About nine and a half weeks ago, I broke my hand when I fell onto concrete. Two complete fractures and a dislocation of the large joint connecting my pinky to my palm. One ER visit and two surgeries later, I am finally able to learn to use my hand again.
I figured it would be easy, since I’ve been a pianist for over 30 years. All those tendons and muscles are primed and ready to return to business, right?
No such luck.
I started hand therapy with a certified hand specialist last week. We’ve had three sessions so far. When I first met him, I was thrilled at the opportunity to observe an odd character for a while but wasn’t sure about his lack of experience working with pianists. Old habits die hard, and I still feel convinced at times that being a pianist gives me special privileges that mere mortals do not have. Ask anyone who has sat in a practice room for hours at a time something about their hands and they will bore you for more hours than they just practiced. Yes, we are as obsessed with this half of our instrument as a singer is about his voice. Pianists make fun of singers with their steamers, their refusal to make phone calls to save their voice, and their natural flair for drama. But you know what? Pianists are worse. So much worse. “Watch the hands!” becomes our mantra. “Oh, a strained tendon? Heating pad, ice, Advil, Tylenol,” is our shared trophy for over-practice.
Because performance is not a priority anymore, and because my husband and I share one car and going in to Baltimore to work with some specialist who has experience with the best musicians wasn’t particularly appealing, I decided to stay close to home with the hand therapist in town.
You know, the man knows hands. Yes, it’s true that my required range of motion is more significant than the average patient, but he is a man who listens and modifies to accommodate my neurosis. It’s to my own detriment because he has fashioned the most frightening torture devices to restore my hand’s function, and they hurt like almighty hell. But they help; bit by bit, millimeter by millimeter, I am able to move my hand a tiny bit more each day.
Most of the time, the soft tissue feels the same sort of fatigue you might feel if you’d just tried to bench-press 250 pounds when you’ve never bench-pressed anything in your life. This is what I find frustrating. I just broke the thing; why did it atrophy so quickly? Why don’t my tendons want to snap back into place?
One of the surgeries required an incision that has left a scar from the skin down into the tendon. My hand therapist is working on releasing the adhesion, and I use silicone gel at night to smooth the surface. The bones healed quickly, but the soft tissue has months to go. I try not to find this depressing, but it is. I can’t stretch my hand out. My pinky has a curve to it that I am working to correct by wearing a special splint at night. I can’t bend my little finger on my own. After three torturous sessions, I can bend it from my palm, but there is nothing engaging inside to curl the rest of it into my palm. He says this will take until December. It’s October. Two more months before I can make a loose fist; six more until I can make a full fist.
The experience has taught me much about myself, and I spend quite a lot of time being philosophical about it. Mostly because I don’t have anything else to do during hours of hand exercises every day but think.
My hand therapist is a tall, fair, Danish man with a thick accent. He enjoys using American idioms and speech patterns. I enjoy hearing them in a Danish accent. He is roughly “middle-aged,” and walks with a limp. His fading blonde hair falls over his brow, and brushing it back out of his eyes is something of a nervous tick. He likes to have multiple conversations going on at one time, and I am both disturbed and impressed by his ability to juggle them. His favorite method of doing this is to ask a question of one person and immediately ask another unrelated question of the second person without waiting for a response from the first. He then nods as both participants answer unrelated questions at the same time, colliding our awkward banter in a way that is surprisingly pleasant when you get used to the rhythm of it.
Today during my session, he said, “You’re not squirming in your chair yet; that means it is maturing and healing.” It’s true, I did not squirm until halfway through the appointment, at which time his manipulation of the pinky finger was so forceful that I wished Lamaze had been part of my education. When it reaches this level of intensity, I wince and curl my body into my chair in an effort to draw away from the pain. He nods his head in the way only wise older man can and says, “As long as it feels better when you leave, ja?” He apologizes when he bends it further than it wants to go and I jump involuntarily, yet he continues doing it. I haven’t decided if it makes him a brave man to hurt people for a living or just sadistic.
I choose to believe my intuition telling me of his kind nature is correct and have learned to trust him. Sometimes I have to just close my eyes and shake my head to the unasked question, “Do you need to stop?” I know if I stop, I will not use my hands the way I have become accustomed to over the past thirty-five years and that is not acceptable.
In truth, my hand therapist and his aide brighten my day. They keep me believing that there really is an end to this pain and tedium, even if it is too far away to see yet. They talk to me about a variety of subjects (some all at the same time), and we have traded ideas about everything from overseas travel to tendon flexors to beer. More than that, they are moral support on a bleak journey. While the landscape of my life was already changing, this made a few decisions for me that I was not ready to make. I do not talk about it, but I think about it every moment of every day. This quirky support team unintentionally remind me to put things in perspective. No matter what happens with my hand in the end, I am grateful to them for the hope they provide.