by Thaddeus Rutkowski
The moment after I fall, I think I can’t get up. I see the headlights of a car a few feet away. The car is waiting to cross the intersection, but I’m lying in its way. One leg of my jeans is wet from sliding through water. My backpack is still wrapped around my shoulders. The pavement is icy beneath me.
Somehow, I do get up and walk out of the intersection. I know something is wrong with my arm, but I don’t know what it is. A guy coming toward me on the sidewalk says, “You’ve got to break your fall, man!”
At the door to our building, I notice that I can take my keys from my pocket, but I can’t reach the lock. It’s too high. I switch my keys to my other hand and open the door.
I know something is wrong with my arm, but I don’t know what it is. A guy coming toward me on the sidewalk says, “You’ve got to break your fall, man!”
Inside, I say to my wife, “I fell and hurt my arm.”
At night, I have trouble sleeping. When I try to raise my injured arm, it won’t go. So I leave it at my side. The position doesn’t help the pain, though.
I visit the office of my regular doctor and see the nurse practitioner who usually takes care of me. After a few simple movement tests, she runs out of the exam room and calls back to me: “Falling is dangerous!”
She sends me for an X-ray. As I stand in front of the machine, technicians sit at a computer screen in an adjoining room. I hear them saying, “Fracture” to each other.
Several hours later, I see the report, which states that the humerus has been split. It is an impacted fracture of the greater tuberosity. There is a probable extension into the surgical neck, a widening of the distance between the humeral head and the joint. There is a suspicion of effusion. My shoulder is royally messed up.
I find an orthopedist, someone in Chinatown. I have the idea I will feel brotherhood with an Asian doctor. Plus, she takes my insurance.
When I go to her office, I learn that my insurance will not cover another X-ray so soon after the previous one. I return to the hospital where I got my original X-ray, receive a compact disc with the pictures and return to the orthopedist.
We look at the images together. “Not a big deal,” she says. “You’ll have internal bleeding, and the bruise will go down past your elbow. We’ll give you a sling.”
An assistant brings a lightweight black sling. “That’s a nice sling,” the doctor says. “Did we just get these?”
I learn to wrap the sling around my right arm and pull the strap behind my neck.
“Do you have someone at home who can take care of you?” the doctor asks.
I’m thinking my daughter is not a good candidate, because I have to take care of her. Maybe my wife can take care of me. Maybe not. I don’t think I’ll need much taking care of, anyway.
While waiting with my daughter for the subway, I put on my sling, then pull my coat over my bent arm. The coat drapes down from the injured shoulder, so one sleeve is empty. My daughter is sitting on a bench, and my briefcase is on the seat beside her. I start to pick up my briefcase so I can sit, but as I’m doing so, a man with a guitar starts to put his instrument down on the same seat. He motions with his hand that it’s OK for my stuff to be there. “I’d just like to sit here,” I say.
“Are you being sarcastic?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “My arm is broken. I’d like to have a seat.”
“You’re talking like an asshole,” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I mean, you’re talking like an asshole.”
“Do you want to take it outside?” I ask. I mean, does he want to take it upstairs, onto the sidewalk next to the subway station. I’m guessing he wouldn’t attack someone with a broken arm, but if he did, I could sue him for injuring me.
“Stop it,” my daughter says, jumping up next to me.
“I don’t want to take it anywhere,” the man says. He carries his guitar to a spot a few feet away.
I wonder if there was something in my tone that made the man angry. Was I not speaking to him with respect? I stare at him, but he doesn’t walk back to me. I keep looking at him until the train arrives.
At my checkup, the doctor asks how I’m doing.
“Mediocre,” I say, “so-so.”
“Why is that?” she asks.
“I’m having trouble sleeping,” I say. “My arm hurts at night and wakes me up.”
“Some people with injured shoulders sleep in a reclining chair,” the doctor says.
“Here’s my pattern,” I say. “I take a pill, then I go to sleep on my regular bed. The pill wears off in about three hours. I sit up, on the edge of the loft bed, then I climb down the ladder to the couch, where the cushions are softer. I sleep for another couple of hours, then get up and sit for while. The arm likes it when I sit. I take a couple more pills, but weaker ones, not the narcotics, then climb back to my regular bed, where I sleep for a couple of hours. I get up for good way before dawn. I’m tired all the time.”
“I want you to stop taking the narcotics,” the doctor says.
“What should I do when I wake up in the night?” I ask.
“Exercise the arm. Lie on the floor on your back. Lift the arm over your head with your other hand. Then push it to the side with a stick. Stand up and pull it up behind your back with a strap.”
I try this for the next few nights. The first time I wake up, I do the exercises. The next couple of times, I’m too foggy to do the exercises. Every motion is too painful to repeat. I miss the narcotics.
While I lie on the table, the physical therapist calls me Honey, then starts torturing my arm. She holds my wrist and tries to move my arm over my head, then tries to pull it out to the side, but it won’t extend very far.
“It’s nobody’s fault but my own,” I say, grasping my nose with my free fingers and wincing.
She hands me a cane and shows me how to use my good arm to raise my bad arm to its limit—and hold it there.
