Jobs and Careers - But I have a Brachial Plexus Injury!
I wanted to talk a bit about brachial plexus injuries and jobs.
It’s a pretty broad topic because of the varying degree of injury, so while reading this, keep in mind it is different for everybody.
Some people who sustain brachial plexus injuries at birth have little movement of their hand and arm, while others have almost full movement. Often time those people who have traumatic brachial plexus injuries as adults have issues being able to continue their existing careers, again depending on the severity and also depending on their usual job.
People who work in desk jobs, I would say have the best chance of being able to continue. Similarly, those who grow up with brachial plexus injuries who progress into desk jobs like accounting, law, admin etc are able to enjoy successful working lives.
Having a brachial plexus injury most definitely limits what we can physically do, however, whether we realise it or not, this injury also opens up possibilities and futures that we may never have thought of before.
My aim for writing this is to discover and address hurdles and opportunities, with the hope of prompting discussion, suggestions, stories and most of all, I hope I can inspire people who are struggling to find their path or renewed motivation to get out there and start a career or get back into their old one.
I could write so much about this, but instead of writing a full blown research paper, I will break this article down into 3 topics:
Career choice diversity for those growing up with brachial plexus injuries;
Return to work or change of career for those adults who sustain a brachial plexus injury; and
What ongoing job issues are we faced with regardless of job type.
Career choice diversity for those who grow up with brachial plexus injuries
Every little kid wants to be something when they grow up – fireman, ballerina, teacher, football player, policeman and mummy are just a few of the common ones.
So what if your little guy has very limited use of his arm, but wants to be a fireman? Personally, when they are that age, I would not try to discourage it. There is still plenty of time for surgeries and physical therapy and you just never know, maybe they will be a fireman!
But what about when they are older?
What if you are 16 and it seems impossible to get into your career of choice?
I am a firm believer in going for your biggest dreams. Have a sensible back up plan, but strive to find a way to make it happen. Adaptive equipment, practice, perseverance and positive support can play a big part.
Are their others with disabilities in that field or a similar field? Can you contact them and gain influence from their experience and success? Is their existing equipment or tools that can help, or can you create something yourself?
I also think it’s important to be realistic. Keep a notebook or online document readily accessible. Note down ideas you have. Research them to find examples. Always look for ways that you can achieve your preferred job. Also make note of possible obstacles and ways you could overcome them.
Having brainstorming sessions with friends can help. Through talking and thinking about all the options, possibilities and obstacles, you may find yourself discovering a career you’ve never thought of or a way to make your dream job a reality.
The obstacles you make note of may give rise to thoughts on how to overcome those obstacles. You may invent something. You may see a niche career opportunity in which you can help others with difficulties who want to get into that same career. You might find a way to get into your chosen career. You may find a career that isn’t exactly what you wanted, but that sparks your interest and pulls you in a different direction all together. You might even study for your chosen career, with an end goal of teaching or lecturing students in that field.
Some people are happy to be working in any type job and don’t have a need to be something specific. You need to be doing something that makes YOU happy and gives YOU satisfaction. Whether it’s fulfilling your dreams, providing yourself with a stepping stone or enabling you to support yourself and get ahead in life.
What makes you happy and gives you satisfaction is unique to you.
For parents, I think it’s important to encourage positivity and determination. Help your BPI kids to push themselves and strive to be the best they can be, while putting simpler alternatives on the table too. Failures do happen. Some big dreams do not come true. Being realistic as well as determined is mandatory. Have more than one dream. Settling for second best, while knowing that you pushed hard and tried every option and angle is still a big win and is something to be proud of.
Returning to work or changing career
So you were a policeman and you loved it. It was your dream job. Now you can’t lift your dominant arm and have limited use of that hand.
You would be really angry and upset, and rightly so.
