While writing my October 2021 article, “Surgeries for Surgeons,” I had no idea my frozen shoulder had a risk factor for developing adhesive capsulitis after decompression shoulder surgery. It’s been several months since my surgery, and I still don’t have full range of motion. I managed to work as if I were the same, but months of compensatory neck and shoulder muscle strain, internalizing stress into my neck and shoulder on a daily basis, apparently led to cervical radiculopathy from a chronic degenerative discs problem unknown to me until a recent MRI. Like all surgeons, I’ve mastered the art of pushing through the daily grind of cases and clinics, as long as I can breathe and move.
Explore This IssueJune 2022
That’s why I wanted to share my experience, and the lessons I’ve learned through the process. I hope that other surgeons will learn from it and improve their relationships with their patients, their families, and themselves.
In early October, I was looking at my right thumb one day, trying to find the cut that was causing sharp pain, but I was confused when I couldn’t see anything. A few hours later (and every waking moment since), my right thumb and thenar prominence were numb and tingling, sometimes extending to my wrist. Over the next few weeks, my neck became stiffer, and any extension or Valsalva maneuver caused lightening-like paresthesia down my right arm. I wasn’t sure what it was and ignored it as much as I could.
The week all this happened, I had just requested five weeks of short-term disability for the month of December. Stiffness and pain in the right shoulder had progressed with constant cases and typing (I had no scribe). Frankly, I, like many others, had also reached a high level of physical and mental exhaustion, anger, and impatience, and sleep wasn’t restorative due to severe discomfort. In hindsight, the once-a-week physical therapy since my shoulder surgery was a drop in the bucket. Each OR day in a frigid arctic temperature, my neck and shoulder hurt so badly that I had the OR nurse wrap chemical heat packs around my shoulder with Coban dressing under the scrub. (I looked ridiculous.)
Before you judge me, though, I know you would have done the same. You, too, have operated while having an IV in place; you, too, have avoided canceling cases and clinics by pushing your body when you felt horrible. You may have also lived the hypocrisy of saying to others, “We’re human, and we must care for ourselves first,” while our inner voices made it clear that patients always came first. Putting ourselves first was never true during residency, fellowship, or any part of our lives as surgeons.