It was mid-afternoon on Friday, just before the pre-weekend Costco crowds begin to get jammed. While the parking lot was crammed close in, it wasn’t horrible. Yet. I was determined to avoid Saturday insanity and besides, when I do my weekend chores on Friday afternoon, the sweetness of my Saturday rolls out in front of me like an inviting carpet.
As I was nearly finished checking out, an older man (he was 75, as I was to find out) asked me about my right arm, which hung in a big black sling.
I nodded, smiling at him.
“Had mine done a long while back,” he said knowingly. “Doc told me I’d be in pain the rest of my life.
He was right.”
I looked at this gentleman in shock. We live in the most healthy, active spot in the nation: Colorado. Of all the states, this is the one place where we can find docs and physical therapists who can get us back on our feet and largely, if not completely, pain-free.
The Doctor’s Dispensation
He registered my surprise with resignation.
“ I can’t speak for you, sir, but for my money, I wouldn’t believe a thing your doctor says. He has no idea what you’re capable of doing, including getting rid of the pain. If I were in your situation I’d invest in the best PT possible and prove the man wrong.”
He acknowledged my point, but fell back onto his doctor’s comments as though they had been seared as Gospel onto his consciousness. “He told me I’d be in pain the rest of my life,”he repeated sadly.
As far as this man was concerned, he’d given his doctor permission to dictate the quality of life for all his remaining years. Signed, sealed and delivered. The way he told his story was, in effect, telling me I’d be in the same boat.
I turned towards him as I began to push my cart away.
“ No doctor has the right to determine the quality of your life, sir,” I said, kindly. “Again, if I were you I’d find a program and get to work getting full use of that arm back. But that’s just me.”
I Had Two of Them!
An hour later I was rounding the corner of the water and drinks aisle at my local grocery store when yet another older man asked me the same thing.
“I’ve had two of them done,” he grinned, waving his repaired arms around to demonstrate.
No pain. Full mobility.
Guess he had a different doctor.
We stood laughing in front of the bakery. He was joyful, happy-go-lucky. He and his tiny wife and I ended up next to each other at the checkout. They were looking forward to an active weekend. They too were in their seventies.
I travel a lot. And I do damnably dangerous sports, at 65, some of which have caused me to be severely injured. I know nasty pain. However, I make the perfectly justified assumption that I will recover quickly, be back in training and returning to my sports in short order.
Many of my physicians don’t agree. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what they think. They don’t live in this body, have no clue about my worth ethic and have no earthly idea how I’m going heal and recover. And that’s the fundamental problem.
In an article for Science Daily (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120606142818.htm) the authors discuss how so many of us align with suggestions, both overt and subliminal, to make ourselves right. If we give our power away to a doctor who intones that we’ll be in pain for the rest of our lives, that’s what will happen. Without realizing it in many cases, we’ve just given this well-meaning dweeb permission to keep us in agony for all our remaining years.
Really? Honestly? You would condemn yourself to years of discomfort and limited movement because some wingnut told you so? No matter how talented your doctor may be, they don’t know your body. He has no clue what you are willing to do to regain full capacity. As it is he may well be operating off what he normally sees but that isn’t you. Or me.
Why would any of us give this kind of power over to someone else?
In late 2011, a Veteran’s Administration osteopath reluctantly, and under pressure from me, finally agreed to do exploratory knee surgery. I’d injured myself doing cross training at 58. I had severe mystery pain which was keeping me from being able to do a great many things. We’d tried PT, chiropractic, everything you could imagine. Finally, he said with resignation, “The only thing we have left is surgery. I don’t recommend it.”
I disagreed. And I was right. What I had wrong could only be discovered through internal exploration. The afternoon of surgery day I was doing laps round my hospital floor. Did it hurt? Damned right. It was excruciating. But not for long. In no time I was hiking the blocks around my house doing my best to get the hitch out of my giddyup.
About a month later I was doing laps on the stairs out at a stunning amphitheater named Red Rocks. Not only is the scenery gorgeous but we come out by the hundreds and thousands to train out there. It is one of our great playgrounds, and it’s where a great many of us train, lose weight and rehab.
Despite all the work I was putting into rehab my ortho told me with all the wisdom of someone who thinks he has seen it all, “You should be happy with 80%.”
Eighty-percent my ass.
