From Accident to Recovery
Sometimes life throws us curve balls and we need to cultivate resourcefulness and resilience in order to cope with these challenges. Following are the example of five exemplary flutists who have had to learn how to cope with injury and get back on track with recovery.
Rhonda Larson is a Grammy winning flutist, composer, and former First Prize winner of the NFA’s Young Artists Competition. This Montana native integrates her classical training with various ethnic traditions and flutes from around the world. Rhonda also runs her own publishing company, Wood Nymph Music.
In February 2019 I broke a bone for the first time in my life, my left wrist. Given that my entire life since age ten has been spent as a Player of the Flute, this was immediately alarming to me. What will happen? All I knew is what had just happened, out walking our new Border Collie pup while I held him by leash in my right hand. We were in the woods near a lake, a place we walked every day. On this day I chose to cross an icy stream that fed into the lake. As always, the dog was in the lead, and I noticed him licking up the water that was on top of the ice. I thought nothing of it, and put one foot down, and in a nano-second it flipped out from under me before I could get the second foot down. As I was holding the leash in my right hand, I instinctively caught myself with my left hand. I caught myself so ‘well’ that the rest of my body did not touch the ice at all. I knew instantly that something bad happened with my wrist, because I felt it, and could see it. There is no re-do, only the present moment. I thought maybe it was dislocated, and maybe I could make it go back in, and all would be fine. So, I pulled with all my strength to lengthen my hand from the impact, but nothing changed. It was surely broken, and an immediate cast was soon followed by a surgery where a now-permanent metal plate was screwed together in my wrist to put it back in place.
Having a life-changing injury is a most humbling experience, in the deepest sense of the word. The word humility comes from humus, “earth”, and humilis, “on the ground”. I found it humbling in the sense of being brought to the undeniable realization of the fragility of life itself. There was one question that crossed my mind that I would not ask myself because it was entirely unknowable: “will you ever play again?” There were no questions to answer, there was only deliberate action to do all the work necessary to heal, so my ability to physically play the flute would not be compromised.
My life took on several “first time” experiences. It was the first time in my entire life that I had been prevented from playing the flute. I hadn’t even thought of it before, that is how new the circumstances were. It was the first time I really recognized how miraculous are my hands, my wrist, the complicated tasks they take on in every situation, every day. I had never really given this any attention before. The same creativity and problem-solving that exists in my musical life was put to work toward new situations. How do I open a jar with one hand? By using my thighs to hold the jar. How do I wash my hair with one hand? With patience instead of frustration.
I am fortunate that for over 20 years my life has included daily yoga practice, a routine I learned from a Rodney Yee VHS video. I have done the routine ‘solo’ from the very beginning, and only twice in all these years have I practiced yoga in a group class, so it was a given that I would continue to do daily yoga even with a broken bone. Now with my hand, wrist, and forearm in a heavy cast, I did the routine as if nothing had changed. To my amazement, I could do nearly all the routine, but without using the final extension of the left arm.
It was important for me to continue my usual yoga practice because my brain was trying to say to me, “you are injured, so you are sick” when in fact that was not true! There was only one part of my body that required re-habilitation, but nothing else in my whole body was physically injured, and no part of me was sick. I had learned this once before about my brain sending messages that I presume are trauma-triggered and manifested in how we feel about our injury—that we act sick if we perceive ourselves sick. And perceiving ourselves physically sick, we are less motivated to move or do our normal work. I kept reminding myself that I was in fact not ill, I simply needed to rebuild the full use of one of my limbs.
Something else came with the broken bone: I was forced to literally stop. To be still and silent, as all had changed from what was to what is. It meant I would not be leaving the house every morning as usual to go to the church where I practice for hours. It was the first time in my life that I realized how driven I have been to practice—to do the work in preparation for upcoming performances. It has been my life’s work, and whenever I was not on the road, I have always had a decided routine of solitary work that ensued daily. I remember sitting in my studio after doing yoga for the first time since the break, and there was an internal sigh of relief that I could simply be still, since that “driven” inclination was put to a stop, and quieted. I never knew there was such a push in the background of my daily work-life, but it certainly showed up once I had to stop preparing for performances. That inner sigh was a gift for me. I did not feel anxious about what my future with the flute would be, I would just do the work patiently because that was my best option, and frankly, I was bursting with gratitude that I was alive, injury or not.
