Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What I Learned from Orthopedic Surgery

*Disclaimer:  If you are squeamish about medical stuff, this post probably isn't for you!

I've played softball my whole life.  It's in my blood.  My dad played baseball when he was growing up.  My brothers both played.  My older brother went on to play at Purdue.  My younger brother is about to begin his college career on the baseball team at Manchester University.  I played club ball at my university.  Many of our family trips when I was growing up were centered around travel teams.  It was what we did.

I was no stranger to sports injuries.  I had little injuries here and there all the time - it was the risk that came with playing the sport.  When I was a junior in high school, a softball injury resulted in a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in my right hand.  (If you know anything about me or have read my previous post on my interest in all things medical, then you can understand how interested I was in this injury from a medical/anatomical standpoint.  If you haven't read my medical post, you can read it here: http://kristinlafollette.blogspot.com/2015/05/why-i-wanted-to-be-medical-doctor.html).

According to the Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine website, the following is a description of an ulnar collateral ligament injury/tear:

The joint that is affected is called the metacarpophalangeal joint, or MCP joint.  Any hard force on the thumb that pulls the thumb away from the hand (called a valgus force) can cause damage to the ulnar collateral ligaments.  When the thumb is straight, the collateral ligaments are tight and stabilize the joint against valgus force.  If the force is too strong, the ligaments can tear. They may even tear completely. A complete tear is also called a rupture.  When the collateral ligaments actually tear, the MCP joint becomes very unstable.  It is especially unstable when the thumb is bent back.  If one of the ligaments pulls away from the bone and folds backwards, it won't be able to heal in the correct position.  When this happens, surgery is needed to fix the ligament.

After seeing an orthopedic surgeon, the doctor said I needed surgery to fix the problem.  However, due to wanting to keep playing softball without any down time and other factors (including the fact that my dad was in a serious accident and was in the hospital for an extended period of time), I put the surgery off.  I eventually had the surgery to correct the tear in December of 2006 (I was 17 and a senior in high school).

Me with my two brothers around Christmas 2006, right after I had the first surgery.
Stitches out, but still covered in the purple ink the doctor used to mark the area.
Stitches out.
I wore this splint after the stitches were out and the cast was off.
It wasn't the smooth recovery I thought it would be.  Despite all the therapy, I was plagued by terrible pain and poor range of motion that I eventually found out was caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue.  I had to sit out my senior softball season. 

I went back in for my second surgery in June of 2007 (a couple months before I headed off to college) to have scar tissue removed so I could regain motion and have some relief from the constant pain. 
Going into the second surgery, the doctor wasn't sure if the ligament repair was successful from before, so those lines on my wrist were there in case the doctor had to remove a ligament from my wrist to replace the one in my hand.  Fortunately, they didn't have to!
Before the stitches came out.
No bulky cast for this surgery since they only removed scar tissue.
That strap contraption on my wrist was a therapy tool to keep my thumb in a position that would stretch it and keep scar tissue from growing.
Lots of bruising.
Things were better for awhile, but the pain persisted.  During Christmas break 2008 (my sophomore year of college), I went back to my doctor who determined that they scar tissue had returned and was causing pain and poor range of motion.  We tried the scar tissue removal again for the third surgery.

Hanging out with my little brother post-surgery.  With each surgery, they gave me a nerve block in my shoulder to numb my arm (thus the bruising).
Stitches...again.

The third surgery was rough.  I had issues with pain and swelling and had to have my cast removed and replaced because it was so tight.  After being in therapy so many times, I did my own therapy when I went back to college after Christmas break was over.  It was hard getting back into school and even harder taking notes and exams (I write right handed), but it eventually felt better.

I was still having issues years later after Justin and I were married.  The pain was to the point where it would wake me up at night.  I was having nerve issues in my arm.  A doctor in the South Bend area wanted me on all these different medications to help control the pain and nerve damage, but I'm not one to jump into taking pills.  I ended up going back to see my original surgeon.  He suggested a joint fusion surgery.  He was trying to be more conservative in the past with the scar tissue removals, but he explained that a joint fusion was a last effort to control pain. 

So five years after the third surgery, I went in for the fourth and final surgery in July of 2013.  This surgery would fuse the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint in my thumb with hardware.


This is a description of an MCP joint according to Wikipedia:

The metacarpophalangeal joints (MCP) refer to the joints between the metacarpal bones and the phalanges of the fingers.  That means the MCP joint is the knuckle between the hand and the finger.



The splint they gave me after the cast came off.  This was two weeks post-surgery and I was still so bruised.
Yeah, the incision got infected at one point.  Not a good experience.

This is the x-ray they gave me in the hospital after my surgery.
This is the x-ray they took when I went back for my follow-up visit.
Despite the rod, plate, and screws, the surgery actually did make my symptoms better and my range of motion hasn't been affected as much as you'd think.  This surgery had a much more difficult recovery period (I actually stayed with my parents for a couple weeks since Justin was working full time and I needed help).  The incision got infected at one point.  But it worked and my pain is manageable now.  It still is a very tender area and I often feel like I have to walk around protecting my arm so people don't run into it, but it's 100 times better than it was five years ago.

So what did orthopedic surgery teach me?

I'm not invincible despite the common teenage belief.  God gives and God takes away, and while I'll never play softball again, I still love the sport and will enjoy watching my little brother play baseball for years to come.

You need to be able to ask for help and rely on other people when you need it.  The last surgery I had was rough, and I relied on my husband and my parents and my brother for quite a bit.  I couldn't drive for several months.  I couldn't even dress myself or do my hair without help.  It was a humbling experience.

God is good.  He's taught me to recognize my limits.  He's taught me to sympathize with others who are going through a difficult recovery.  He's taught me that there's more to life than sports.  He's taught me that I am constantly learning, growing, and changing for the better.      

Since I didn't play my senior softball season, I was able to focus on the healthcare program I was involved in and my internship at the hospital.  I was able to learn and engage with my full attention on my internship and got creative in the process while trying to perform my regular tasks with a cast.

Again, God is good.  He's gotten me through some rough times and has provided me with the best husband, family, and friends that are always there to love and support me.
 


56 comments:

  1. Ignore everything that a doctor usually says about surgery. The recovery often takes longer, especially if you plan on doing anything around the house. There is also a little more pain than the doctor talks about. However, if you take the time to do research and make sure the area of the body is cared for after surgery, then it can be manageable.

    Madalyn Oconnell @ Steadman Hawkins Clinic Denver

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  2. Thanks for the advice, Madalyn! I'm hoping all the orthopedic stuff is in the past for me! I've been feeling great since my last surgery in July 2013.

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  3. I have also received so much ill advice after surgery that made me refrain from even starting to use my limbs again. Turned out to be such a downfall as I have permanently lost flexibility and movement in that joint. Do not do what I did. Keep going stay strong and all will be well. Thank you for writing this.

    Jarrett Ransom @ Dr Wade Faerber

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  4. Jarrett, I'm sorry to hear about your bad experiences. I'm still doing great since my last surgery in 2013 - I'm hoping my orthopedic issues are in the past! Thank you for reading my post!

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  24. Thanks for sharing this post, Kristen. I am about to undergo surgery to my left thumb. The pain is intense at the moment and I am not looking forward to a cast, but at least reading your experiences has shown me what I might be in for. Cheers from Australia!

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