(My name is Mary Beth Orr. I am a professional horn player and currently 3rd Horn in the Grand Rapids Symphony. The following is my story in hopes it may be a helpful resource.)
Let’s talk about lips. For most people, lips are pretty important for functional elements of eating, speaking, hygiene of the mouth, but thought of as mostly decorative, or for pleasant things like kissing, smiling, etc.…. for brass and wind musicians, it is life. It’s the mechanism that makes the magic happen, makes the sound, changes the sound, performs acrobatic feats of wonder …. Cue the dramatic music. But, in all honesty, our lips are very tied to our identity as wind players and even more so, brass. We are hyper sensitive to how they feel at all times, and give absolutely zero fucks about how they look. They are highly-engineered pieces of mechanical wonder valued exclusively for their highly-nuanced performance capability. We hone them like an athlete to respond with supreme sensitivity, predictability, and strength. The connection to our lips feels almost sacred.
I wake up to the intense burning sensation of the crusted corners of my mouth stretching and breaking as I try to open them. Everything is dry. Every part of me is dry, as dry and gritty as pure sand, with the same comfort you don’t get from grinding on dirt with your teeth. I want water. I want CHAPSTICK. Or LIP BALM. ANYTHING for my lips. Dry lips for brass is a huge “stranger danger” type of trigger. Dry equals bad. It’s that simple. That alarm keeps going off in my brain. I need moisture on my lips. I’m fantasizing about my glorious tube of A and D ointment. That thick and viscous softness gliding over my lips, soothing and coating them and protecting them. It felt like heaven. But, that was not to be.
I had bitten through my lower lip completely, apparently on impact from either the side door or the airbag… who knows? The important part is that it was severed. There was a gash about an inch long just left of center on my bottom lip with another separating at the left corner of my mouth. The sutures were done in an understandable hurry in the trauma room before moving me to a facility better equipped to my injuries. So, they were clumsy and extremely bulky. My lip was still swelling and scabbing and burning. That was all I could focus on and no one, neither doctor or nurse could tell me how bad the damage was. They seemed confused I even cared. They didn’t know it was my livelihood, a crucial part of my identity for their function… not their appearance. They didn’t understand why I would get visibly pissed when they said, “Oh it will heal and you can cover that scar with lipstick”. Can you imagine my WTF face?
I heal fast. so fast, the sutures couldn’t dissolve fast enough for the tissue wanting to grow around them at lightning speed. Something dandy (cue sarcasm) called a mucus plug form all around the sutures creating a pleasant little effect I like to call “the chew lip”. I literally looked like a cowboy holding a patch of chewing tobacco between their gum and lip. I don’t like that look. And even less, it is not remotely possible to play a horn with a lip doing that. It also hurt like a bitch. In the hospital, the only lip balm they were allowed to give me was a honey paste, at the end of a weird sponge. It was not the luxurious sensation of my beloved A and D ointment…. It got weirdly sticky and was kind of lumpy which for the life of me, I do not understand why. So, my grumpy ass was dwelling over my lost tooth, the knowledge I had completely derailed my life, and a lip the size of a golf ball that felt like total shit.
As I was fixated on moving forward as quickly as possible, after getting my appointment set with a dentist for my tooth, I quickly went on the hunt for a plastic surgeon for this Franken monster on the inside of my lip. I mean, I definitely didn’t stand a chance of playing my horn again without fixing this lip issue. I am so embarrassed I even entertained the idea I would be able to play Grand Rapids Symphony’s summer season. It was delusional to say the least. Let’s just blame it on the brain trauma….
Here is what this process entailed: Get with my primary care for a plastic surgery referral. Next was waiting for my lip to be far enough in healing so the surgeon could know exactly what needed to be removed without causing more trauma. Once the referral went through, and my consultation was made, things proceeded much quicker. This was exciting. This felt like real progress. I was currently in a holding pattern with invisalign to adjust my teeth back to the right position i.e.… where they were before the trauma so the future implant surgery had an optimal chance of success. So that was a waiting game. I couldn’t even think about touching my horn with a bum lip. So, getting the surgery was so real and epic in tangible improvement I could not WAIT to get it done.
The day comes. My best friend in all lifetimes Maria came to Michigan, partly to make sure I was indeed still alive, but to help take me to the surgery while my husband was job searching. I was ready and bopped in like it was Christmas morning. This was going to be a quick 5-minute procedure with a local anesthetic. No big deal, right? Maria and I were laughing and having a great time on the hour-long drive to Saginaw where the surgeon was located. We get there, sign me in, and I get taken into a prep room. I have to put on a surgical gown? Huh, ok I guess that’s fine. I have to put on a hair net? Meh, ok. And then they put me on a hospital bed. I mean, hey, I can totally walk into the room. But that is not allowed. They roll me in to a place I like to affectionately call the “kill room”. It is wall to wall white tile and drains and hoses and OMG this looks like something my husband was watching on Netflix involving backpacking college students lost in Europe or something… Not gonna lie, my rational mind knows what is getting ready to happen is both what I want, and also noninvasive and not a big deal. But when you’re in there and the big bright light is shining above your head and everyone is around you in masks and gowns with sharp things, you get a little twitchy.
He gets right in there with an injection of lidocaine. I warned him I go through anesthetic exceedingly fast but he assures me the lidocaine won’t wear off until much later and by that time my lip won’t even be swollen anymore and it will feel fine. Adorable. I can hear the cutting and snipping and can smell blood. I keep it together. NO. BIG. DEAL. This guy is definitely lightning fast. I think maybe it was a total of 7 minutes. Felt like an hour but everyone is a little irrational in the “Kill room”. I’m wheeled out, vitals taken, and allowed to get dressed. Yeah, I’m drooling like my dog waiting for my dinner bowl. Don’t care. Huh… my lips feel really big. Hmmmm, my lips feel like they’re pulsing. How much lidocaine did they put in here? Sheesh. I feel like they’re getting bigger by the second… Oh boy….
By the time I leave the hospital, the lidocaine has either completely worn off or I’m allergic to it because my lips, what feels like my whole face is throbbing. When Maria sees me, her face is frozen in an expression I like to refer to as WTF face. She does a great job at hiding her reaction but it was there. As I check out I ask for ice. I’m already crying. As we get in the car, I can feel the lip swelling so much it is literally pulling at my stiches. I can feel them stretching and pulling apart. So, let’s add burning stinging pain to the throbbing and pulsing of the swelling. The ride home was a sweet little piece of hell where I just squirm and squirm to make the pain go away though no matter what position I sit in we both know it won’t change a damn thing about my lip. We don’t have any ibuprofen anywhere in the car. I have pain meds at home I’ve barely used but that doesn’t help me for this moment. No gas stations ANYWHERE on the drive home. Why are there no gas stations?!?!?!?!?! The ice helps like it does a burn. You burn your hand when you stick your hand in ice water it hurts a little worse then feels good for, like, maybe 2 minutes then starts to hurt because it goes numb and you have to take it out. Then the cycle starts all over again. But, you know what? It was something and got me through that ride home. And to a smoothie place where Maria hooked me up with a chocolate, peanut butter and banana smoothie. God that was good. You know what was even better? NORCO. That sweet sweet sleep after a full belly and taking the edge off the pain was absolute heaven. HEAVEN.
So, I wake up. Again. And prepare for stage 2. You see, there’s this thing called SCAR TISSUE.
To be continued….
Until then, be well.