As a great surprise to me, I was literally only prevented from playing the flute for two weeks! Initially, I could not bend my wrist as was needed to hold the flute, and even if I could hold the flute, my fingers could not reach the keys due to the holding position. My friend and flute repair specialist Sarah Bouchard informed me that there was such a thing as key extensions. I had no idea. She set me up with them for the left-hand keys, and I was literally back to playing my flute! From there, it was the beginning of the real rehabilitation to playing well, as my fingertips were numb, and it is an odd feeling to play as if I could feel them. This was another brain training for me, to not let how it feels (or doesn’t) change how I play. I learned to ignore the odd feeling, and instead concentrate on how it sounded. One finger at a time, over eight months, the feeling returned.
It may be worth mentioning what I considered an odd manifestation of what seemed like PTSD. While I was practicing and learning to not be distracted by fingers that had little sensitivity, my lip started misbehaving! It would suddenly just sound awful, like the lips weren’t sure what to do. Each time this would happen, I had to remind myself that “I don’t have a lip problem, I have a hand problem!”. I had to work through that, too, because it would revisit me out of nowhere. I learned a great deal from that happening, and I think it comes down to belief. Even though it is not a conscious thing, I’ve always noticed throughout my life—and when working with other flutists as well—that our final pillar to our playing is this BELIEF in ourselves. Not belief like we decide to think something and then believe it, but on the deepest level, a self-assessment of our deepest capabilities which affects how we present, or function, with or without flute. It is particularly present in being a performer, whether in music, dance, sports, or acting, etc. When something happens in our life that can define us in some way—a set-back—belief is put to the test. Self-doubt is the antithesis of belief, and yet we will surely have self-doubts. It seems to me the best way to believe in oneself is to simply do our work, and do it with tremendous attention, and with genuine gratitude that we get to do it! Doing the work gives us confidence, a word which comes from the Latin root fidere “to trust”, or “with faith”. Belief rooted from within.
The privilege of being a musician gives me a life that I can only describe as a gift. My injury had a way of putting me back together in a new way, a more mindful and grateful way, which includes more silence and stillness as part of my daily life, along with the flute. And I have never walked as carefully in my life as I do now, especially if there is ice!
New York Times says "an imaginative artist," of Juilliard graduate, GRAMMY Nominated, Viviana Guzmán who has been seen on ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, on the cover of Latina Style Magazine, and in "COSMOPOLITAN". By age 15, she played as a soloist with orchestra, studied with Jean-Pierre Rampal, and was featured on a John Denver nationally televised NBC special. She has played concerts in 131 countries across the world. She teaches at the University of California Santa Cruz, is the Founder of the San Francisco Flute Society, Flutes by the Sea Masterclass, and Co-Editor of The Flute View Magazine.
I was in a car accident, head on collision at 50 miles per hour on June 19, 2020. My Pandemic Time was on STEROIDS! I was on driving with the top down in my husband’s Jaguar XK8, enjoying the coastal wind in my hear, on the scenic Pacific Coast Highway, a two lane road, when BAM!
The next thing I know, I woke up and couldn't figure out where I was. So I blurted out, “Where am I?”
“You are at the San Francisco General Hospital Trauma Center. You were in a car accident,” a voice responded. "You broke your femur and suffered considerable head and face injuries."
From the beginning, I decided to view this as my Miracle Blessing as I knew the experience was going to teach me so many lessons. Challenges like this, are prime opportunities to grow ten-fold. I was ready for the test.
Above all, I learned the value and essence of Going Slowly. I was so used to always pushing and trying to cram a million tasks into one day. I was loving and even thriving on speeding at Mach 9 speeds (9 times the speed of sound). For 25 years, my over achieving instincts were going non-stop from tour to tour, country to country, stopping in between to teach at the University of California Santa Cruz, and conduct my Peninsula Youth Orchestra Flute Choir. In fact, I had just gotten off my epic Silk Road Tour, playing as a soloist with the orchestras in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent, recitals in Bukhara, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, followed by playing as a soloist with the orchestra in Zacatecas, Mexico, and on to Barbados, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru. I adored my jet-set life. I thrived on waking up in a different country every 2 to 3 days. This was the Viviana I knew.
After the accident, my life came to a gigantic halt. I couldn’t see my phone at all as I had suffered a Choroidal Rupture in my left eye. I couldn’t even walk myself to the bathroom as my femur had broken in two. I was pushed into bed, unable to move, by fate. I had no other choice but to stop and commence living at Nano speeds (snail’s pace). This (new to me) speed meant having time to watch the bird feeder, being able to pet my kitten, having time to meditate, daydream, watch the ocean, and to just “sit” for an hour, listening to music, or doing nothing at all.
