurance asked, and even with the detailed note from my PT, the doctor’s office said there wasn’t enough information to grant me an MRI, so she referred me to a specialist after I called back inquiring every week for three weeks.
Then when I called the specialist’s office, they said, “That doctor doesn’t have any open appointments until January. How about this other guy?” (This phrasing is embellished.) An appointment for mid-October. Fine, I wanted this resolved as soon as possible.
So I went in to see the orthopedic specialist and because my arms move really well in general, and my shoulders pop out of joint toward the back all the time and always have since I was a kid, and the very limited things he asked me to do didn’t hurt when he asked if they hurt, I came out with a prescription for a useless muscle relaxer and more PT 3 times per week.
I went back to PT with the prescription and he read it with a face that said “Really?” and he said, “Well, okay.” I cried for hours that night. I couldn’t understand how doing more of the thing that didn’t work was going to help my painful shoulder feel normal again.
And after the third week, the exercises started hurting more than they previously had. I was strong and had great mobility, but the rotator cuff strengthening exercises had been feeling more unbearable even with fewer repetitions. I couldn’t stretch my right pec muscle using the wall without my shoulder popping out to the back. I couldn’t stretch my neck to the side without intense pain.
Then one night, lying in pain trying to go to sleep I started thinking about how much I missed running long distances, except for that one time I fell. My eyes popped open.
THE ONE TIME I FELL.
When did I fall? I fell once when I was running. I had a water bottle with me. The pavement was unexpectedly jagged, I lost my footing, and I landed on my wrist as the water bottle went flying. I wasn’t bleeding, and I didn’t land on my knees, so I got up and kept running.
This explained the whole sensation with the water bottle.
It was before my 10 mile race in April, so I figured the fall had to have been in March or April. Oh my god oh my god oh my god. The pain in my shoulder was real and there was a real event that caused it. I told my PT. Then I told my chiropractor at my monthly appointment. I asked if there was anything he could do, as the specialist just didn’t seem to believe anything was really wrong and I was so tired of being pushed around and living in pain. He said, “This is a 10 minute phone conversation with your insurance company. I can examine your shoulder, and if I think an MRI is necessary, I will make the call.”
So he did the exam. And I had the MRI. And there it was: superior posterior labral tear. Mild osteoarthritis in the A/C joint. (The labrum is the piece of cartilage that surrounds the ball part of the humerous bone. When I read about how a labrum gets torn I kept seeing the phrase “falling on an outstretched hand.”) My pain was real. I wasn’t crazy. There was photographic evidence. I showed the report to my PT. He said, “You might need surgery. Now you know you’re not crazy.”
And the specialist didn’t even know I’d had the test even though the results were sent to him. I was embarrassed to tell him that it took such a long time to remember the event that triggered all of this pain. He said that makes a big difference knowing there was a traumatic event.
But what date was the event? I checked my Runkeeper for the run where my pace got markedly slower on that stretch of road. January. IT HAPPENED IN JANUARY.
So that’s the story. And now I have my surgery set for December 15th to repair the tear. I’m thinking a lot of thoughts about this. Many of them are about work. I don’t know if anyone can learn anything about how this happened to me, but some advice I would give to people who are accident prone is to keep track of what day it is if you fall. And know your advocates. And know your body. Until next time.
Updates! – To read about what I did to prepare for my surgery, click here. To read about my surgery experience, click here.