by Ani Pytlewski
THE WHEN & HOW
I knew exactly when it happened. It was the day I had finally realized I had a chance at climbing 5.13. I had lowered down the route to dial in the crux that I could never do before, but that day I finally did. I wasn’t necessarily even feeling my strongest. At the time, quarantine had just begun, but something came over me that day, and I was climbing may be better than I ever have before.
When I topped the route for the first time that day, I lowered down to dial in the crux that I couldn’t make it through before. I did it maybe 5 or 6 times through. My boyfriend, Jon, on belay probably dying to get out of his harness, yelled up to me, but I couldn’t hear him. I yelled back down, “lower; this is the last time.” And it was – for me at least. I pulled on, matched the pinch I couldn’t hold before, hit the Gaston with my right hand, moved my left foot up, flagged my right foot, hit the next Gaston with my left hand, and I remember moving my left elbow out like a chicken wing, to get around the rope in this sequence. The tearing of my rotator cuff was so loud to me. I was convinced Jon could probably hear it on the ground. It was like slow motion, a rubber band being stretched almost to its point of snapping. I screamed and let go.
I couldn’t see a doctor since hospitals at the time were only accepting Covid patients. So I immediately began rehabbing it in our friend’s basement that I had made into my quarantine gym. It got a little better for a bit, but we weren’t climbing outside at all anymore. I thought it was just a strain, and the pain was pretty minor, but then the gym reopened. I think I was the first one to sign up for a reservation spot. Anxious to get on the wall and see how my shoulder felt, I started bouldering, and within a couple of moves, I could feel that stretching again, and even a grinding now. I was so nervous. I took it easy that day, avoided shoulder moves on that side, and decided I’d maybe stick with ropes for a while.
It never got better though, no matter how much I iced it, tried to mask it with NSAIDs, or rested it, it just got worse. However, I could still climb. That was about all I could do on it, and for the rest of the day or night, I couldn’t even lift it without pain. I knew from the moment it happened that something was wrong, but I loved climbing so much I thought I could still do this. I could be happy where I’m at, as long as I could climb.
For reference at the time, I had just sent my first couple of V7s outside. I was not only sending, but starting to onsight 5.12s outside, and 12+ in the gyms. But the grade 5.13 was my goal and limit. As a 5 foot tall female, I already have quite a disadvantage. Now on top of getting around that, I needed to get around my left shoulder. People knew I had injured my shoulder, but they almost didn’t even believe me the way I was climbing – and looking back, I didn’t believe it either. I knew it happened, I knew what happened, and I just kept fighting because I thought that’s what you do when you love something this much. How far was I willing to go for one of the things I love the most? I was in pure denial.
Fast forward a few weeks later. I wasn’t sleeping and hadn’t in a long time. The pain was so bad it kept me up all night every night, and eventually, I caved. I needed to fix this.
I had found a sports medicine doctor through my insurance, and after getting the MRI results, he just said surgery is the only way. The MRI showed my left shoulder was highly arthritic for a 29-year-old. I also have a partial-full thickness tear of my rotator cuff and a tear in my labrum.
I asked him if I would be as strong as I am after surgery, and he couldn’t say yes or no. I asked him if I would be able to perform as a climber, I asked every question I could to help convince myself to get the surgery, but I couldn’t get a straight answer.
Maybe it was the denial or shock, but even a doctor couldn’t convince me – I was still hesitant. Life changes so fast. One minute I’m making moves I never thought I could, and the next, my shoulder is ripping apart. At 9 am I went into the doctor’s office for my MRI results, and at 9:12 am, I had surgery scheduled for August 15th. And at 10:30 am, I was back in the gym, projecting more challenging routes than many people without any injuries, once again, questioning everything – asking myself how far I am willing to go to climb?
My mom insisted I saw this surgeon in the city that she knew as “the shoulder guy.” To me, Miss Skeptical, they all say that. I told her the surgery is already scheduled, so unless he can see me tomorrow, I’m just going through with this other guy who hopefully does a good enough job to get me back to where I’m at but in less pain. Later that day, his secretary called me, and I was scheduled for an appointment the following day.
Dr. Ken Kearns
Enter Dr. Ken Kearns. A clean-cut, obviously in shape, young professional. We shook hands, sat down, and for the next 2 hours, we sat and talked about everything he needed to know. He discussed my MRI in detail, I discussed climbing in detail, showed him videos, told him about my life and everything I’ve done and how far I’ve gone to get to this point. I explained how my life revolves around this sport, my identity, and the relationship I built with Jon. Ken listened and understood but was still no different from the other guy. He told me surgery was the only way to fix this.
