By Tom Keppeler, Shoulder1 Staff
It would understate the situation to say that Katherine Gallagher likes—or even loves—riding horses. A national-level competitor, Gallagher often takes to 25-mile runs on difficult terrain. One of her horses, a national champion, is the apple of Gallagher's eye. Just two years ago, however, it seemed like every sign she received pointed her away from horseback riding.
Doctors diagnosed Gallagher with Crohn's Disease, a degenerative disease that slowly inflames and destroys a patient's colon, when she was 22. She lost most of her bowel soon thereafter, and spent most of her 30's in the hospital. The dream of horses had to wait.
By her late 30s, however, the symptoms of her Crohn's Disease seemed to go away. Gallagher found herself riding more, enjoying the horses and the fresh air on the circuit until tragedy struck again. While riding on a trail in 1998, Gallagher fell from her horse, shattering her left hip and shoulder blade.
Because her left shoulder was immobilized, Gallagher says, she learned to do everything with her right shoulder. However, with the added use came a nagging pain that simply would not leave her alone. "I thought I had pulled some muscles," she says. She knew a muscle tear would not persist so long so perhaps she had a torn rotator cuff, she thought. A year of agony passed, in which her aching shoulder never left her mind. "It used to be the first thing I thought of in the morning and what I cried myself to sleep thinking of at night," she says.
The pain worsened, however, and Gallagher finally sought the advice of an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon informed her that she did not have a rotator cuff or muscle tear. Instead, Crohn's had never gone away. In fact, it had moved from attacking her intestinal system to her joints. The cartilage in her right shoulder was almost completely gone, and he recommended she undergo a total shoulder replacement . While researching the surgery, the name of (former Shoulder1 Shoulder Care Hero) Dr. J.P. Warner continued to pop up. Considering it fate, Gallagher scheduled an appointment with Dr. Warner. At their first meeting, Dr. Warner told her that a shoulder operation would mean no more riding. "I said that this meeting is over," she says. A few weeks later, Gallagher was still in pain. She returned to Dr. Warner's office to figure out a way to shore up her shoulder pain while remaining in the sport she loved.
Warner initially performed a synovectomy to "buy her time" until she needed a total shoulder replacement, Gallagher says. "He told me, 'You will be apprehensive about the [total shoulder replacement]," she says. "'But when it's time, you will know.'" One fateful day while driving down the highway, Gallagher picked up her mobile phone and dialed Dr. Warner's office. Two words were said to start the conversation: "It's time," she said. Her pain had become too much to bear.
Gallagher told Warner there was one stipulation to her undergoing the surgery: she would get back on horses. Warner reluctantly agreed, Gallagher said, and she scheduled the surgery for June 1, 2000. Gallagher's surgery and hospital stay was the easy part, she says. Her recovery, however, was very difficult. For starters, she had to wear a sling for 30 days after her surgery. In addition, getting her shoulder muscles back to their pre-operative strength, she says, was a difficult challenge. Just as promised, Gallagher was back on her national champion trail horse by August 1. She called Dr. Warner from national finals, and said two new words to him: "Good shoulder," she said.
To see her carry out her daily tasks, Gallagher says, one would never detect that the bones inside her shoulder have been replaced with artificial parts. She can pick up her 25-pound granddaughter. She can fall asleep with ease and not be kept awake by her agonizing shoulder. And, most importantly, she can ride horses again. "Dr. Warner told me, 'Just don't fall'," Gallagher chuckles. "It's not the riding that hurts the shoulder, it's the falling."
On August 15 of last year, just two and a half months after her surgery, Gallagher competed on a 35-mile trail ride, using her new, strong shoulder to dress, feed, and rein her Arabian-Morgan mix. As for those who are afraid of the surgery, Gallagher has a cache of advice: do it early before your shoulder runs your life. Do not let an aching shoulder prevent you from doing what you love. Do not be afraid of the surgery. And, most importantly, find a surgeon who knows shoulders well and does many operations every week. "I was afraid," Gallagher says. "If someone had told me that it's not as bad as I thought it would be, I would have done it much earlier."