I first had physical therapy at 27, after I slipped on an icy Montreal sidewalk and tore the ligaments in my left ankle. I had it again at 42 and 43, after surgery on my right and left knees, and most recently I’ve had it on both shoulders.
My orthopedist likes to say surgery is half the battle. If so, it’s the easy half.
The slow and repetitive work of physical therapy often starts the next day, and for an injury like a tear in an anterior cruciate ligament, it can take up to six months. Before you’ve done it, it’s hard to imagine anything is going to take so long and hurt so much.
Part of the challenge is the nature of arthroscopic surgery, whose multiple incisions are often so tiny they barely leave a trace. I’ve had torn meniscus (cartilage) removed from both my knees, and I have to look really hard to find my scars. Removal of bone spurs from my shoulder through four incisions left my skin almost smooth. Surely this is a good thing.
But those minuscule entry points make it difficult to comprehend what has been done in there. After only 45 minutes under general anesthetic and with no huge incision or bloody wound, why am I in so much pain? And why do I have to keep doing these silly exercises?
Surgeons have little time, and sometimes less appetite, to discuss the minutiae of a procedure’s aftereffects. Often it’s the physical therapists who patiently explain what the physician did and why we now have to relinquish huge chunks of our time to rehabilitation.
Physical therapy, or P.T., demands the month-after-month tedium of spending hours in a room filled with strangers stretching colored rubber bands or spinning their arms in circles.
The rituals are oddly and intimately public. Patients of every age, race and income level share a large, sunny room. We do our leg-raises side by side on wide beds. We wait in line for the pulley, the elliptical and the arm bike. We learn a new language and its tools: the strap, the stick, shrugs and pinches.
Everyone ends up in P.T. — lithe teenage athletes, construction workers and police officers with job-related strains, C.E.O.’s with skiing injuries, older people with replaced knees and hips. I’ve commiserated there with an Episcopal minister, an Ivy League economics professor and a firefighter.
The rituals become routine, starting with a heating pad and nerve stimulation, ending with the soothing benediction of a black rubber ice pack. We learn to bend our lives around the inexorable, unfashionable truth — healing takes work and it takes time.
Camaraderie grows as patients compare notes on the frustration of needing help for tasks as simple as pulling up your trousers or opening a can of soup. Women commiserate with the new knowledge that a bra strap can pinch a healing shoulder like steel cable. Struggling to complete even the simplest of tasks in a room full of fellow adults is humbling. When I see someone’s jaw clench with effort, I remember that lifting a one-pound weight can be tough.
I never expected to forge a multiyear relationship with my physical therapists, but I have. I like Helen and Matt and Stephanie and Richard. Really. I just hope I never see them again.
I don’t envy them their job, stretching and shaking and manipulating our joints to loosen them and keep them flexible. It has left me gasping in pain, sometimes even tears. I can’t imagine having to intentionally inflict pain, but that, one quickly learns, is an inevitable part of healing.
It must be difficult for our physical therapists to cheer us on for what are, in other circumstances, a toddler’s proud achievements — when we have regained the ability to tie our shoelaces or walk steadily across a room or throw a ball.
There is an upside. Because we see them so frequently for months, we get to know our physical therapists, and they us, in ways we’ll never know our doctors. We learn where they live and go on vacation, who has a new puppy, whose husband changed careers.
It’s not an intimacy we would choose. But, shoved out of our private, busy lives, whether reluctantly or gratefully, we fall into their strong, skilled, waiting hands.
Caitlin Kelly is the author of “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”