I resisted at first. I did not want this to be my life! But as COVID had stopped my international tours, my Miracle Blessing stopped my ability to move at all. I had to learn to embrace this new speed of life. I had to learn to allow life to happen, rather than pushing to “make things happen”. Once I learned the true meaning of Acceptance, I stopped resisting so much. I decided that rather than dwelling on the frustration, I would dive into Surrender. I had to Trust, more than ever, in The Life Process. I learned to accept and relinquish to The Higher Power. In a way, this new life was much easier, much to my surprise. I had stopped pushing my life into being. It was like I was out at sea, allowing the waves to take me wherever they wanted me to go. Something else was driving my life. For the first time ever, I was in the back seat and enjoying the view.
Once I settled into my new speed of life, I started to enjoy new things, different things, and for this, I am so grateful. I found myself happy to have found the beauty of going slower, and relished in the privilege in being able to do so. Now I wonder why was I speeding so fast down my life. Upon reflection, I feel like I had lived most of my life on a hamster wheel. To this day, my days-months-years all blend together as I was living too fast to process anything. I sped through my times in Easter Island, Cape Verde, St. Lucia, Greenland, Vietnam, Namibia, Senegal, Patagonia, etc, so fast, that I recall very little, almost as if it were all a fading dream. In my new speed of life, I was able to embrace, enjoy, and really feel every moment. I got back in touch with the inner Viviana. I mapped out new goals. I was able to focus on a new route for my life. I was able to spend more time with my mother, my husband, and my sweet animals. This has been the very first year of my life that I have not traveled. I was able to enjoy the changing of the seasons here in magnificent Half Moon Bay, CA. I have been paying particular attention to the different bird songs that color my mornings as I wake up, listening to their different songs. For the first time, I was able to plant my lettuce garden and be home long enough to be able to enjoy feasts of salad. I have been home long enough to enjoy the changes in the ocean tides on my beach and every stunning sunset on my ocean.
My Miracle Blessing has reinforced new levels of compassion. As I was born unable to walk, I have already had my share of physical challenges. Diving back to hardly being able to move for 6 months, launched me back into the arms of sympathy for other's pain and limitations. I firmly believe that suffering, physical or emotional, is a wonderful antidote for maintaining a humble ego for it builds compassion like nothing else.
I had spent 8 days in the San Francisco General Hospital where they had taken 5 hours reconstructing my face. Followed by a 4 hour femur repair and another 2 hour eye duct and eyelid repair. After a week of being home, one day, I experienced a shortness of breath. My world started whirling down a negative spiral. I couldn't breathe, and everything was turning black. It was as if Death was escorting me to the Threshold. As I was the only one home, I called 911. The ambulance came fast, but while waiting, I felt like my life was expiring in front of me. They helicoptered me to Stanford hospital where I underwent treatments for a Pulmonary Embolism. I may not have been touring different countries as I was accustomed. Instead, I was getting a personalized helicopter tour of the Bay Area hospitals. After an additional 8 days at Stanford hospital, I was released to go home. Going up the 16 steps to the bottom level of my house was such a challenge. I had to go super slowly and I felt like I had run a marathon after I was done. Going through something like this makes you appreciate health. It really makes you feel so thankful for even the smallest things, like going up a few stairs, being able to walk to the bathroom, being able to shower without assistance.
I immediately realized how lucky I had been to be able to still play my flute. What a MIRACLE!!! After the Pulmonary Embolism, I was only able to play at most about 30 minutes after which I would feel exhausted. But little by little, day by day, I kept seeing the progress at nano speeds.
My husband deserves an award for all that he did for me while I was healing. Without skipping a beat, he became My Nurse, My Chauffeur, My Chef, My Everything. When you can't move, it seems as though everything falls to the ground. This simple act, becomes such a hindrance when you are immobile. He was there every time to help me with every little thing. He was always so gracious and kind, never once complaining when he had to pick up yet another item I had dropped. As a result of my Miracle Blessing, he has become even more treasured in my life. As a result of my Miracle Blessing, I have been able to spend more time with my wonderful mother, my musical inspiration. As a result of my Miracle Blessing, I have been able to spend time with my kitten and sweet horses. As a result of my Miracle Blessing, I have been able to practice every day and record the complete Drouet Etude Book. Ha!
And for all of this, I am so grateful!
Rachel Hacker lives a colorful life of music, travel, and friendship. Originally from the small town of Trenton Ohio, Rachel began her childhood creative journey as a ballet dancer and perpetual day-dreamer, before discovering her love of the flute, voice, and piano. She is thankful for every single day.
I was out walking with my mom on Labor Day. We had just eaten dinner and I was thinking that a walk would be nice. We had gone on our usual neighborhood route and were only 3 houses away from my own house. It was about 8:30 PM and the most gorgeous sunset was visible on the horizon. Then one tiny fall changed my life forever.