So I asked him, “will I be as strong as I am now afterward?” No straight answer. “Will I be able to do this kind of move afterward?” No straight answer. I kept asking him questions with no good answers until he cut me off. “Look – I can’t tell you you’re outcome, but I can tell you that whatever I do to your shoulder will make your shoulder better afterward. So if you can do all the crazy shit you’re doing on a bad shoulder, imagine what you could do on a better shoulder.”
I sat there as that sank in. My mind immediately went to 5.13. That goal that feels so close but further away than ever. I told him my surgery was already scheduled, and I wanted to get this done as soon as possible. I was tired of waiting. I told him I wish I had met with him first and sooner because I would have instead scheduled it with him. He asked me when my surgery was and then took the date and left the room. He came back.
“How’s August 5th?” I took a deep breath, and I had scheduled my new surgery date with Ken with less hesitation than before.
I remember climbing up until the day of surgery. I was projecting this 12+ in the gym. Jon was working. I had no belay partner, but everyone who knew it was my last day to climb that I saw at the gym offered to give me a catch that day. I one hung it four times. I went into the weight room, did my last set of weighted pull-ups, collected my stuff, and walked over to check out the new routes they had just set that I would probably never get to climb. There was a black 5.13. There was no one around, so I stood there and started to cry. How far was I willing to go for something I loved? And at that moment, with clarity, for the first time in a long time, I decided that I was willing to go so far that I would completely give this up, just for the slightest chance to have it back eventually.
I went in for surgery at noon and came out at 10:30 pm. It turns out Ken did a lot more than he thought he would and more than I was mentally prepared for. First and foremost, he repaired my rotator cuff. My bicep was in good shape, but my labrum was so worn away that he had no choice but to detach my bicep tendon and anchor it to my bone further down. He took the part of the labrum connected to the tendon and used that to cover up 2/3 of my arthritis. The grinding I was feeling was bone on bone. He also did micro-fractures in my humerus to grow scar tissue to act like more cartilage. Also, irrelevant, but I couldn’t feel my right leg for two days after surgery – totally fine, but if you go in for surgery and can’t feel your leg, don’t panic as I did – it’s just from the way you were seated in operation, and it will get better!
MY RECOVERY TIMELINE
Total rest. Lots of walks, shopping, icing, and sleeping in a chair.
I have been very fortunate to have excellent Medical providers throughout my life. One of them, my old PT, who I worked with for years and through a previous knee injury. He told me no matter what anyone says to train my other arm, strengthen it and keep it stable. Studies have shown that our bodies WANT to be symmetrical. Therefore, even if we don’t load or move one side, the body will naturally preserve the muscle and function on both sides if at least one is still being used. So I did precisely that.
I created mini HIIT circuits for my right side, focusing on pushing and pulling, and in between sets would do floor core and/or fingers on the tension pinch block. I changed up the workout reps/sets almost every day, so it was always different and not so dull. I also did one arm IYTs and external rotation on my right side and overhead stability work on my right side every day I would train.
I also discovered the Peloton bike, which I did in my sling on days I would rest from lifting, and my gosh, that was a savior. I still use it to this day – it was so fun I didn’t want to stop!
As for the range of motion, I was allowed to start doing passive external rotations and overhead exercises lying down. I could not actively move my muscles, so it was all controlled by my other arm. The goal – to get a full/equal range of passive motion by the six-week mark. At the end of every day, I also iced my shoulder religiously, which seriously makes a huge difference! These things called Colpac’s are gel-filled ice packs and stay cold forever and are super nice to always have on hand. I highly recommend getting one, even if you aren’t injured!
Still in the sling, stitches removed, still in the gym… However, my passive range of motion improved every day.
Out of the sling! Started active range of motion (ROM) exercises in formal Physical Therapy. I could barely lift my arm overhead actively, but passively my range of motion was tremendous and even beyond where it was expected to be.
After only a few sessions of PT, I had pretty much regained full range of motion. Progress was so good that I was even allowed to use very light resistance bands, which was amazing but had to be done under PT supervision since it was still very early.
Cleared to start strengthening my shoulder! Basically continued the same exercises in PT, but now actually using weights and progressively loading the shoulder.
Since I had full ROM so quickly, my strength also came back very quickly, and for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I began to wonder when I would be cleared to start climbing. Dr. Kearns said around six months. On paper, I was halfway there, but my PT was highly impressed with my progress and really how strong my shoulder was getting so fast.
It was almost thanksgiving-my goal was to start climbing by Christmas. I had a check-up with Ken, and he was pleased and impressed with my full ROM and a tiny bit of strength – particularly the preservation of what appeared to be muscle. I asked him when I could start climbing, and I could tell he was very hesitant to give me his answer. “How about this? You eat a lot of protein at Thanksgiving dinner, and you can very GENTLY climb the next day.” That was about two weeks from then – I couldn’t believe it. I jumped out of my chair and tried so hard to keep my voice down, but I was so excited. Finally, I had an answer, an exact date, and eventually something to look forward to!
