I wanted to talk a little bit about my journey to give you an opportunity to get to know me a little bit more personally and talk specifically to musicians because music was a huge part of my life before becoming a therapist. As a therapist I have spent the last 20+ years specializing in injuries of the upper extremity and I’m a total hand geek! But before my life as a therapist I was a music geek!
The only thing I ever wanted to do since the 5th grade was to be a professional flutist. I knew from the moment I blew air through that metal tube I was going to be a musician. I remember going home that night and telling my parents who probably thought I was nuts. But I did just that, I went to a conservatory and got my bachelors in fine arts in flute performance. I studied with some amazing teachers that truly inspired and pushed me. I never wanted to be an orchestral player, my passion was chamber music and I really wanted to do studio work. Putting music to animation and soundtracks always blew my mind.
California was the place to go at the time so I increased my practice time to about 8 hours a day. No one ever talked to me about practice habits so looking back now I realize all the bad habits I had. Teachers then didn’t talk to us about body mechanics, ergonomics, posture, etc. Why would they, they were professional musicians, they didn’t study the human body! I was freelancing, teaching and also took a job helping a friend computerize an office to save as much money as I could to pick my life up and move across country. So, I knew nothing at the time about proper ergonomics either. Needless to say my computer and desk were set up horribly.
Thankfully in this day and age (yes, I’m dating myself a bit) there is a lot more information out there about proper ergonomics. So between the jump in my practice time, poor practice habits, stress and working in a very bad position I had the perfect storm. Though I was excited to be moving across the country, I realize now I was also pretty scared to pick my life up and move. Being a musician is a tough road and now I realize I was afraid of failing. Because of this perfect storm I ended up with horrible pain in my right upper extremity with numbness and tingling. I went from playing 8 hours a day to barely being able to hold my instrument and play for 10 minutes. I was devastated and completely freaking out, what was I going to do? I’m supposed to go pursue my dream? As a musician you have to be 110% to succeed (at least that was my belief) and I was broken. I had to get better, I had to fix this!
So, I entered the lovely world of healthcare, which sadly was better 25 years ago than it is today but 25 years ago it still was not great for musicians. I saw some docs in Connecticut where I lived and went to therapy but nothing worked. Then I found a well known doc in New York City that supposedly “specialized” in working with musicians so of course I jumped on that! Ughhhh is all I can say! I trekked down to NYC, this is now a few months after the pain and symptoms started so I was even more scared because I had not gotten any better! The doc takes me in, barely says anything to me, see’s I have a list of questions and rolls his eyes! He then starts examining my wrists and fingers, stops, leaves the room and brings in about 5 other docs! NEVER does he tell me why. They all start poking on me and talking about stuff in medical terms so of course I had no clue what they were saying…..medicine is a language in and of itself! They leave, he still doesn’t tell me what they found, pokes on me a little more and tells me to rest, take anti-inflammatory meds and it will be fine! He did send me to a hand therapist that same day which gave me hope because she supposedly “specialized” in working with musicians as well. I thought, heck she will get it! Unfortunately, again, huge disappointment! She made me a splint for my little finger and sent me on my way!
All I could think was “how is this possible? I’ve seen people that “specialize” in working with musicians and I still have no answers and I’m still left with all my pain and symptoms and I can’t play. Completely defeated I go back home. Finally I find a neuromuscular manual therapist that was able to treat most of my symptoms and get rid of the numbness and tingling I had in my right hand. But, my little finger still could not maintain it’s position on the E flat key. So, I’m pain free but I still can’t play and I’m nowhere near 110%! If the people that “specialize” in working with musicians couldn’t help me then I guess I can’t be fixed is what I thought! So my dreams were crushed, I was not going to be able to be a professional musician, how could I if I couldn’t control one of the most important fingers on my instrument?
What the heck was I going to do? I had NO idea! I had never wanted to do anything else! I was one of those lucky kids that always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, I never had to think about it, but there I was in my mid to late twenties having to figure that out! So my grandma said: “why don’t you become a physical therapist?” I laughed and said, “no way, I’m not touching feet.” But it got me to thinking and that is how I found occupational therapy! It seemed like a great fit, having gone through everything I had, not getting the help I needed I thought maybe I could make a difference. So, OT kinda fell in my lap, I applied to a school that had a program with an interest in the program but they took me in the program without officially applying and gave me a lot of money to go! Ready, set, go……. I was off and panicking! Holy crap I thought, how am I going to get through all these science classes, etc. I was a musician and for some reason they wouldn’t take orchestra for physics?!?!! It’s amazing though, how when you put your mind to something you can excel at it! So, I learned all about the body, all about the mind body connection, all about analyzing activities. And with all that learning, I learned what my diagnosis’ had been and ways they could have been treated! So there I was, a therapist! Who would have thought?! I spent years focusing on treating injuries in the upper extremity and specializing in this area and I honestly grew to LOVE it and I’m super passionate about all aspects of my career now.
I believe that every healthcare provider works to the best of their ability and with pure intention to help others (there are some out there that don’t but out of all healthcare providers I believe most have great intentions). The problem was that even though the people I saw “specialized” in working with musicians they really didn’t “get” musicians! They had NO idea what it was like to be a musician, let alone a musician with an injury! They looked at my symptoms and put some band aids on them…., rest, anti-inflammatory medicine, and a splint. Not one provider throughout my journey and I mean not one looked at me as a whole! No one looked at me while I was playing my instrument to see what was going on bio-mechanically and ergonomically, no one looked at my posture in general or while playing, no one talked to me about practice habits, no one talked to me about anything else that I might be doing in life that may be contributing to my symptoms, no one talked to me about stress/fear/anxiety and how it affects your tissues and symptoms, no one offered me any solution to address the muscle spasms and tightness I was having, no one talked to me about the importance of exercise, warming up, no one talked to me about stress management and overall wellness as a musician and no one told me I was missing a tendon in my little finger! YUP! Can I just say assholes for a minute?!?!?!? OMG, seriously you bring in 5 docs including yourself to poke on a patient and don’t even tell the patient what you found? Yes, as a patient I should have advocated for myself! I should have asked questions…but remember, he rolled his eyes at my list so made me feel inferior and not worth asking questions …. Just let the doc do his job, he knows best, right?!!
So as horrible as the entire experience was it has fueled my passion for making sure patients advocate for themselves, making sure that I as a healthcare provider listen and hear my patients and most importantly make sure I do everything to answer their questions and educate them. And as awful as the loss of my music was it has enabled me to be someone who truly specializes in working with musicians! I’ve been through it, I was a musician, I was a musician with an injury and I know what I never got and now I have the knowledge and experience to share it with others. Musicians need someone that is going to look at the entire picture of their life, they need someone who understands, who has walked the walk and knows what they heck they are talking about, someone that “gets” them! I am that person!