Here’s an interesting article by Miles O’Brien about what it’s like living with only one arm after his had to be amputated.
Fortunately I haven’t had that experience. But readers of this blog may be aware that about 25 years ago I sustained serious nerve injuries to both arms, and underwent an arm surgery fifteen years ago that involved a very difficult recovery. I’ve written about the experience here, in case you missed it. But although I’m very lucky to have the use of both arms now, albeit with some restrictions and some pain and discomfort (especially if I exceed those restrictions), I well remember the years of extreme pain and disability, and the months of recovery when my right arm was nearly useless for most tasks.
It’s harder than most people might think. Even things you might not realize you need both arms for become very difficult—such as, for example, putting on one’s underwear. My elbow was completely frozen for several months, and in addition to terrible pain I couldn’t button my shirt or brush my teeth or touch my head or face with that arm or put deodorant under the other arm or…well, you get the idea. And my problem was merely temporary, although at the time it wasn’t clear that it wouldn’t be permanent.
Shortly after my surgery I had a vivid dream about my arm that I remember to this day. I dreamed it was a sort of Frankenstein-monster arm. In the dream it had been removed and another arm sewn on haphazardly, with those big jagged stitches you see in the movies. It was actually another person’s arm, not mine, and that was why it felt so alien and awful.
O’Brien had a different perception, one quite common among amputees: he had actually lost his arm and yet continued to feel it, and the sensations were often painful. This is the opposite of what happened to author and neurologist Oliver Sacks when he badly injured his leg: Sacks kept his leg but lost the feeling that he had it any more, or that it was attached to his body.
The mind is a funny thing, isn’t it? And yet these perceptions are not solely mental at all, they are interactions between mind and body after severe injury.
O’Brien also had the experience, post-amputation, of falling while running and then reaching out his phantom hand to break his fall. I’ll let him describe it:
It was nothing more than a slightly uneven sidewalk that took me down. No problem for a runner with two arms. In fact, this particular sidewalk is right behind my home, and I had negotiated it uneventfully for years. But here are two things you need to know about life after an arm amputation: First, your center of gravity changes dramatically when you are suddenly eight pounds lighter on one side of your body. Second, while my arm may be missing physically, it is there, just as it always has been, in my mind’s eye. I can feel every digit. I can even feel the watch that was always strapped to my left wrist. When I tripped, I reached reflexively to break my very real fall with my completely imaginary left hand. My fall was instead broken by my nose, and my nose was broken by my fall.
I’m not so sure it’s no problem for a runner—or walker—with two arms, either, because you may recall that something very similar happened to me about two years ago. It was an uneven sidewalk that took me down, too:
I was walking on a sidewalk that’s notoriously uneven, with periodic ridges where the blocks of pavement aren’t flush with each other, and then I was distracted by a group of four people walking nearby.
And so I tripped, with my toe catching on something-or-other. And for reasons I fail to understand even now—and probably wouldn’t be able to pinpoint unless I watched a slo-mo video of the proceedings—I fell hard and fast and was unable to effectively break my fall with my hands.
There was a strange moment when I sailed through the air, flailing a bit before I landed, knowing I was in a slight dive position with my head/face leading and probably likely to contact first. In that split-second, it was frightening to anticipate what might happen. My life didn’t flash through my mind, but questions like “will I have a concussion?” and “what will happen to my face?” certainly did.
I not only broke my nose but sustained other injuries to my face, most of which have healed better than I would have thought, although my already-deviated septum has departed even more than before from the straight and narrow. But although I fell with two arms, I completely failed to break my fall (except with my face), I think in part because I had to make a split-second decision and it is so deeply engrained in me over so many years not to put too much stress on my arms. My reflex now is not to use my arms, and I would have had to have somehow overriden that reflex.
But breaking your fall with your arms isn’t always such a hot idea, either. I have a friend who broke her fall—and her wrist—that way, and had to have surgery to repair the complex fracture and needed to wear a cast for many many months during her difficult recovery.
Best to be vigilant about those uneven sidewalks.