2 Weeks Later:
I went to the gym and tied into a 5.7 on top rope. Jon would come to belay me after work, but the day had come, and I couldn’t wait that long. A couple of my friends saw me tied in and offered to give me some belays. I told myself I’d start at 5.7, and if I flashed it and felt no pain, I could go up to the next grade. I used this rule of thumb the entire day/night. I remember the setters were amazed to see me climbing again (and a little scared) too. It was so lovely to feel like I was part of the gym again finally.
Fast forward 20 minutes later. I was now about to get on my first 5.10-. I remember my factory setter Ben walking by before I started – asking me if I was sure that was a good idea. Honestly, he had a good point, but my shoulder and body had never felt so good. I was very confident and played by my rules that day. I thanked him for his concern, and with confidence, I sent.
One Week Later:
I was limited to rope climbing – no bouldering, but I started lead climbing the second day back, still abiding by my rules. My should felt great, and my fingers too, the only thing was the endurance, but even that wasn’t stopping me. There was a slightly overhanging blue crimpy 5.12- that I saw Jon climbing when I was in a sling that was still up. I remember looking at it thinking I could cruise that if I were able to climb, all bitter and depressed. I stood in front of it with Jon waiting for me to choose what to get on, and at this point, the only thing I hadn’t flashed or tried was a 5.12. “What’s it gonna be?” He asked. My answer – “blue.” If you told me five months ago I’d be flashing 5.12s in the gym again, an achievement that takes a lot of people a lot of time (including myself), I wouldn’t have believed you, but with a half-strength shoulder and one Week into climbing again, I did. Also, I did my first couple of pull-ups that day! I even began adding them back into my training routine on days I would climb.
The gym ended up closing again for a second shutdown. We were working out in a friend’s basement and messing around on their home-wall or traveling to other gyms in Maryland that were open on the weekends. Eventually, though, we started going to my favorite local bouldering spots, Mount Haycock and Mount Gretna. I technically wasn’t cleared to Boulder until I hit the six-month mark, but I had limited ways of climbing at this point, so I took it super easy on myself for the first couple of sessions, but still, my shoulder felt great. The gyms opened again sometime in January, and I felt even stronger since I had started bouldering outside. Strong enough that I was even beginning to work 5.13s again.
I kept up with all my rehab and ramped up my strength training. At about a week before the six-month post-op mark, I had already sent three more V7s outside (including a pre-surgery project), my first ever outdoor V8, and my first three 5.13-‘s in the gym this season sent my first 5.13- outside.
THE OTHER SIDE
As weeks and months went on, I felt more and more like myself again, and even more like a climber than I ever had before. It was like surgery never happened even, everyone seemed to forget about it quickly, but it was something that I still thought of every day, that I could never forget. I guess I had this constant feeling that even though I was doing all of the stuff I never thought I would again with climbing, I still was playing catch up. I still was recovering until one day when I started to train one arm lock-offs in the gym again.
A friend of mine was jokingly talking about how he could still see a difference in the muscle size of the shoulder I had surgery on and could tell from my lock-offs that one was still a little weaker than the other. After all my hard work, I was a little annoyed to have this conversation until I realized what he had said. “Yea, you can tell even when you’re locking off, you’re still just a little weaker on the right side.” Yes, the nit-picking critique was unnecessary, but what he said was actually what I needed to hear. I walked over to the mirror and looked at my arms. “So you think the right side looks weaker too?” I asked. And he said yea, just a little less defined and like I said, weaker in the lock off, but you did have surgery.” I turned around, about to walk out, and said, “yeah, I did, but I had surgery on the left side.”
He said there with his mouth open for a second before his next thought came out. “Oh, jeez, well, I guess now you’re stronger on the other side.” And he was right, literally, figuratively, mentally, and physically. After all of the pain and depression, and doubt, I finally realized I was stronger on the other side. Having surgery was the most challenging decision I ever had to make. I risked a lot, but in the end, it was all worth it.
At the end of it all, I’ve got to be honest – the recovery path is ultimately up to you doing the rehab and the work, finding the balance of pushing yourself, but not overdoing it, yes. But it’s also about your support. I’m not a professional, I didn’t have the best insurance, but I had a surgeon who cared and made executive decisions at the moment that might have made my recovery time longer, but knew they’d benefit my climbing in the long run. And most importantly, I had a partner who was there for me every step of the way, which I could never thank enough. I was not the easiest patient or girlfriend throughout this process, and I gave them more than half the credit. Thank you for getting me through to the “other side.”
If anyone out there has any questions about the surgery, climbing, exercises, training while injured, or wants to chat or exchange stories, I am always down to talk and/or help! My Instagram is @pinchesandcrimps, and my inbox is open 24/7!
Being injured is extremely hard. So if you’re going through it, try to remember you will always be stronger on the other side…