I sat in an orthopedic surgeon’s office in Golden, Colo., in 2004 as we discussed my left elbow. Just two days earlier I’d fallen off a ladder in my driveway and dislocated the elbow. I’d also fractured the radius bone in my forearm nearest the elbow. Repairing the damage would be complicated, he told me.
The surgeon offered me two choices. Option One was to forgo surgery. I’d have a very loose elbow, be unable to fully straighten my arm and probably develop early arthritis. Option Two was surgery. The surgeon explained that he’d try to screw the fractured pieces of my radius bone back together. But it might not be possible. In that case, he’d saw an inch off the end of the radius bone and put a cup-shaped piece of titanium in its place. We discussed two possible complications: infection and the chance that the titanium implant might wear out in about 15 years.
(Joel Kimmel/For The Washington Post) - Construction worker undergoes elbow surgery which results in a lame arm. When his other arm gets injured separately, he resolves no more surgery.
In lieu of a plaster cast, he’d bolt a metal hinge device called an external fixator onto the outside of my arm. It would be held in place by three-inch bolts screwed through my arm and uninjured parts of my bones. I had no idea what he was talking about. But he seemed knowledgeable and competent.
When he told me that if it were his arm, he’d want the surgery done, I signed the consent form. I wanted a fully functioning left arm. On my way out the door, I turned and asked my only relevant question of the day: “How many of these fixator things have you installed?” The surgeon gave a curious answer. They were fairly new, he said, but his practice group had installed three or four of them. I left without a second thought.
Surgery No. 1
Two weeks later, I woke up from surgery with my left hand and lower forearm paralyzed.
I went to physical therapy diligently, three days a week for four months. Every two weeks I had follow-up appointments with my surgeon. He’d gaze off into the corners of the room and tell me that the paralysis was temporary, that my arm would fully heal. I grew increasingly unsure of that, though, and my doubts often kept me awake at night. Finally, my physical therapist advised that I should request a nerve conduction test.
I sat in the specialist’s office looking at the flat green line on an old-fashioned oscilloscope. I prayed for a blip. I stared intently, willing with all my might for an electrical signal from the nerve in my arm to set the green line jumping. The line stayed flat. Then the specialist turned to me and asked, “Mr. O’Connell, what do you do for a living?” With that question, he gave me the results of the test, which also told me that at age 48 I’d just joined the ranks of the disabled.
I looked up sadly and told him. “I’m a construction guy who loved to work with his hands.”
Surgery No. 2
Many surgeries cause temporary numbness; very few result in permanent paralysis, as mine had. Months later, I learned that the damage had probably been caused when my first surgeon was placing the external fixator device on my arm. Most likely some of my radial nerve had gotten wrapped around his drill bit, turning the nerve to mush. But even without this later knowledge I no longer trusted my surgeon. I began looking for a new one to repair the nerve damage.