What this physician learned after coming back from a medical crisis

Medical crises come in many forms: from illnesses to sudden injuries. Most often the victims are unsuspecting. They may be gradual in onset or happen in seconds. There are many causes, from faulty drivers to electrolyte disturbances. Mine was caused by a squirrel, a routine yard rodent. In less than three seconds, I went from a practicing physician with a heavy patient load to temporarily disabled.

Returning home from a busy Saturday morning seeing patients in the office, I decided to take my dogs outside for a brief walk. I just tossed my work bag down and put their leashes on. I was tired from work and just wanted to rest. Once down the steps, my ninety pound Bernese Mountain dog spotted a squirrel and took off at full speed. Previously having torn a meniscus in my knee, it gave out when she was at full speed, and I was pulled into the air and landed at the exact spot to fracture my shoulder (humeral head). The pain was severe and two ER visits later I was admitted to the hospital for intractable pain because oxycodone was not controlling it and causing me to vomit.  I learned that orthopedists seem to specialize only in certain joints and that when you fracture your shoulder, most likely it will be the hip/knee guy who is on call.

From the first view of my X-rays which showed a displaced, comminuted fracture, it was apparent to the orthopedists and the residents (the hospital had an orthopedics residency) that my fracture required surgery. However, finding the right orthopedist to do the job took some sleuthing. Eventually, I had the surgery done (a metal plate and ten screws to hold the bone in place so while it healed). I spent two nights vomiting in the hospital due to side effects of the IV pain medications they were giving me. But one thing that struck me is that, yes, patients need to be very strong advocates for themselves. As a doctor on staff at that hospital, I think I received VIP treatment, and I wonder if my patients receive the same level of care. Even as a VIP, there were things I had to speak up about. For example, I had to tell them not to give me insulin when my sugar was only slightly elevated, and I was not allowed to eat because I was scheduled for surgery. Knowing my diabetes, I know that I get hypoglycemic very fast when I don’t eat. Would they have listened to me, I wonder, if I were not a doctor?

What have I learned about coming back from my medical crisis?

Patients need to be vocal advocates. If something doesn’t seem right, speak up. Ask questions and demand answers. If the person you are asking doesn’t know the answer, ask to speak to someone else.

Listen to the medical advice. I have to admit that, despite my orthopedist telling me not to drive, I was tempted to try it one-armed. But, I know this can have a very bad outcome despite my desire to get back to normal.

Educate yourself. Over these past weeks, I have learned more about shoulder fractures than I have ever known before. Shoulder fractures are particularly nasty because it is impossible to completely immobilize the shoulder. Take a deep breath and your shoulder moves. Try getting out of bed while lying flat and it is near impossible, like an overturned turtle.

Take care of your mind as well as your body. It is stressful having your whole life stop and being out of work. I am fortunate enough to have a disability policy that covers some, not all, of my financial loss during the period I am not working. I imagine for many this could have disastrous financial consequences. Try to find something to fill your mind and reduce your stress as this will only delay the healing process.

Make plans and be prepared. I am hoping to go back to work next week, but I am prepared if the orthopedist tells me I am not ready. It becomes a bigger crisis if you don’t prepare yourself for all the obstacles you may face in your recovery.

Tell others how to help you. It is only natural that people want to help you. I’ve observed in my situation that people always go to support me on my injured side when they want to help me get up. It was excruciating for anyone to touch that side in the beginning. I had to tell them to grab the other hand and pull. While they want to help you, they feel horrible if they make you wince in pain.

Rehab your body and soul. I’ve had several orthopedists tell me that shoulder fractures are extremely painful. Yes, I know. They also tell me how difficult the therapy will be. But, I also know how important it is to get the full function back again. Any kind of medical problem leaves us weaker and we need to build up our strength again.

Don’t beat yourself up. I admit I am guilty of this. Many nights I lie awake telling myself I shouldn’t have taken the dogs for a walk when I was tired, and my knee was bothering me. But, there is no way to go back in time and change any of this. I can only move forward.

If you or a loved have or have had a medical crisis, take it slow and be patient. Also, understand that people undergoing these kind of things feel quite miserable and may not be acting themselves. Cut them some slack and help them make their comeback.

Linda Girgis is a family physician who blogs at Dr. Linda.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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