It is one thing to know all about an operation that is said to be painful and it is another thing when you are the one having the surgery. That happened to me this past month when I underwent the surgeon’s knife to repair a long-standing Rotator Cuff Injury to my shoulder.
The first step was to find the right doctor. I immediately liked him. He told me he could repair my torn rotator cuff with three small incisions on my shoulder. Through those incisions he would tie my torn tendon back in place. He said I would wear a splint for five weeks and rehab therapy would follow. That all sounded fine to me. I had been hurting for three months since my injury and wanted to get my shoulder repaired as soon as he could put me on the schedule.
My doctor didn’t really tell me I would experience a lot of pain but did give me quite a few strong pain pills. When the local anesthetic wore off 24 hours later, the pain was intense. I had always said I had a high pain threshold, but this pain made me wonder if I had ever been truly tested. Nights became the worse part of the day because I looked forward to going to sleep but too often found that impossible. Two or three hours sleep was a gift. I developed a mantra that helped. Whenever the pain got bad I would say, “This too will pass.”
I used that mantra and the spiritual practice of meditation. What I found was when I meditated and fixed my attention on my breathing, to my surprise I no longer felt the pain. And, also while I was meditating several things came surprisingly to mind.
For one thing, I was told not to use my left arm and to act as if I was “a one-armed man.” During one of my meditations, I recalled a patient from my long-ago past who had lost his hand in a sawmill accident. I identified with him in a way not previously possible. Whenever I tried to use just my right hand, I realized first-hand how awkward it was for my former patient. Whether buttoning my shirt, typing on my computer, or putting my belt on, all these tasks were now quite difficult. I could say “This too will pass” but it hit me hard when I realized my former patient couldn’t say that this would pass for him.
Then too, during another time of meditation, I identified with my younger brother, David, who had acquired a severe neuromuscular illness that left him totally paralyzed, a quadriplegia. My brother could not even scratch his nose or feed himself. I had one useable arm and I knew only in part what it must have felt like for David to no longer be able to do even the simplest thing that I take for granted every day, like brushing my teeth. I could say, “This too will pass” but that was not true for David. His illness did not pass and he died two years after its onset.
Being reminded during meditation of my patient and my brother, this also awakened a deep compassion for people whose illness will not pass and will remain for the remainder of their lives, even take their life. I thought of those born with a congenital deformity, those who are injured in an accident and are handicapped, those who have mental illness, the Zika infected babies born without a brain, and those with terminal cancer. Their reality is and shall remain that, “This will not pass.”
It is one thing to know your situation in life will pass, given enough time. But where do we find comfort when we are faced with the reality that what we must endure will not pass? In large part I think we find comfort from our loved ones, family and friends, and healthcare providers who remain at our side, who support us, and give us assurance we are still of value, help us see that we can still have a meaningful life. And, for many, God provides the comfort that no one can give, the assurance that God still loves us and has not forsaken us no matter what we must endure.
Perhaps the most healing thing is knowing when we can do nothing to change our situation, we are not alone. Others will come to our side, left our hands, and in the process show us we still matter and are still loved.
I now have rehab to look forward to and more pain. I will say my mantra, “This too will pass.” The mantra helped me endure my pain but it was during my time of meditation that compassion awoke in me for those who face physical, mental and spiritual pain knowing, “This too will not pass.”
Through my pain, I learned how an illness or injury can be used to teach us profound spiritual truths and often when we least expect it. Kind of makes me wonder if we need our times of pain to learn the most profound lessons in life.
John K Graham, M.D., President and CEO