How did it happen?
One of my ankles rolled off the sidewalk, and the other one tried to catch me. Well, one of the ankles dislocated at the bottom, then the bottom of both my tibia and fibula broke. On top of all that, it was a compound fracture, so part of my bone broke through the skin and popped out of my leg! I kind of spaced out as I was actually falling and didn't even know how badly I was injured until I was on the ground. I looked down at my ankle, saw my bone popped out of my leg, and blood was spraying everywhere. I poked my own bone back into my leg, which I learned in retrospect is a bad thing to do, but when I did that, it felt like marbles were in my ankle. Obviously not good, but I didn't know how bad my fracture was until later. My mom called 911 and I went into shock, going in and out of consciousness.
The EMTs and ambulance arrived within minutes, got me loaded up, and sent me to the emergency room. It was my first time needing 911, my first time breaking a bone, my first ambulance ride, my first time taking fentanyl, and it was all very overwhelming. When I arrived at the hospital I was wheeled into the ER like in the movies, and they put me in a room for X-rays. They came back and told me that my ankle was dislocated, that they were going to give me an anesthetic, and that they would pop it back into place. As it turned out, the meds didn't take, and I was awake for that procedure, which was probably the most painful experience of my life. I would be going into surgery at 7:00 AM. My mom was able to stay in the room with me, and she slept on a little pull-out couch in my room. I was too wacky on medicine to notice too much about my surroundings.
At 6:30 they wheeled me into the surgery center for emergency surgery. They told me I'd be getting an external fixator, and I had no idea what that meant. My grandma, one of my favorite people in the world, showed up and provided additional support as they wheeled me into the operating room. Once in the OR, I saw the X-ray of my foot and it looked terrible. Then I blacked out and they did the procedure on me. I woke up a few hours later, back in my hospital room, with big steel rods and a cage around my leg. I was so freaked out and shocked that I screamed "what the f*ck,' at the site of my new hardware. I stayed in the hospital for three days. The hospital provided me with an adjustable hospital bed and other things at home to help me, all of which awaited me as I headed home.
The next month or so was especially chaotic. With big rods in my leg, I couldn't move my leg in certain positions, and it was very uncomfortable to look at and wear. I relied on a wheelchair or walker to get everywhere. Taking my prescribed opioids helped me relax, but it also made me act in ways that were strange and unusual. I spent a lot of time playing my Nintendo Switch, reading, coloring, napping, and talking to people on the phone. The purpose of the external fixator was to allow for the swelling to go down in my ankle, and this was a temporary procedure that would be removed after the two weeks. Then, the surgeon would do a second surgery to reset the bones and place permanent hardware, such as plates and screws, into the fracture site. Once the external fixator was removed and my permanent hardware was placed, I was in a lot of pain, but optimistic that I could one day recover. I had 40 stitches in my leg, and still have some pretty gnarly scarring on my leg.
What are some of the steps you are (or were) taking towards recovery?
After the two weeks of the fixator and my second surgery, they put me on 4 weeks of bedrest. I started working with home healthcare providers several times a week, including therapists and nurses. I visited my surgeon about once a week to check on my progress. The wounds on my leg needed frequent dressing and I started showering from a shower chair and with the assistance of someone to chaperone me. I used a bedside commode for a while, too. Things felt very limiting at first, but I gradually figured out solutions for daily life again. I transitioned from a large cast to a boot/splint. Six weeks from the day of my accident, I got clearance to start attending physical therapy and putting weight on my leg, and I was so excited! My physical therapist was next-level amazing, and she did so much for my recovery journey. At first, my leg was very atrophied and weak, but I gradually gained strength. By Thanksgiving I had transitioned from a walker to a cane. The wounds on my leg were closed, and my swelling had gone way down. At 12 weeks post-accident, I was able to remove the boot on my leg and start using normal shoes. My pain was minimal and I had gained a lot of mobility back. I bought fancy orthopedic shoes and started walking independently by Christmas. Due to the accident, I had lost months in wages and professional development, so I decided to take a temporary full time teaching job in December. I was a long-term substitute teacher at the local middle school, covering a choir class for someone's maternity leave. I hobbled around the classroom in a mask and a cane, which was not easy at first, but it was great to get out of the house and find some normalcy again. I also prepared an audition recording for my K-12 teaching credential. I had to learn and record the Griffes Poem in 3 weeks. I passed with a top score, which made me feel really good about myself in this time of struggle.
What have you learned from the experience?