Eighteen months later I stood on top of Mount Kilimanjaro with my knee at about 95%. I took photos. Within seven months I’d also done Macchu Picchu and the Everest Base Camp I took more photos. Sent them to my ortho doc:
“This is what 80% looks like.”
Now let’s be clear and let’s be fair: this ortho works with disabled veterans. Since I share the same hospital with them I am well aware of their attitudes and behaviors. It takes twisting an arm to get folks to do PT. That’s what my doc was used to. He sees a norm as they all do. However that doesn’t give him the right to dictate to me that I am going to be just like a VA hospital full of complaining old male veterans who are more invested in being injured than being empowered.
Look. My big brother was the real athletic talent in our family. Not me. However like him, I have no faith in a medical community which profits off our pain, not prevention. In a predatory system that all too often rewards doctors for not quite getting us well, our caregivers give us information that is often either patently false, or that they couldn’t possibly know- as in, the long term side effects of medicines which their pharma reps are shoving at them like the next greatest thing.
Not only do most not have the time to do this kind of research, they don’t often have the motivation. All too many docs stop learning after they graduate, believing they know enough. None of us can, especially in the fast- moving world of medicine. Too many docs operate from conventional wisdom or standard practice when plenty of recent studies show that such practices are either outmoded or downright dangerous. Old habits die hard. And they kill patients.
When I was barely nineteen, my childhood doctor informed me that not only would I be unable to quit smoking (he was a smoker) but my severed Achilles’ tendon would result in a lifelong limp.
The day aftr he took off my cast, I hit my local middle school track and forced myself to run it. Tears streaked down my cheeks, I coughed my lungs out. I never smoked again (after a five pack a day habit) and I also never, ever limped. That was my first and indelible lesson in what doctors cannot possibly know.
Shamans know the power of the mind to heal. They assume, quite rightfully, that a receptive mind will incorporate healing suggestions, whether under hypnosis or not, and work to align with those suggestions. A shaman only has power and influence in their community if they get results and folks are healthy and happy. That’s not a bad model to emulate.
It isn’t, sadly, what our medical system is designed to reward.
For a generation, like the gentleman at Costco, which believed the absolute power of a doctor to determine their health, a physician who informs him that he will always have pain has the effect of a life sentence. That can only happen with our full permission and cooperation. We can work hard to make our doc right or we can trust the innate wisdom and healing capacity of our bodies to respond to an invitation: Let’s heal.
The expectation that no matter what I’ve done to myself (smashed pelvis, broken back, broken arm and wrist, crushed shoulder) I am going to come back at full strength or better has far more to do with my recovery than anything a doctor might say. While I will listen, the moment some well-meaning moke with an MD tells me that I should be happy with 80%, the hackles on the back of my neck rise.
Perfect. I’m now pissed off, and highly motivated. Not their intention but it is the impact. I’m just pugnacious and pig-headed enough to make the SOB wrong. While it’s a less-than-attractive everyday trait, in this case being pig-headed is exceptionally useful.
It doesn’t hurt to be downright ornery.
My recent rotator cuff surgery was complicated and messy, the result of two very nasty horseback riding accidents. In one case an 1100-lb horse stomped my shoulder after I got thrown off and in the other I got tossed ass-over-teakettle when my mount bucked at the full gallop. I broke my back in four places. Didn’t even know my shoulder was damaged until my regular hard core gym workouts began to hurt too much.
At 65, most doctors treat me with the kind of condescension reserved for little old ladies — they see my age and gender in the records and very rarely look me in the face-until they see the shape I’m in. That typically only happens when I call them out on inappropriate assumptions (she’s an old lady, she can’t/won’t handle this) or when they continue to stare at the charts instead of engaging with me. After all, I’m only the patient. What do I know? Actually, one hell of a lot. By the time I get into their office I’ve already put in weeks of research, know a lot about what I probably have, the current range of available treatments and protocols, alternatives (including holistic) and options. I challenge every pill, every procedure and every ill-thought out proclamation about how well I’ll heal. These people have no clue what I am willing to do to beat the odds. A few get on board. My most recent ortho surgeon specializes in athletes. He got the message right away. To his credit. That was after he recovered from his shock that I knew what chondro-calcinois was. Could hardly pronounce it but I knew I had it. On top of that I do my own Rock Taping, including my back,and have for years. Both of those surprised him a great deal but they also went a long way towards underscoring my level of knowledge and competence. That changes the conversation from mere human and god-like to being collaborators in my care.
