But instead of relieving her pain, the surgery had left Harrod with an unexplained gnawing ache in her right shoulder and upper arm. Despite numerous tests, months of potent antibiotics and painful procedures, her surgeon found no sign of infection or any other problem. Her physical therapist was equally perplexed: Harrod’s new shoulder had an excellent range of motion — the ability to move freely — a key barometer of surgical success.
So why, Harrod kept asking, did it hurt to put a teacup in the microwave or pull laundry out of the washing machine?
It was a chance question from her brother that ultimately led to a reevaluation of her case, upending long-standing assumptions about what was wrong and how best to treat it. In all, Harrod underwent seven operations performed by three specialists before her shoulder worked and felt right.
“I never really realized before just how important it is to be tenacious,” she said. “I’m a dumpy middle-aged woman and it’s easy to feel intimidated by doctors” — especially surgeons with a commanding presence.
In June 2007, while giving a presentation at a church in Northern Virginia, Harrod fell off a low podium, ripping the cartilage in her shoulder.
When three months of physical therapy and painkillers failed, the first orthopedic surgeon performed an arthroscopic procedure, which allowed him to inspect the joint and make some surgical repairs. He told her that the tear, known to baseball pitchers as a SLAP injury, was worse than first thought and that more extensive surgery might be required.
In June 2008, after months of PT, Harrod still had trouble lifting her arm, and the pain remained strong enough to require Vicodin, a narcotic pain reliever. After a second arthroscopy revealed extensive arthritis, the surgeon told Harrod she might need a total shoulder replacement.
When Harrod was no better after five more months of therapy, her brother, a lawyer for a Seattle hospital, advised her to find a highly experienced shoulder specialist, not a general orthopedist. Her new surgeon, who practices in Northern Virginia, also recommended a total shoulder replacement, using a prosthetic joint that Harrod understood would be made of titanium. During the preoperative physical, she answered the standard questions about whether she had any allergies, especially to drugs and latex; she had neither.
Her 2009 operation went well, and after about a month in a sling, she started a new round of PT. Although it soon became clear that Harrod’s range of motion was much improved, a deep ache had settled in her upper arm and shoulder, which felt different from the pain she had experienced before the joint replacement. While she could now lift her arm above her head, the normal swinging movement of her arms when she walked hurt.