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Orthopaedic & Rehabilitation Institute

The Woman with the Bionic Elbow

The Woman with the Bionic ElbowKathleen (Kathy) Shields is not the type of person to be easily deterred by a setback. A 71-year-old retiree from Saxonburg, Kathy is energetic, cheerful and positive. Her 1,000-watt smile could light a darkened room and her contagious optimism could lift even the bleakest of spirits. But Kathy’s upbeat outlook to life was put to the test after she suffered a devastating injury in 2005.

“I didn’t think I would be the same again,” said Kathy, “until I saw the orthopaedic specialists at Allegheny General Hospital.”

Kathy vividly remembers the day her world turned upside down. It was May 15, 2005 and she was on vacation in Florida. While shopping in an art supply store, Kathy noticed an unusual painting leaning against the wall. She leaned over to inspect the painting when she suddenly tripped over a stack of picture frames that were hidden in the shadows. Kathy’s quick reflexes probably saved her life.

“It happened so fast,” Kathy recalls. “I was falling headfirst into a glass showcase but was able to turn my body sideways before making impact. However, I landed very hard on my elbow as I tried to break the fall.”

Her elbow was pulverized. Bolts of intense pain shot down her arm. Her arm quickly became swollen and turned black and blue. Kathy was rushed to the nearest hospital and was told she had a medical emergency. Surgery had to be performed immediately.

“I wanted to fly back to the Pittsburgh area and have surgery at a hospital I was familiar with. But the emergency department doctor told me I was in danger of developing a blood clot. There was a risk I might not survive if I put off surgery.”

That same day, a surgeon cleaned out the debris from Kathy’s elbow, then implanted a steel rod to stabilize her arm. When Kathy came out of surgery, she awoke to a living nightmare that would torment her for the next four years.

Kathy was in agony: the daily pain would be a constant reminder of her failed surgery. To make matters worse, she lost strength and flexibility in her injured arm. Things that came easy before—brushing her hair, cooking a meal, driving to the bank—were almost impossible to do now. Because of atrophy to her muscles, Kathy’s arm took on a deformed appearance. She had to wear long-sleeve blouses or a sweater to cover her contorted arm before she could leave the house.

Kathy’s cheerful face clouds up when she recalls her terrible ordeal. “I was becoming an invalid,” she said, her bright brown eyes moistening with tears. “And I wasn’t given much hope to recover. Every doctor I visited told me there was nothing they could do. They said I just had to live with it – my arm was as good as it would ever be.”

It wasn’t until Kathy’s brother-in-law, Al Carr, went to Allegheny General for orthopaedic surgery that she regained a glimmer of hope.

“Al nearly lost his hand in an accident. Dr. Hughes, an orthopaedic surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital, skillfully reattached Al’s hand. Al raved about the care he received from Dr. Hughes and told me I should consider getting treatment at AGH. I wondered if Dr. Hughes could perform a medical miracle for me, too.”

Adds Kathy: “I told myself I had a lot of life to live. I wasn’t satisfied with sitting around, holding my arm and feeling sorry for myself. So I decided to dial AGH for an appointment.”

As soon as she met Dr. Hughes, Kathy felt relaxed and confident about her future. “Dr. Hughes took time to sit down with me, calm my fears and outline how he could help me,” she reflected. “He didn’t see any problem fitting me with a new elbow. I was so excited that I told Dr. Hughes to sign me up for surgery immediately!”

According to Dr. Hughes, Kathy had a complicated elbow fracture that had never really healed: she had essentially been living with a broken arm for years.

“We discussed her options, which included trying to heal her fractures with additional plates, screws, and bone grafts,” said Dr. Hughes. “However, there were significant risks of pain, stiffness and persistent dysfunction.  I explained that a more reliable option would be to perform an elbow replacement.  This is a plastic and metal joint replacement, similar to an artificial knee or hip replacement, but performed less commonly.  I felt that it was unfortunate that Mrs. Shields had been living like this for so long and thought she would be an ideal candidate for this procedure.”

On October 9, 2007, Dr. Hughes performed elbow replacement surgery on Kathy at Allegheny General Hospital. During the operation, Dr. Hughes removed the fragmented portions of her elbow and cemented the elbow replacement in place. 

Kathy recovered from surgery very quickly and stayed overnight at AGH’s Joint Replacement Center—a 20-bed unit that is specially designed to better promote healing. The Center is furnished to provide patients and family members with the utmost in convenience and comfort. Each patient’s room is private and includes a 26-inch flat panel television, wireless Internet access, couches for family members, and a state-of-the-art nurse call system.

“I felt like I was staying at a hotel,” Kathy laughed. “I almost didn’t want to leave the next day!”

When Kathy woke up the next morning, she thought she was dreaming. Or, to put it another way, Kathy felt as if she was finally waking up from her four-year nightmare.

“For the first time in years, I didn’t have any pain. And I was able to move my arm in any direction. I was finally cured!”

Kathy recovered so quickly that she was able to drive herself to the store a few days later.  Within a short period of time, she was able to resume all the daily activities of living most people take for granted. Today, Kathy has full strength and flexibility in her left arm. She is as active as ever, making floral arrangements for her church and volunteering for her local library. Kathy even throws a mean turf football at the TV set, when her beloved Steelers get a bad call from the referees.

“Dr. Hughes gave me my life back,” said Kathy. “He gave me a reason to enjoy life again. The nurses and other staff also were extremely caring and made sure I was comfortable. I would recommend Allegheny General Hospital’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery to anyone who needs joint replacement surgery. They provide the most advanced care and treat their patients with respect and compassion.”

Added Dr. Hughes: “It was extremely rewarding to see Kathy’s rapid improvement after knowing how long she had been unable to use her arm.”

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