So, the past year has been a pretty bumpy ride.
I would probably liken it to the old defunct roller coaster at the CNE in Toronto, “The Flyer”. In its heyday, The Flyer was where it was at. Long before Canada’s Wonderland, it was THE roller coaster in Canada to beat. It had one great big hill and a few small ones, but the thing was pretty damn rickety, and all wood. It was a great ride, to be sure, but you always felt that it was just one step away from going straight off the rails. (And then a bunch of people were finally hurt in an accident on it, and that was the end of the Flyer. But I digress . . .)
Like the Flyer, there were some great ups in 2013 (landing a music publishing contract, nailing down an East Coast tour for the first time and playing at the awesome “Musideum” in T.O.) and some pretty big downs as well – a nasty car accident back in March, followed by months of rehab, and then this:
Yes, this is my right hand.
There’s not much worse that you can do to a pianist than wreck their right hand. Except, perhaps, wreck both hands . . . This was actually a direct result of the therapy from my car accident, which is especially annoying. They actually wrecked my wrist by pulling on my hand to stretch out my shoulder (don’t ask).
SAVING LITTLE OLD LADIES AND KITTENS
At the last band rehearsal I had, my friend Jason Lapidus asked me what happened, and then recommended that I change my story to say I saved someone’s life by pulling them out of danger. Or performed some other massive heroic feat of some sort. Perhaps lifted up a car to save a kitten? Or rescued a poor old lady from a runaway bus? I don’t know – maybe I should make up a new story for each new inquiry. It certainly beats the truth.
At any rate, a few days after feeling a little bit of pain in my wrist from the wayward physiotherapy, I woke up in severe pain. Unable to move my wrist or my hand at all. With two gigs coming up in less than a month.
I use my hands a lot. More than most people. Besides being super-animated when I speak (every description has to be accompanied by a life-size air drawing), I have to conduct, write and play as a music teacher. And then there’s that piano playing thing too . . .
So needless to say, I was mortified to find that I couldn’t even dress myself, let alone touch the piano. Luckily, some good friends suggested some specialists, and after a trip to a hand and wrist surgeon, a music injury specialist and a physiotherapy clinic that specializes in musicians, things started to (very) slowly improve.
(This isn’t my hand . . . mine is much more handsome.) 😉
An MRI showed that I had a “Stage 2 ligament strain” (Stage 1 is minor, Stage 3 requires surgery because the ligaments are shredded). I was given a series of masochistic stretching exercises to try to regain some movement in my wrist, which I initially balked at because each one felt like I was shredding the tendons and ligaments all over again. But, like the surgeon said: “use it or lose it”. I had developed scar tissue in the 3 months before I was able to get in to see anyone (thank you Ontario Health Care), and in the process of breaking through it I learned a lot about my tolerance for pain. I had none. I would often have to grit my teeth and fight back tears every time I did them, up to ten times a day.
When my wrist was first injured, I thought “3 weeks”. It will get better in about 3 weeks. 3 months passed before I could even see a specialist, and the pain was still constantly there, night and day. Then after treatment started, I thought “Ok, 3 more months and it will be over”. So here I am, over 9 months later, and I still can’t play piano.
I’ll be honest here. There have been more than a few times that I have been raging mad or close to tears because of pain and frustration. Despite even lowering expectations (forget playing, I’ll be happy with pulling up my pants without pain . . .), I was making incredibly slow progress. Even the doctors and physiotherapists couldn’t explain it. The wrist surgeon was convinced I was making it up. “Your tests are not consistent”, he said, as I screamed when he twisted my wrist every possible way to check my range of motion. “You feel pain in one place, and then another – it doesn’t make sense”. He couldn’t operate on it, so he quickly lost interest in actually, you know, trying to help. His last comments to me were: “You don’t need to see me again, right?”. Um, definitely not.
Luckily the Musicians Clinic of Canada was a lot more helpful. After having electrodes taped to my arms while I stumbled through an atrocious (and painful in more ways than one) version of Fur Elise on the grand piano in Dr. John Chong’s Hamilton office, I was referred by his colleague Dr. MacMillan to a physiotherapy clinic in Newmarket (why don’t any of these doctors actually practice in Toronto?!?) where I finally got some much needed advice on stabilizing and strengthening my wrist. It’s not too often that adults get to play with silly putty and rubber balls, so I jumped at the chance.
Again, sometimes the treatment can seem worse than the affliction. My wrist would ache beyond belief after doing exercises with 1, then 2 lb weights and silly putty/rubber strengthening balls. You really have to have faith that what you are doing will end up fixing your wrist, because you really feel like you are breaking it.
PUTTING THINGS BACK TOGETHER (or, saving yourself from becoming Grumpy Cat)
One of the things that a lot of people don’t think about when you have a hand or wrist injury is just how much of your life it affects. It’s not just about playing piano. Showering, dressing, driving, cutting a sandwich(!) . . . it’s amazing how useless you can feel. There were certainly days when I was just downright depressed and didn’t want to do anything. Getting out of bed? Pain. Putting on a shirt? Pain. Tying your shoes? Forget about it.
Friends and family have been very supportive. But I’m sure at some point, everyone was thinking: Ok, surely it must be better by now. What’s taking so long?
The physiotherapist I was seeing was helpful at first – she tried stretching, massage and muscle stimulation. Over time, things definitely did improve. But there was always a problem with my wrist getting “stuck” when stretching – using warm water helped, but it was always an issue. Finally, there was a breakthrough when we realized that with her compressing my wrist with one hand while stretching it with the other, the problem disappeared. She had the brilliant idea of using athletic tape to help support the wrist in the same place. It worked.
While obviously not a long-term solution, it has allowed me to actually start playing piano again. Mind you, I’m still playing at a student level for short periods of time, but it’s a huge change. And it makes me hopeful for the future. Hopefully with continued exercise, the muscles will strengthen enough to hold the wrist themselves, eliminating the need for the tape.
I’m now approaching the one-year anniversary of my wrist injury. I can only hope that I will be well on my way to recovery by then. I have resigned myself to the fact that I may never get back to the place I was at before, but I am hopefully positive. I will take it day by day, with no expectations. Then perhaps, like with the athletic tape, I may have a pleasant surprise.