“Falling was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Honey,” she says, “keep going. Give me twenty.”
“Have you ever thought about joining the Army?” I ask.
“I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment or not,” she says.
She bends my arm at the elbow and pulls the whole limb to the side. “One more,” she says.
“Geez,” I say. “I can’t do this.”
She notices where I am on the table. “Where are you going?” she asks. “Come back to me.”
I slide toward her so she can continue beating my arm. When she is done, I notice that her hair has come loose from its bun. “Why is your hair down?” I ask.
“Were we wrestling?” she asks.
In an airport, I’m stopped at the detection machine. A man comes to check me more carefully. “Can you move your arm?” he asks.
“In what direction?” I ask.
“Away from your body.”
I understand the space between my elbow and my ribs would be a perfect place to hide contraband, or explosives. I lift my elbow away from my side, and the man pats my arm and my ribs. “OK,” he says, “go ahead.”
Later, another official asks me, “Do you want a wheelchair?”
I don’t think I heard him correctly. I’m walking, after all. “What did you say?” I ask.
“Do you need a wheelchair?”
There’s an adult stroller handy. I see it folded there. “No, thanks” I say, and I walk away. I try to put a spring in my step to show I’m still spry, I’m not disabled, but I don’t succeed. I just shuffle off.
At the check-in desk, I ask if I can have an aisle seat. “I have a broken arm,” I explain.
“Give me your boarding pass,” the attendant says. “I’ll hold it.”
“You’ll call me later?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, holding up the document. “See? I wrote “aisle” and “arm” on it.
I end up with a better seat, with more legroom, where I can stretch my feet and rest my arm at my side. The seat is much better than any I’ve had in the past. But the pain grows as the flight goes on. I’d give up my elite seat in an instant to have a solid arm.
The doctor asks, “Are you sleeping through the night?”
“No,” I say. “I wake up every couple of hours. I get up three or four times a night. Sometimes I’m awake for more than half an hour.”
“Are you doing the exercises I gave you?” she asks.
“I’ve just been standing and swinging my arm. That’s what the physical therapist said to do.”
“You’ve got to do my exercises! The three I gave you: lifting your arm with your other hand, pushing it to the side with a stick, and pulling it up behind your back with a strap!”
The suggestion sounds counterintuitive to me. I wake up because my arm hurts. Why would I make it hurt more so I can go back to sleep? “I’ll do it,” I say.
“Do it for a couple of weeks,” she says. “You’ll start sleeping through the night.”
Later, I try faithfully to exercise when I wake at night. I lie on the floor and do the lifts and pushes. Then I stand up and do the behind-the-back stretches. All of these motions cause sharp pain. After a couple of foggy sessions, I can’t do them anymore. I just take an ice pack from the freezer, put it on my shoulder for a couple of minutes, and try to go back to sleep.
Sometimes I think my arm is going to get better, and I’m full of optimism. I think of the fun things I’ll be able to do—ride a bicycle or drive a car, for example. And how about sex? Yes, how about it? I can’t hug now; I can’t lift my arm that high. Intimacy is limited to a one-armed kind of thing. I’m not spending much time in my bed with my spouse, anyway. I’m usually in my own private sleeping hell, on the couch. But when my shoulder heals, I’ll be able to do all sorts of things—push-ups over the mattress, for example, or the old arm-over-the-partner trick.
Other times, I think my arm will never get better, and I live in a dark vision of disability. I’m afraid my elbow will be permanently bent. Even without pain, that would not look good. Perhaps I’ll never be able to lift my arm above the level of my shoulder. This would cut out a lot of activities, like writing on a blackboard. I like communicating by blackboard; it’s a bold, abbreviated method. I’m worried that my arm will always hang useless at my side. As it is, the hanging weight pulls down on my shoulder joint. I can’t stand for long until I have to sit.
“I have a goal,” I say to the therapist.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“I want to do physical therapy until my shoulder is better. I don’t want to have an operation.”
“That’s our goal, too,” she says.
I’m glad she agrees. It’s not that I’m afraid of general anesthesia. Granted, the prospect makes me nervous, but I’ll do what I have to do.
“I’ve heard an operation is quicker,” I say, “but I don’t really want it.”
“No, you don’t want it,” she says as she starts to press and pull at my arm. “Push into me,” she says.
“Which way?” I ask.
“Push into my hip.”
I push as hard as I can, but my effort is nothing compared with the leverage she generates. She’s got my shoulder locked, and she’s using it as a fulcrum. I’m reminded of childbirth, but this time I’m on the other end, the giving end. I have nothing to help me, not even oxygen. I inhale through my nose, exhale through my mouth. I don’t want my blood pressure to rise—I don’t want to hold my breath. I don’t want to faint. I hear my drill instructor asking if I’m OK. I hear myself saying yes. I don’t look at her hair to see if it’s coming loose from its bun. I take my free hand and squeeze around my eyes. I try not to fall off the table.
“Come back to me,” she says.
Read The Story Behind “The Stupidest Thing I’ve Ever Done” on our blog.