A humerus tale of recovery puts things in perspective

September 20, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

CALL THIS one A Farewell to Arm -- or, at least, farewell to a tiny piece of the left arm I was unabashedly attached to until my car crash six weeks ago.

I'm writing about it because so many of you have been kind enough to call or write following several notices in this newspaper written by editors who, with their customary care for specificity of language, have referred to my "illness." I wasn't ill, just recuperating.

Also, it may be worth relating the story for the little lesson it's taught me about perspective.

Early last month, I plowed into a car whose driver made a kamikaze left turn as I came down Greenspring Avenue, in front of Greenspring Middle School, north of Cold Spring Lane headed toward Druid Hill Park.

As I entered the intersection at Dupont Avenue, this fellow suddenly cut hard left. An optical illusion, I thought. Nobody lacking a fundamental death wish makes this kind of a turn. A summer afternoon's hallucination, I thought, as I hit the brakes, and the horn, and found myself screaming hoarsely above the radio broadcast of an Orioles game, all too late.

The final seconds, seeing there was no escape from the inevitable: a tiny moan of acceptance, and a kind of slow-motion Technicolor blur before the clatter of metal and glass breaking.

After that, thinking: You have a choice. You can do what feels natural and let go of all consciousness, or you can try to confirm the vague, relieved suspicion that you really are still alive.

I unbuckled my seat belt, exited my car and saw the other driver walking toward me.

Oddball random thoughts: Have the Orioles rallied? (No. However, I still wish to go on living.) Did my air bag work? (Yes, it hung limply now like some sad balloon at party's end.) And, what was that pain in my left arm, and why was the arm hanging limp at my side?

The elbow seemed to have knives running through it. I pressed my fingers against it. There was nothing there, none of the familiar muscle and bone,just an emptiness as far down as I could bear to probe.

The other driver reached me. He said he was fine. "I'm an athlete," he explained, as if athletes train specifically for car wrecks. He said he'd been rushing to pick up his kids. And then, he hugged me apologetically, a gesture I found quite moving right up to the moment I heard that his car insurance lapsed 10 months ago.

"I can't help out on insurance," I imagined him thinking. "But, would a hug be just as good?"

Probably not.

A couple of ambulance guys gently transported me to Sinai Hospital, where X-rays showed my elbow was broken and dislocated in that little area of nerves and madcap little twists of fiber and cartilage that we have always inexplicably called the funny bone.

So they set the dislocation, put me into a bulky cast and sent me home. No surgery needed, I was told. For two weeks, I lay about the house while my wife played uncomplaining Florence Nightingale. Then, I simultaneously went back to work and began physical therapy at HealthSouth, with an earnest, caring occupational therapist, Beth Kozera.

But the pain did not go away. Two weeks later, more X-rays: The elbow was dislocated again. Surgery was needed. Ten days ago, at Northwest Hospital Center, Dr. Bill Smulyan opened the arm at the elbow and slipped the broken head-of-radius bone over the lower end of the humerus. Then he bent the arm. The head-of-radius popped out, refused to stay in place.

Thus, it would have to go. Smulyan removed the bone, and I awoke to bid farewell to that little piece of my arm -- and to the news that I'll not get more than 80 to 85 percent mobility back in it for the rest of my life.

What's the lesson in all this? A simple sense of perspective. The process has been painful, frustrating and seemingly endless -- and yet, it's just an arm.

I keep thinking of kids I've met over at Children's Hospital's Bennett Institute, who will never walk again but find joy in wheelchair basketball. I think about kids I've met at Johns Hopkins Hospital's oncology unit, braver than they know, appreciative for each new day.

The other night, I saw Dutch Ruppersberger. He's still on crutches, still has his right foot in a cast after three operations. The guy's running Baltimore County on one leg.

We all give lip service to other people's pain, but -- our president's words to the contrary -- we don't really feel it. My little setback's a reminder of people with real problems, and the determination and good cheer they bring to each day's fight.

Thank you, folks, for all your expressions of concern. But the lesson for the day is: For all my moaning, I got real lucky.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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