Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 3, 2020 | °F in Baltimore

On forging a deeper relationship with my body (and Union Memorial)

By SOPHIA LOLA | February 27, 2020

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COURTESY OF SOPHIA LOLA Two injuries last semester taught Lola the lesson of listening to her body.

Over the past few months, I’ve had so many X-rays and other imaging done that I’m a little disappointed the radiation hasn’t yet given me superpowers. They all happened during the 20 or so ER trips, doctor’s visits and physical therapy appointments that I had as a result of two injuries last semester.

It was overwhelming and annoying. But it served for some valuable revelations about health, being an adult and dealing with sudden obstacles, even if those revelations came like a slap in the face.

In September, while walking down North Charles, I tripped on an uneven bit of sidewalk that I hadn’t seen in the dark, slamming my left shoulder painfully into the ground. I couldn’t lift myself up.

Some concerned passersby called the Hopkins Emergency Response Organization, who then called an ambulance to take me to Union Memorial’s ER. I stayed there until 2 a.m. getting X-rays and having my dislocated shoulder popped back into its socket.

It was my first ER trip in years and my first time having to be the adult who fills out the pile of waivers and insurance forms. Everything from being face-down on the sidewalk to having my shirt cut off so they could examine my shoulder to the bucket of tears I cried was humiliating, stressful and painful. I went home with a sling and a stack of papers instructing me to follow up with an orthopedist.

I wound up with three weeks in the sling, another follow-up appointment two weeks later and six more weeks following that of no strenuous activity. In the grand scheme of things, nothing too serious.

But I’d already worked myself into a panic. As soon as they said “dislocated shoulder,” all I could do was think of my brother — the over 20 times he’s dislocated his shoulder, the three surgeries he’s had to correct that problem — and envision this injury as my start down that same path.

Maybe I gained some understanding of what he’s experienced, but I was getting way ahead of myself. I gotta take it one step at a time — one injury at a time.

I handled my second injury with much less forward thinking/worrying, but I should’ve taken it more seriously from the beginning.

In November, while walking downstairs to the Charles Commons lobby, I fell down the last two stairs and twisted my ankle. I wiped away the tears, shooed away the onlookers and braced myself to walk back to my room and treat my injury alone. “It’s just sprained,” I told my roommates dismissively. “I’ve done this several times before while hiking.” Some ice, elevation, an ACE bandage and I’d be fine, like always. 

I was wrong. Walking was still unbearably painful the next morning, so I reluctantly arranged for a ride to HelWell, annoyed to miss Spanish. They gave me a cane and suggested I go to the hospital that afternoon for X-rays just in case it was more serious. 

I decided to go the next day, not wanting to miss another class. I even considered not going, thinking it would be a waste of time and money. But I didn’t have class until late the next day, so I could ostensibly limp over to Union Memorial, check in to the ER, get the confirmation that I was fine and still have a few hours to spare before class.

I was wrong about that too. I was about to be discharged an hour and a half after checking in, but the ER doc said she had looked at my X-rays again and spotted a tiny fracture. I’d need a CT scan and MRI, but the machines were malfunctioning or something, so I had to stay longer — five hours longer (I did miss class). 

Some fellows from Orthopedics came to explain what was going on. It wasn’t just a sprain. It wasn’t just a fracture. On top of those, there was a bone defect and general joint instability, probably because I’d done this multiple times before.

Finally, I left the ER with crutches and a temporary cast and piled into a Hopkins Security car with my roommates to ride the two blocks back to Commons. I was on crutches until my follow-up appointment a few days later, then a boot for two weeks and then a brace and PT for six weeks over winter break. There were more doctor’s appointments and even talk of surgery, though thankfully that’s now been pushed down the line for if I hurt my ankle yet again.

The level of exhaustion that resulted from my injuries was one I’ve never experienced before. I had to put much more mental strategizing and physical effort into everyday tasks, like carrying my backpack, walking around, making food, getting dressed. Many others were impossible without help (cue the video of my roommate wheeling me in my desk chair down the hall of Commons). That was exhausting. The pain that kept me from fully restful sleep at night was exhausting. 

The frustration at being unable to do my normal routine and fear that I was burdening others was emotionally exhausting. Keeping track of appointments and constantly wondering what the next step of recovery would be was also emotionally exhausting.

I felt guilty about the time I spent sleeping, doing nothing or missing class rather than powering through and doing everything normally, which was probably possible but definitely not comfortably manageable. 

But why should I feel guilty for staying at my manageable limit and not pushing toward my breaking point? Recovery means sleeping, resting and allowing your body the time and energy it needs to heal. Though it’s inconvenient, sometimes you have to sacrifice productivity and normality for the sake of well-being. I’m still trying to accept and practice that now.

Being injured damaged my confidence too. It’s hard to feel good about your body when your body doesn’t feel good. The pain and physical limitations made me resent my body and amplified long-standing insecurities. It was easy to criticize my body, to feel like something was wrong with it — with me. I’d gotten hurt by being clumsy. I wasn’t strong enough. I always looked exhausted and never put-together. I nitpicked other things I’d previously spent a long time learning to love.

But I began to remind myself of the big principles I’d learned about self-love and body confidence: First, I should love and accept my body no matter what condition it’s in — big or small, fit or unfit, injured or intact. Second, I should be proud of my body for what it’s accomplished: withstanding and recovering from injury. 

Lastly, I started thinking more about my body’s specific needs. Honestly, before these injuries, I didn’t like thinking about my health too much. If I could get up every morning and do what I had to do, I was probably fine, and potential health issues could be dealt with later in life. But then I was dealing with one sooner rather than later.

Then I became paranoid. If one thing came up unexpectedly, what if another did? What if I got hurt again, or got some weird diagnosis at my next annual physical?

But that was overthinking. Just because a shoulder injury became a long-term issue for my brother, doesn’t mean it will for me. Every disease listed on Wikipedia isn’t something I’m likely to get. It was through actively focusing on what needed the most attention (my ankle) and getting stronger at PT that I began accepting what my physical therapist called “my personal cross to bear” — we each have our own. Maybe I will have more.

My shoulder still twinges sometimes. My ankle still clicks like it has been for three years and may cause more problems later, in which case I’ll deal with them. Until then or whatever else comes up, I can reflect on my habits — how I sleep, eat, exercise and otherwise take care of myself — and adjust them in a way that works for me and my body specifically.

And I know that Union Memorial will always be there to support me if it has to.

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