What exactly were your day to day responsibilities? What physical improvement can you gain through therapy? Can equipment be adapted or created? Can you find an alternative way to do a particular activity? Can the activity be done one handed? Can you transfer your knowledge into a support position where you will still feel satisfied? Was there a particular aspect about your job that you can expand on in a different position or do for a private company? (such as investigating or youth work) Could you become an instructor or teacher? Is there any other type of career you have ever thought about? Can you access education and courses? Can your community help raise funds to help you to re-train in something new? Do you have a hobby that you could turn into a business or career?
I know of one guy who had no biceps and was back at work 9 months post nerve transfer and was shoveling 5kg loads of dirt using both hands. He spent hours every day walking around exercising his biceps and it paid off.
The reality is that the possibilities are endless. Don’t close yourself off because you have had one door close. A thousand other doors just opened.
For some of us, we were in jobs and situations that were comfortable. Convenient. Reliable. We felt safe. You may have so much hidden potential for other things that you never explored.
Sustaining a brachial plexus injury is horrible, but, if we let it, our injury can push us to make changes and look at life with fresh eyes. We get that nudge we always needed to step outside our comfort zone. We are forced to. We all have to earn money to survive. This could be the kick in the pants we need to start fresh and achieve things we never thought of before in our comfortable, safe little lives.
Some examples stories that have been shared with me include:
Started training as electrician now studying occupational therapy;
Was training as plumber, now training to become an adaptive personal trainer;
Re-trained as teacher and partner was inspired to become an occupational therapist;
Stay at home mum now studying science;
We are only really limited by our own minds and efforts. We all have to work, so if your current job is one you can no longer do comfortably, have a look at changing jobs, doing night courses, studying part-time, or job hop until you find the right one, so that you can be doing something that suits your skills and energy levels.
What other ongoing job issues are we faced with regardless of job type?
Besides the physical aspects of our injury, we are also faced with things like pain, medication, tiredness, appointments, emotions, transport and other obstacles.
The emotion issues, including confidence, are things that some of us are able to overcome ourselves, while others need to enlist the support of counselors or psychologists.
Emotions play a big part of our ability to get up and go to work each day. As discussed in previous articles, self-image, confidence and anxiety can completely flatten you and turn you into a big ball of mush.
The important thing here is being aware of those issues within ourselves and put things in place to fight them or ease them. Willpower is a big factor here as well. Some people are naturally very strong willed, while others are not. Strong-willed people won’t let this thing beat them and will naturally fight tooth and nail to control their fate.
But how do those of us with less willpower cope? By reaching out for help. Establish a support network. Identify your emotional weaknesses. Get help to do that if you need to, from friends, family or professionals. Once you have identified your soft spots, triggers and motivational needs, address them. Put a plan in place. Share the plan with your support team. They can step in if they notice you fading, or you can contact them if you notice it yourself. They are there to give you a pep talk, listen to you, and help you find ways to get past the emotional blip that day. Over time, you will strengthen and these emotional setbacks will happen less and you will discover ways to cope when they do rear their ugly heads.
Pain, medication and tiredness are can be separate issues but are kind of tied to each other as well.
We live with our brachial plexus pain all day every day. Whether you take medication or not, pain is a permanent obstacle that we have to face. It is true that that different people have different pain thresholds, that is, the level of pain we can handle before we freak out.
In my experience, acceptance is the key.
This sucks, but our brachial plexus pain is not going away.
We can experiment with different medications and pain relief techniques, but some degree of the pain is still there. It is easier said than done, but we have to accept that this is “normal” for us now.
We can either let the pain consume us and determine what we do with our lives or we can grab it by the balls and pummel it into the ground.
People all over the globe live with permanent pain for many different reasons. Bad backs, arthritis, nerve damage, diseases, injuries, disabilities and so on.
Once you accept your permanent pain, have a look at what treatment options there are for reducing it by meeting with a pain management specialist.
Keep a diary for a few weeks and track your pain. When is it worse? What makes it worse? What am I doing when it’s not so noticeable? What makes it feel better?
Focus on the activities and times your pain is not so bad. How can you adapt your day to take advantage of those things to lengthen the time you have with less pain.
