“This is where i regained the use of my arms.”
On the bulletin board inside the women’s locker room of the Vertical Hold climbing gym in San Diego, CA
About a year and a half ago I had a pretty major surgery. The surgery took about 7 hours. As I was waking up, there was lots of excitement. Everything went better than planned! Hooray!
But the more and more I regained consciousness the more I realized I was having trouble moving my arms. Nothing to worry about I was told. And it made sense. I was laying in one spot for 7 hours I was bound to be stiff, my arms probably fell asleep, and with how many pain killers I was on and the anesthesia still working its way out of my system, I believed that it was fine.
As a bit more time passed and I became much more aware of what was going on I started to panic. It wasn’t that my arms were numb, or stiff. They were dead. I couldn’t feel them. At all. I couldn’t move them. I couldn’t even feel where they were. I had no sense of my arms at all. I even had to have my spouse push the button to administer the morphine because I couldn’t do it.
I looked to my surgeon asking what might be going on. His response was “I don’t know. In the decades I have been doing this I have never seen this happen”
“Will this go away?” I asked.
“I hope so.”
Not the answer I was looking for. I was in full panic. I didn’t understand how a surgery that was nowhere NEAR my arms could do this. In pain, I cried out “button!” My spouse pushed the trigger and I was quickly off to a morphine induced slumber.
Waking up a few hours later, and again I was confronted with the fact that my arms were paralyzed. The doctors came in and tried to assess what was going on. The left one was gone. Nothing. Couldn’t move it. The right one I could flop around a little bit, but couldn’t grip anything. And it hurt. God did it hurt.
Nerve damage was the theory they came up with. They figured that the positioning on the operating room table and me being skinny had lead to the pinching or over-extension of the nerves in my arms. The good news, I was told, was that this usually comes back. I was also told it could take years.
The next few days in the hospital I did notice my arms getting better. My right arm was starting to gain functionality, and my left arm had graduated to being able to throw it off the bed if I tried hard enough to move it. However, I still couldn’t feed myself, or dress myself. I was reliant on my spouse and my nurses. And of course, every time a nurse or doctor came into the room, they would want to check my progress. They would have me try to lift my arms which would inevitably end with me smacking myself in the face as they would fall limp after a certain point. I always ended in that half-laughing, half-crying state.
I was also becoming scared of the future. I worked as a computer programmer and I couldn’t type. I could eek out a text message with one finger, but that was even exhausting and excruciatingly painful. How long would I have to be out of work? What if my dexterity never came back?
By the time I was released from the hospital, my right arm was close to normal. The fingers were still numb, but I could at least move them. The left arm had also made some amazing recovery. I could move my arm and sort of move my fingers but I was incredibly weak. My arm was in full-on atrophy mode.
Then came physical therapy. Lots and lots of physical therapy. And pain. Lots and lots of pain. I was in constant pain from the nerve damage and shooting pain as the nerves regrew. I couldn’t sleep because it hurt so much. I was basically high on Vicodin for two months straight just to deal with the pain. This was an incredibly trying period. It was emotionally and physically devastating. And all I wanted to do was get back to rock climbing. But I had to wait.
Eventually, after several months of physical therapy, I was given the go ahead to get back on the climbing wall. My arms were doing quite a bit better, but they were still really weak.
I grabbed my gear and started the slow process of relearning how to climb. It was here, at the climbing gym, where the majority of recovery took place. It was here where I started to regain the lost muscle. It was here where I pushed myself so I could get my arms back. And after several months of climbing 5-6 days a week, I was a better climber than I had ever been.
Now, a year and a half after my arms were paralyzed, they are almost fully back to normal. My left arm still lacks a bit of feeling in the fingers and still sometimes hurts, but its functional. My right arm is fully back to normal. My strength has mostly returned, and I’m still climbing and pushing myself.