Artist Draws Strength from Outpouring of Support
Linda Clark’s life will never be the same. Every day she is reminded of the attack that almost brought it to an end in late 2013. When she was finishing her shift at the reception desk at Sharon Regional Hospital, an irate patient stabbed her in the neck. Linda still can’t fully use her left arm and leg, her left lung doesn’t work properly, and she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But she is alive. Thanks to the fast-acting health care teams at Sharon Regional Hospital, Allegheny General Hospital (AGH), and LifeFlight, Linda can continue on life’s journey with her husband and two children.
Recently, she has also been able to return to her passion – painting. An avid watercolor painter and muralist, Linda presented her first artistic piece since the trauma to her orthopaedic surgeon, Peter Tang, MD.
A long road to recovery
Immediately after the attack, Linda had an 11-hour surgery at Sharon Regional Hospital to repair the 3 severed arteries in her neck. When she was stable enough to be moved, a LifeFlight helicopter transported her to AGH, where she could benefit from Dr. Tang’s expertise in trauma and upper extremity care. LifeFlight and AGH are part of Allegheny Health Network (AHN).
Because Linda’s nerves connected to her arm were also severed in the stabbing, her arm was numb and she couldn’t move it. It hung limply at her side. Dr. Tang took on the challenge of performing the delicate surgery to help restore her arm’s feeling and function.
“Linda couldn’t bend her elbow. Without use of the elbow, you can’t touch your face or pick things up,” said Dr. Tang. “That was the first thing we tried to help.”
Linda appreciated that Dr. Tang took time to explain her nerve transfer surgery. He would take a nerve wrap from her left leg to repair some of the damage to her brachial plexus — the nerve network by her neck and shoulder.
“I could not have been treated better by Dr. Tang and his colleagues,” said Linda. “I remember them personally coming in every morning to check on my progress. Feeling was restored to my fingers and arm, but I had a long road of therapy ahead of me to make them strong.”
She had therapy at the AGH rehab unit until she was transferred back to Sharon to be closer to her family. Linda stayed at the Sharon Regional Rehab Unit for a month. She continued with occupational and physical therapy at home to help her regain the use of her arm.
“I gained a lot of my hand and elbow movement back, but I still had limitations, numbness, and tingling,” said Linda “I had trouble rotating my hand.”
Room for improvement
Dr. Tang was not satisfied with this outcome. He performed another nerve transfer surgery less than a year later. But Linda’s rotator cuff in her shoulder still didn’t work and she had only limited use of her bicep and deltoid muscles.
“I was very limited on arm strength and lifting ability. Shoulder atrophy and lymphedema became a part of the arm,” said Linda. “Dr. Tang recommended compression tape and exercise to bring down the swelling, but little worked.”
Linda needed yet another surgery — a latissimus tendon transfer. “The lack of rotator cuff function did not allow me to lift and bend my arm properly,” she said.
Dr. Tang completed the procedure in January 2016. And it significantly improved her range of motion.
“This transfer gives my arm a more natural look, and made it a little easier to do everyday things,” said Linda. “I can lift a cookie sheet in and out of an oven. And I can carry a plate or a bowl, something I couldn’t do before because of the lack of supination ability. I still need assistance in dressing, lifting, or carrying anything, but I am learning to do things differently.”
Although Linda’s arm function is still not completely restored, Dr. Tang feels good about the progress Linda has made.
“I tried my best to help so she can live normally and get back to painting,” said Dr. Tang. Nerve regeneration procedures are extremely difficult and complex. The surgeries take around 15 hours to complete. And it takes at least a year for a patient to recover and fully benefit from the graft.
linda clark painting from the valley artist portfolio
“You can do a perfect repair and still not get great function,” said Dr. Tang. “If the nerve doesn’t want to regenerate, it won’t.”
But Dr. Tang has been inspired by working with Linda. “Linda was one of my first brachial plexus cases,” said Dr. Tang. “She was the reason I decided to specialize in this area.”
And he is determined to discover new techniques for helping patients with brachial plexus damage. Dr. Tang and surgeon Rafael Diaz-Garcia, MD, recently established the AHN Center for Brachial Plexus. Through the center, they conduct research on eligible patients who agree to participate in their studies. They see patients at various AHN locations throughout western Pennsylvania and perform surgeries at AGH.
“We’re doing things that haven’t been done before in Pittsburgh,” said Dr. Tang. “When we do a new nerve transfer and it is successful, it’s exciting.”
Linda finds it amazing that Dr. Tang can make nerves as fine as a strand of hair control a part of the body. She has absolute faith in his skill, ambition, and optimism.
“He still wants to see me every year. There may be more advances and more he can do,” said Linda.