Monday, August 22, 2011

A Shoulder to Cry About

I've noticed that the most popular posts are about stories where I was in a lot of pain. This is a story of the time I tore my shoulder up and the aftermath. Enjoy.

I'd done a LOT of stupid things when I was a yute in northern Minnesota, and later while I was in the Army and Army Reserve. Many I have and will continue to document on this blog. Some of those things should have killed me, while others should have at least maimed me, yet I was never severely hurt and to this day have never broken a bone or been on deaths doorstep.

In 1989, I played a game of racquetball with a friend and coworker. He was very good and very tall with long, almost simian arms. Paul kicked my ass. I was frustrated not just with him, but with my own play, since I had played some in the Army and wasn't that bad. To be clear, Paul would still have kicked my ass, but the score should have been closer. The last game, I got reckless. He'd been burning me on the same shot and I was sick of it. I saw it coming and charged for where I knew the ball would be. I dove and reached and managed to hit the ball and make it die in the corner, ensuring I would only lose by eight points. I rolled onto my back and slid across the floor on my sweat soaked shirt, savoring the shot.

Until I hit the wall with my right shoulder. The pain was severe and it just felt wrong. I sat up and you could see the end of my collarbone through the skin. The game was over and Paul drove me to the nearest hospital, leaving the Camaro of Death in the parking lot. Paul had to get to work, so he left me in the hands of the ER staff.

It was determined to be a separation, but I was assured it was only a level 1, which was a mild strain. Level 4 was a complete tear. I was given a sling, told to take it easy and sent home. Problem was, my Camaro was 15 miles away and I didn't have any money on me and no credit cards. It was also one of those rare weekends when my friends and family were out of town. The hospital was about three miles from my house through the worst part of East Side of St. Paul, so of course, I walked.

I was wearing sweat pants and because my T-Shirt was soaked, I wore the hospital gown to cover my torso. I had my gym bag slung over my shoulder and I have to admit I was a little out of it. You see, another doctor told me a few days later, that it was actually a level 4, complete tear, so I was a little shocky. Apparently Steve Martin was right, no one messes with a crazy person, because my pale white ass made it all the way home without incident.

I was operated on a few days later and two pins were pounded through the ball of my shoulder into the collarbone to hold it in place while the rewired and repaired ligaments healed. It wasn’t that bad really, except that a week after the surgery, the two pins popped through the skin. I called the doctor in a panic, and he said it was normal. “Just keep it clean.”

Sure. I had a hole in my skin, held open by two pins, but all I had to do was work, go to school and not let any foreign bodies get in the gaping hole for four weeks. What could possibly go wrong?

I managed it for a week. Then one morning, I woke up at 3:30. Again, I had that feeling something was very wrong. Before I even moved, I just knew. I was covered in sweat and when I tried to feel my forehead, my shoulder sent a signal to brain informing me that moving it was a BAD idea and to cease and desist. It felt like someone had stretched the hole open and shoved a pound of broken glass inside the joint. Even the smallest motion was agony. I made it to the phone (no cells back then), and called the hospital where I’d had my surgery. They paged my doctor and he called back a few minutes later.

He told be me it was probably infected. He asked if there was anyone that could drive me on by so he could take a look at it. I was fevered and a bit disoriented, so I said sure thing and hung up. Once I found some clothes and figured out how to get my shirt on without screaming, I remembered that there was no one I could call. Mother, Father, close friends (I had two at the time), were all out of town. Again. Taxis were not prevalent in the Twin Cities, and it didn’t occur to me to call an ambulance. I got in the Camaro of Death and headed for the hospital. Not the one 3 miles away, but the one across town where I had found one of the best orthopedic surgeons that had saved my shoulder.

That’s not an exaggeration. If I had listened to the first doctor, I would have rested the shoulder for a few weeks and in that time, the ligaments would have atrophied. The level 4 tear I had was a total disaster. The only thing that was holding my arm on to my body, was skin. The surgeon had drilled a hole on the collarbone and re secured all the ligaments back to hold the shoulder joint back on. He claimed if I took care of it and did my physical therapy, I would get back 99% of my strength and mobility. Without him, or if I had waited even a week, I would have been hosed. As it is, my right shoulder has never given me a problem since.