That makes a huge difference in our ability to plan care, post-op rehab and pain management. He knows perfectly well I don’t want to be on meds. If I do use them it’s because I have to. But that’s partly because I push myself to heal, and my body barks when I make demands of it. However it pays off in spades. What he does is push me.
Now that I can climb on board with big time. This is a guy who measures his success by how quickly his patients return to full activity. That’s why I picked him. So does my PT staff because they’re sports therapists. They don’t care how old I am. They care how much I am committed to improvement. This was why at three weeks after my rotator cuff surgery, I had far more strength and mobility for anyone at any age. This isn’t bragging. That progress hurt like a bastard. However that’s what it takes to get results while also respecting how much pain means damage, and how much means results.
This argues strenuously for choosing a doc who makes their living putting folks back at full capacity, not relegating them to a life of pain and mediocrity. That sells pills and more procedures, but it sure as hell doesn’t improve our quality life, like my buddy at the Costco cashout.
The very best doctors are part shaman, part psychologist and part cheerleader. They expect our best and they invite us to trust our remarkable bodies to heal, heal well, and heal completely- if we are willing to do what it takes to get them there.
And therein lies the challenge for my 75-year-old Costco friend. When we relegate the ultimate responsibility of our overall health to someone else, we are subject to their limitations, their attitudes, prejudices and most importantly, how a profit-crazy, predatory medical system provides incentives. That most certainly is not all practitioners. But it is becoming the norm with, a true healer a genuine gem of a find. It’s one reason the AMA is so determined to wipe out holistic health care. They are often true healers, and a well person isn’t feeding the profit monster.
Expecting to be Well
Healing takes hard work. A huge part of it is the expectation we communicate to our physical forms. The rest is working through rehab. Rather than gathering reasons why we can’t do this or that, we are constantly looking for ways to push past. That’s past the pain, limited mobility, and the unfortunately deeply-ingrained prejudices far too many in healthcare have about our ability to heal ourselves as well as engage in the discipline to get back to full capacity.
It’s also true that my Costco acquaintance appears to be more committed to being in pain than he is to getting well. I’ve no issue with that, unless he’s angry or unhappy about it. He didn’t look or sound happy. To that I can only posit, “What do you want to be right about?” What your doc said or what you know instinctively that you can do? Perhaps his pain allows him to avoid chores or it gives him permission to complain. Truth is that we all get something from either being well or being sick.
That’s up to him to answer.
No matter how old we are, we can move past what we think we can do. Age is not an automatic limitation. What we can do is shop smart. By this I mean when I got the referral to find a doc I did my due diligence. I found an ortho who specialized in athletes, not geriatrics. That makes all the difference. When a 70-plus woman who is a passionate golfer needs a knee replacement, she by god wants to back out on the course as soon as possible. She’s going to choose a doc who works with athletes. She has the expectation and determination that will put her back doing what she loves as soon as possible.
Now while you might argue- not without cause- that some of us could end up crippled, all I’m saying here is that our quality of life is self-determined. The way we embrace our condition, trusting our bodies to do the best they can to heal, doing the work to get us there, having a sense of humor about our situations (which floods the body with healing endorphins thankyouverymuch) all work hard to give us the best possible outcome.
Never give someone else permission to limit you. Especially when it comes to healing. Docs have a bad habit of needing to be right- just like the rest of us- only the difference is that a great many of us confer unjustified influence and power to them over our own bodies. OUR bodies. OURS to manage, push, energize, convince, cajole and sculpt.
Here’s one of my favorite stories from 2017: https://www.climbing.com/news/robert-kelman-87-becomes-oldest-person-to-climb-devils-tower/. Think this guy has had his share of injuries? You bet. However there he is, the oldest man to climb Devil’s Tower. There is no reason the rest of us can’t find our own mountain to climb and our own success stories to tell. Unless of course you’d rather repeat your tale of woe to the woman in the checkout line. If you’re more in the market for pity than for positive reinforcement, have at it. Nothing wrong with that; except your quality of life and those who are drawn to that kind of pity party.
To your health, your healing, and to a life well-lived. That’s up to US, not the doctor. See you out playing.