This accident has permanently changed me. I'm much more tuned-in to the needs of people with physical impairments and am deeply aware of all the ways in which our society is ableist. I found the mental turmoil of this injury exhausting, and am now taking antidepressants to help with those feelings. I look for ways to help other people, especially my older family members who live near me. Earlier in 2020, I had gone through some really challenging personal life experiences. Pre-pandemic, I had been living in Los Angeles, but lost out on so many opportunities due to COVID, so I moved back to my hometown in Ohio about a month before my injury. I am enormously thankful to have my family near me. Without them I would not have gotten the care I needed. Since the accident, I place much more value on my health and my family. At the time of this writing, I have "graduated" from physical therapy and now work with a personal trainer. I am currently keeping very busy teaching general music online with a non-profit. I see about 150 students a week, spread out between 6 classes in grades K-3. I like to say that "my little students needed me to recover," and I love every minute with them. Every single day, I'm so thankful for the opportunity to live and make music again!
Dr. Eftihia Arkoudis, Adj. Flute Prof. at Frostburg State Univ. and a TJ Low Flutes Artist, is an award-winning performer and a founding member of BETA Quartet. As an orchestral and chamber musician she has performed in the United States and in prestigious venues of Greece, Turkey, Austria, and Germany.
What happened? How did it happen?
It was New Year’s Day and we were invited to my aunt's house for dinner. On my way out the door, I went to grab the garbage bags from the floor to throw them out in the trash. It was in that not so elegant 'bending' movement that a sharp pain, in the area of my waist, left me with little immobility. Of course, as someone who in the past has gone on vacation with a third-degree ankle sprain, crutches, and a cast, I refused to let the first day of 2021 be ruined. I enjoyed family dinner lying on the couch and we made fun of my clumsiness. The next day, when I lifted my arm to fix my hair, I almost fainted from another sharp pain in the same area. After that, I was completely immobilized, unable to move one step without three people holding me.
What are some of the steps you are taking towards recovery?
The orthopedist, who kindly paid us a visit at home, told me I had a huge vertical muscle tear starting at my upper back and going all the way down to my waist. This would explain why moving my left arm was so painful. I followed the doctor's suggestion to receive the Platelet-Rich-Plasma injection therapy and to be patient as the healing process would overall take a while (it’s been twenty five days now!) This therapy is predominantly done to athletes and dancers, so in my attempt to find the humor in everything, I called it the 'queen treatment!' Moving forward I will be pursuing physical therapy, muscle strengthening exercises, and take many breaks in between teaching virtual lessons and rehearsals.
What have you learned from the experience?
I am prone to accidents; this is a fact. For that reason, I try to see the light in every injury because I believe it helps the body heal itself quicker. But this was unlike any other pain I have experienced so far. For the first few days I was scared I would not walk or play the flute again the same. Since bed rest gives you ample of time to think and process, I was finally able to see ‘my pattern.’ Every time I undergo major life events or changes, I completely stop prioritizing my well-being. My body then stores the dark side of my emotions and injury finds me. I am now determined to hold myself accountable. Like many of us, virtual teaching and rehearsals during the pandemic have required we spend many hours working in front of the computer, which is harmful to our eyes and spine. This event taught me to respect my body more and incorporate more breaks in my working day for exercise, stretching, and happy dances. I am also getting myself an office chair with lumbar support for better posture.
Shere taught herself to play flute at age 13 and later studied classical flute while raising a large family. Bringing seven children into the world with the 'sound of music' was fulfilling and challenging. Shere was also a flight attendant and she took her flute to the skies, entertaining passengers. Today, she enjoys the art of improvisation and composing with her many different flutes and whistles.
On a drive to Seattle on January 14, 2020, a vehicle lost control in front of us and it resulted in a five car motor vehicle accident. I suffered a spinal fracture. Initially, the pain was so bad, it hurt to take deep breaths and I questioned whether I would ever be able to play the flute again.
What are some steps you are taking towards recovery?
My Mom always taught me to keep calm and carry on. My faith in God carried me through this painful time and I spent nine months in physiotherapy. It was difficult to stay positive when dealing with chronic pain, but I was determined not to allow pain to steal my joy and dreams. I wanted to return to playing, but I had to take it slow and not risk a stress injury. I took a few Alexander Technique lessons with Dr. Gabriella Minnes Brandes and it really helped. In the end, I had to sell my gold flute because it was too heavy and I was struggling to give it the breath support it needed. But, there is a 'silver lining' in everything, literally! I am now the proud owner of a beautiful silver Brannen flute!
What have you learned from this experience?
I have learned that determination, perseverance, positive thinking and faith go a very long way in the road to healing and recovery. Passion is fuel and believing in yourself is huge. Never give up on your dreams, no matter what obstacles cross your path in this open road that we call life.