That morning though, I was considering cutting it off and learning to live life as a lefty. I was grateful that morning that the Camaro was an automatic. I was aware enough of the situation to not go on the highway. Passing out at 55 miles per hour would not help my recovery. So I took city streets from St Paul, though Frog Town and Midway until I got to the clinic where my surgeon worked. Every bump was agony, and I came way to close to clipping parked cars a few times when I blacked out. I woke up in the parking lot of the clinic. I remember wondering how I had got there and if the Dr. was in yet? Should I wait? It was only around 5:30. I was thirsty, so I walked into the clinic. I got a drink from the fountain and sat down in the lobby.

This is another time I’m glad people didn’t have cell phones with cameras. I caught a glimpse of myself in the aquarium they had in the lobby. I looked like hell warmed over. I took a little nap and was awakened by my Doctor. It’s never good when they look worried. My shoulder was swelled up like a balloon. He did his best to rush me into an exam room and didn’t even try to remove my shirt he just cut it away. I saw him stick a needle into the mass. He said it was Novocain for the pain. Before I could ask what pain, he slashed me with a scalpel.

This is not an exaggeration or a fever induced vision. I saw his had raise up, saw light glint off of its edge and watched him slash down at my shoulder with the thin blade. A gout of blood and puss erupted from my flesh. At least of cup of hot fluid shot out onto the floor and ran down my arm. The pain I’d been in since I woke up two hours earlier was suddenly gone. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Thank goodness that was over. I thanked him and made to leave. He pushed me back down.

“We need to get those pins out, the infection could spread.”

I wanted to object that if the pins were pulled out, wouldn’t the infection be able to get into the bone through the holes? I just didn’t have the juice, and I was glad to be rid of those damned things, so I lay back down and waited.

“This might hurt a bit.”

I’ve mention before that doctors are masters of the understatement. If they say it will be ‘a little poke’, it’s going to hurt. If they have the balls to tell you it’s going to hurt, you better brace yourself. He grabbed a vice grip and started jerking on the pin. It was funny at first. I felt like a fish. He was twisting and jerking and finally had to call in help to hold me in place so he could get more purchase. I’m not sure why or how he got a professional wrestler to work for him, but a mountain of a man came in a held me down to the table. It was all completely surreal and ludicrous until that pin slid through two bones on its way out.

I’ve never felt that kind of pain before. Saying it hurt seems inadequate. It felt wrong. If I’d had anything in my stomach, I would have puked. As it is, I just turned even paler and went into shock. The giant let me go and my shirt was instantly soaked with sweat. I may have tinkled, just a little bit.

There are things people say that just stick with you forever. Years later, the doctor that did my vasectomy would use a similar phrase.

“One down, one to go.”

My response was similar years later, but I was a bit less polished at 23.

“FUCK YOU! Cut the end off flush and leave that cock sucker in there.”

I got up to leave and Mr. Mountain collapsed on me again, pinning me to the table like a contender in a WWF championship match. I tried everything I could to squirm out from under that man, but I was helpless as a babe. My surgeon, Dr. Hippocratic oath, came at me again with those vice grips. I’m not sure if it was the anticipation or if the second one really did hurt worse, but I whimpered as he started jerking on it. I would have confessed to the Lindbergh kidnapping, killing Hoffa or told him any or all of my personal secrets to escape the next two minutes. Think what you want of me. I’ve always thought I was pretty tough, but when that second pin broke loose, I passed out.

A few minutes later, I woke up while the giant was tugging down my pants. I had a moment of prison terror, but then I saw the doctor with the syringe. He explained that I needed antibiotics and gave me two in the ass. I had to wait make sure I didn’t have a reaction to the penicillin. Sometime while I was out, he had irrigated the wound and stitched me up. He told me to come back in a week to have him remove the stitches. RIIIIIIIIIIGHT.

I got the hell out of there and drove myself back home. I crawled back into bed and stayed there for the day, sleeping through the night and into the next day. A week later I pulled out the stitches myself.

For the last four years I’ve been dealing with pain in my other shoulder. I’ve had some of cortisone for the pain, but I’ve known the whole time it was something more than bursitis. Something that will require a scalpel. My current doctor wants me to take an MRI. Great, I can’t wait. 


  1. Oh man Scott! I love how you can put things into perspective!

  2. Goddamn. Why wasn't this in the Malpractice Anthology? I guess truth is scarier than fiction, because damn if I want to go to sleep after reading this!