It is just over 2 years since the accident. It was a hot day in Indonesia, the surf wasn’t huge but it was a little unpredictable. I fell but didn’t hit the reef or my board. I didn’t hit anything. It was the sheer power of the wave that dislocated my shoulder. By the time I got to shore I was all pins and needles in my right arm. Within an hour I had no feeling whatsoever in my right hand. I had given myself a brachial plexus injury. Or as the document from the specialist describes it, a ‘recovering brachial plexopathy’.
Like anybody, armed with a diagnosis, I jumped on line to learn more. But there really was really nothing that provided any insight as to what the injury was, how it would progress and what would be on the road to recovery.
I keep a diary. My early stages of recovery are quite well documented and I have decided to share so that anyone else confounded and confused by what is going on might have my experience to refer to. It may be a little long-winded here and there but if it provides any kind of comfort, I’ll be glad. And it’s going to take a while to post the details of the entire recovery. Please, bear with me… It will happen
For background information, I am a semi-retired Australian man, living in Sydney and at the time of the accident was 57 years old.
Firstly, an extract from the diary of the accident itself:
Monday 21st July 2014
There was a good wave on Hideaways first thing in the morning and no one on it. But I had slept late having not had the most peaceful night, the result, I suspect, of a couple too many beers. By the time I got to breakfast, a decision to go to Bankvaults had already been made. It wasn’t looking too big, though just after I paddled out an enormous set came through reminding me of the power Bankvaults can pack. And there were two different swells working on top of each other making the conditions a little unpredictable.
The first wave I got was a cracker. Taking off it walled up and just as I thought I was about to be obliterated, the lip threw over my head and for a second or two I was locked into the tube I had been waiting 7 years for. The other surfers were hooting as I paddled back out, congratulating me on a good wave. “Now I know how”, I thought, and once the adrenalin had settled, started aiming for a repeat performance.
But it was hard to pick and on the one wave I did get close, I spun out on the bottom turn. The next one I made the drop, turned to pull in but the lip of the wave was already coming down. It was all so quick it’s hard to recall exactly what happened. All I remember is the wave coming down hard followed by a feeling similar to that of a red hot machete slashing through my shoulder. Floundering in the white water, I tried in vain to regain control of my board before the following wave landed on top of me. I could see my right arm wasn’t in the position it was meant to be.. All my efforts to make it move were proving ineffectual and I was at the mercy of the next wall of white water bearing down on me.
Christie, The owner of the surf camp, came to my aid. I was in severe pain and unable to make any headway. We bounced our way across the reef and after what felt like an eternity, I was sitting on the beach, my left hand desperately trying to guide my right into a position, any position, that might lessen the pain. I couldn’t stop moaning and wasn’t even sure myself where the theatrics ended and the reality began.. Christie was offering words of comfort but I was already semi-oblivious to what might be going on around me. At one stage there was an offer of support from another surfer, his long red beard cascading across his chest. His kindness made me want to cry. So did the pain. So did Christie’s efforts to encourage me. So did the realisation any attempt to return to the boat would involve further pain.
Christie, in his cool, calm and collected way, felt around my shoulder before confirming my suspicion it was dislocated. He told me that we would need to walk to an inlet called Tikis to get back to the boat, a 20 minute walk at best. He then took a deep breath and there was an uncomfortable pause before he suggested the walk would be far easier if he were able to relocate the shoulder first. Even the movement created by my own breath was enough to dispatch shards of pain and my hand felt as though it had been caught in vice of tiny needles. I could no longer move my fingers but knowing full well Christie’s suggestion was the only option if I wanted in any way to relieve the relentless pain, I reluctantly agreed to let him try.
The pressure of Christie’s foot into my armpit was like a nail being driven deep into a festering wound. I breathed in, breathed out and tried to relax. “This too will pass, this too will pass” I tried to console myself but I simply couldn’t take the pain. I longed for an ambulance to magically appear on the tiny dirt track the coconut harvesters used to make their way amongst the palm groves. To take me somewhere I could lie on starched sheets as a doctor specialising in shoulder dislocations injected a magic potion into my veins, slowly ease my displaced joint back to its original position and all would be normal. But I was on a remote island lying on a palm frond on a bed of coral surrounded by discarded coconut husks, the occasional waft of smoke from the burning shells acrid.
I worried about what might lie in wait once I had made the distance the distance to Tiki’s. The gap between the two reefs is narrow and can be treacherous should your timing coincide with the arrival of a larger set of waves. And even if it were possible to get through the channel, it would be at least a 100m one-armed paddle to the boat. While the prospect might not be good, it was the only way forward. 20 minutes later, as we rounded the point I could see that venturing out at Tiki’s would be dangerous at best and disastrous at worst so I was relieved to hear Christie declare the conditions too risky and suggest we continue walking on to a calmer inlet 30 minutes further on.
I tried to use the meditation techniques I had learnt, breathing slowly in through the nose, focusing on the breath as it hit the walls of the inner nostrils, breathing slowly out, feeling the warmth on the upper lip. It would work for a while before the awareness of the pain would again overtake everything. I needed to stop and rest but I knew the rest would do nothing to ease the pain, simply prolong the process. Above us the spreading fronds of the coconut palms provided shade but beyond that the equatorial sun was beating down relentlessly. Even wearing the wetsuit I always wear surfing on reef, I didn’t feel the heat. I didn’t feel thirsty. I couldn’t feel anything except the shoulder I was trying desperately to ignore. When we finally reached the inlet I was glad to get in the water as it did take the weight off the shoulder and before long we were back on the boat skimming across the glassy ocean to the resort.