I find that distraction is the best pain relief. The busier you are the less time you have to notice the pain. The more responsibility you have, the more determined you are to not let the pain stop you. Fill your life with responsibility and activity. Work, volunteer, clean, cook, socialise, talk, create, build, learn, read, exercise – just go, go go!
If you take medication like I do, you are faced with some additional obstacles. I experience raised body temperature, which makes me perspire, which makes me self-conscious and yuck. I have periods of extreme drowsiness so bad that I look like a junkie and fall asleep no matter where I am. I also forget things and feel like I’m losing my vocabulary and intelligence. They are my more major medication issues.
How am I supposed to be productive at work when faced with these issues?
Know your issues. Talk to your supervisor about them. Try slightly reducing the medication or changing the times you take it. Is a change of job required? Get up regularly for a quick walk or to do a job task that requires physical activity. Make sure you stay busy – if you finish your tasks, ask if someone else needs help. Be proactive about keeping yourself busy. Try getting off the medication all together. It can be done and you can get used to dealing with the pain naturally without losing your ability to function. (I’ll focus on this topic more closely another time.)
One of the other big issues is tiredness. Not from medication, but mental and physical tiredness from the extra effort we have to make to perform our jobs.
Our brain, nerves and muscles work harder at getting things done.
Brain signals are re-routed, we have to think of a different way to do things and we are coping with pain. This wears you out! You will be more tired at the end of the day than if you did not have a brachial plexus injury. Acknowledge that by allowing yourself sufficient time to rest and recover. Make sure you get enough sleep or down time.
Our bodies get tired more easily because using the bad arm requires more energy and our other arm is doing extra work. The joints in our good arm are more prone to injury through overuse. Parts things like our stomach muscles, neck, back and legs all have to work harder to support us physically because of the weakness in our bad arm. We need to take extra care and make sure we exercise to stay fit and get enough rest so that we don’t incur more injuries or find ourselves too tired to do our jobs.
Transportation to and from work is another issue. What if your job is at a location that requires you to drive, but you can no longer drive? What if your bus is so crowded you have to stand and get bashed into by a hundred people?
Don’t let it stop you. Ask around at work for someone who lives nearby or drives past your area. Carpooling is important for the environment anyway. Can you adjust your start and finish time slightly to avoid the busiest bus time? Can you transfer to another branch?
Make sure you analyse every issue and solution you can think of. If all else fails, maybe start thinking about a new job.
I would also like to clarify that you CAN drive with one hand if you want to. Driving an automatic car is no problem, and depending on where you live in the world, and where your indicators etc are located, you can get modifications done and have a driving assessment to be legally allowed to drive with one hand. Ask you occupational therapist, doctor or physio for information about a referral to an assessment centre.
I know that I haven’t nearly covered everything and many of my suggestions are my personal views, not professional ones, but I do hope that they are practical and based on common sense. A lot of what I have talked about applies to many different physical disabilities and limitations.
I hope that I have inspired you to talk about your careers and these issues and options with friends, family, co-workers, supervisors, counselors or coaches and other people with brachial plexus injuries. And as always, you are most welcome to email me for a chat.
Below, I have listed a heap of jobs/careers that be successfully done with varying degrees of brachial plexus injuries. This is by no means a complete list, and there are many jobs that may seem like a two-handed job that can be adapted or don’t really need two hands.
If you are really struggling, remember to reach out and get help. Most of us need to work into our old age, so you need to be doing something you can maintain, or be able to change jobs to suit your current state at different stages of life.
There are also plenty of disability employment organisations out there that have links to a diverse range of companies and industries. They are there for the primary purpose of helping people like us find the right jobs.
Office admin jobs with little lifting etc
Lawyer, accountant, auditor
Website and graphic design
Software engineering or design
Life or Sports coach
Psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor
Writer or journalist
Human Resources or recruitment
Information management or document control
Medical or therapist assistant
Don't limit yourself!
💞 Brachial Girl
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