One of the group mentioned a doctor friend of his who was staying at another resort so Christie escorted me to the neighbouring island. Dr Mario was fortunately home and came out to the boat to look at the shoulder. Having confirmed it was dislocated he quietly and confidently told me that he was going to fix it and that it would be done on the ping pong table.
He lay me face down on the table, my injured arm left to dangle over the edge. This was the first time since the impact my arm had been in a position remotely comfortable. I would have been happy to stay there but Dr Mario was keen to get things fixed and started to pull on the dangling arm. The more he pulled the more intense the pain became and finally he gave a jerk that burnt from my fingers to my neck. There was a muffled pop and the shoulder was back. He moved it slightly to see it was properly seated but it dislocated again. We dangled and pulled and jerked and it popped back in. Once more he tried to move the arm forward but it fell out again. After another dangle, pull, jerk and pop it was back in, though being so unstable Dr Mario wasn’t going to test it further. He sat me up, fixed a sling, gave me a couple of valium tablets wished me well and sent us on our way. It must be so nice to be able to provide relief for people on a daily basis, though I doubt he really understood my ecstasy being finally fixed. As I walked back to the boat I could already feel a spring in my step and one of the guests, watching the waves break out on the distant reef looked at me with concern as he said, “Sorry about the shoulder. But that was a great wave you got first!”
Back to Wavepark, it may have been the drugs or simply the relief but I was feeling quite chirpy. The other guests inquired politely as to my condition and expressed their relief that I had colour back in my face. Over dinner I started to consider the options as to getting off the island. While there no longer any pain I could feel nothing from the elbow down, I couldn’t move my fingers and my arm lay like a dead weight in the sling. Oddly enough it didn’t concern me; I was so relieved free of pain. I felt as it was just some aberration and that it would soon go. By the time the evening came to a close the framework for my exodus was in place with me leaving the island at 7:00am the following morning on my own charter of the Sampan Baru.
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
The plane arrived into a cool and sunny Sydney and I walked out of the terminal just as my wife “S” was crossing the road from the carpark. In fact the timing was so good we were in and out within the free 15 minute parking! I had decided it would be best to go straight to the emergency department but S had been working the network and turned up with x-ray referrals from a local GP and an introduction to a shoulder specialist at the Prince of Wales Private Hospital. Having had so much effort put into organising all this I felt it would have been rude not to take advantage the arrangements that had been made. So I first dropped in for an x-ray. ($90 of which only $40 would be covered by medicare). I knew I was traveling down the wrong road so I was relieved to hear the shoulder specialist wouldn’t be able to fit me in until Friday. I ended up doing what I had initially thought the better option and started the long wait in the emergency department.
It was over 2 hours before I was admitted to the inner sanctions of the truly sick and needy. I felt slightly guilty about taking advantage of a service to which it might be argued I wasn’t truly sick and needy. My condition certainly wasn’t life or death. But the people who saw me were extremely sympathetic, they organised a CT scan confirming there was a fracture in the shoulder but one so minuscule there was no need for treatment. After a further lengthy wait I was looked at by a hand specialist well versed in brachial plexus injury who explained politely how the nerve tendons had been stretched, that given time, it should repair itself, that there was no need for surgical intervention and that the road to recovery would be paved with a mixture of patience and therapy. He told me the experts in the field were at the Royal North Shore Hospital and that he had already organised an appointment for the following Monday. And all this was charged to Medicare without me having to pay a cent. Truly, it is a system I can’t understand. Either way I came away feeling that the emergency option had certainly been the better way to go. And armed with a diagnosis I felt I could now start coming up with a plan.
Thursday 24th July 2014
This was really the first day of my one-handed world. Some things were easier than expected while others remarkably more tedious. I spent a long time typing, left handed, entries into my diary and sending emails to those in Indonesia who might be wondering as to my condition. I opened and sorted the post that had accumulated in my absence (tedious) and took the dog for a walk fielding questions as to my slinged arm. There does seem to be the occasional flicker of mobility in the hand.
Friday 25th July 2014
It was a bit more of the same. I went into the city to drop off some papers for my accountant. I stopped in for a shave at a barber (impossible one-handed) then got S to drop me off at the Lord Dudley Hotel for a beer with friends.
Saturday 26th July 2014
I slept in a bit before taking the dog for her walk. Once again it was a day of doing not much more than exchanging emails and waiting until it was time to go to a friend’s place to watch the 2 semi finals in the rugby. I had a few beers, a couple of glasses of red, picked on some snacks and watched a largely unconvincing game of rugby before coming home. It does seem that the only thing I can do like this with any degree of alacrity is drink… and perhaps type left-handed.
[I should add here that I have always liked to drink. Indeed my calendar is littered with drinking opportunities. And I don’t have a full-time job. I am involved in a couple of businesses which I handle at arms length. It’s fortunate that I don’t work full-time as I certainly wouldn’t have been able to attend any kind of regular 9~5 employment]
Sunday 27th July 2014
Had another late rise. I know that I am going to have to start doing some proper exercise soon or the body is just going to start falling apart. So with the intention of taking advantage of the beautiful day, I left to take Maggie for a walk to North Bondi. But I got no further than the Bronte surf club, a mere 400 metres. Maggie didn’t appear that enthusiastic either. I wonder if my body is directing energy to repair, hence the lethargy. I was thrilled to see there appears to be a bit more mobility but looking at things closer, there is a long, long way to go before I am even close to even kind of dexterity. Still, it is less than a week. I feel for the first time the gravity of the situation as the novelty starts to wear off and milking the story no longer seems as exciting as it did.
[Maggie is my dog (obviously). She’s a Keeshond and can be quite bloody minded. At the time she was 3 years old. I dote on her and she’s going to pop up quite frequently. What’s a keeshond, I hear you ask…]