Losing My Arm — And Livelihood — for 1 Month in the Gig Economy
Lying in bed at 2am with my arm numb from my shoulder to my fingertips and a device around my neck pumping medicine through a tube to a nerve below my clavicle, I had an idea for a story but no way to write it down. All I could do was hope I remembered it the next day.
I write for a living, and I write a lot: I manage 4 blogs, 5 Twitter accounts, 3 Facebook accounts, and 4 newsletters. I also write press releases, video scripts, and op-eds, and I have 2 book projects in development. That all came crashing down one unexpected evening.
One minute I was gliding on an ice rink, dancing to YMCA and Sweet Caroline. The next minute, without warning, a boy fell behind me and swept under my legs, and my arm slammed down on the ice. I felt an odd numbness move from my fingers to my elbow. My 7-year-old daughter quietly helped me up. I encouraged her to continue skating while I searched, ironically, for an ice pack. Searing pain shot through my right arm, and I knew something was wrong. But I did not know that my wrist was broken in two places. I did not know that one of the bones would need to be surgically fixed. And I really did not know the physical, cognitive, and emotional toll that one moment would take on me, especially navigating my gig-based writing business.
Reliability and the gig
Breaking your arm as a professional, gig-based writer is like breaking a leg as a professional basketball player, except the basketball player still gets paid and is not expected to go back onto the court anytime soon.
When you are a professional athlete or really any kind of salaried worker, one of the first things you do after breaking a limb is call in sick. That way, everyone in your workplace knows you will be out for some time, and they will delegate your workload as needed to others. It’s not quite so simple when you are the sole employee of your own company.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 68% percent of private industry workers received paid sick leave benefits in 2017, ranging from a whopping 93% of workers in management, business, and financial occupations to only 46% of service workers. In many cases, salaried employees can get short- or long-term disability, as was the case for a nurse friend of mine who broke her wrist a couple years ago — nursing with one arm is not really possible, so she was out a full 7 weeks. Granted, she did not get her full salary during that time, but there was no expectation of work.
Of course, as your own boss you can just take the “sick time” and then call all of your clients and tell them what happened, but who is going to cover your workload? The value I provide to my clients is in performing tasks for which they lack internal resources or expertise. I also work ad hoc as unexpected needs arise. If I am not available to help when needed, my client may seek a replacement or decide my help was never critical in the first place. And that would be a devastating blow to my business, as it often takes months to find and sign new clients.
I currently work with some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever worked with. But the last thing I want to do is to erode their trust in my reliability. The first client I told about my injury reacted understandably out of concern for my health but also expressed concern for getting the work done. I considered subcontracting, but some of my contracts prohibit that because the clients are paying for my specific skillset and experience. Such contract terms are not unusual.
Gig workers often have limited rights in their contracts — restrictions on who can perform the work, who else you can work for simultaneously, and the ability to limit the scope of work or terminate the contract with little or no notice. While gig workers have a lot of flexibility and freedom in how and when they perform their work, my injury reminded me of the real impacts of these restrictions.
Transcription and the brain
The biggest physical challenge posed by my injury, of course, was the inability to type with two hands, or even my single dominant hand (I am right-handed). It’s amazing how much of my cognition is tied to muscle memory; I’ve reset tons of passwords the last few weeks because apparently, I can’t remember them while typing with one hand. When you manage as many blogs and social media accounts as I do, this is particularly challenging.
Right away, my doctor and friends suggested voice-to-text software. To test out the concept, I first tried voice-to-text in Google docs, and I was surprised by what I discovered. In addition to comical transcription errors (e.g., “stipulates” -> “stick of flakes”, “op-eds” -> “up ads”, etc.), I quickly realized that I cannot articulate ideas even close to as elegantly, cleanly, and quickly orally as I can with written words. I think differently when I speak than when I type.
As a science writer, I immediately turned to my cognitive neuroscience network and to the literature for possible explanations. One discussion I found focused on split-brain studies by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (who is co-founder of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, for whom I do work). A patient with whom he worked had her corpus callosum — the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemisphere — severed to treat intractable epilepsy. She was no longer able to write, but could speak and understand spoken language, suggesting that speech and writing are lateralized in the brain.
Another study suggests that there are two quasi-independent language systems in the brain, one for speaking and one for writing. In a study of five people with aphasia — a loss of language ability following stroke — Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins University with co-authors found that four of the five patients could speak but not write certain sentences, while one could write but not speak them. They specifically looked at high-level aspects of word construction, such as affixes like “ing,” and found differences in the ability to use them when speaking versus writing.
In Psychological Science in 2015, the authors write:
The findings reveal that written- and spoken-language systems are considerably independent from the standpoint of morpho-orthographic operations.
So, it could be that by being a writer for so long, I have strengthened the brain networks associated with the written language system and am more rusty when it comes to spoken language. And it’s possible I could, with time, train up my spoken language system.
No matter the explanation, the temporary handicap has been profound. It makes me even more in awe and full of respect for individuals with long-term disabilities — those who learn to use brain-computer interfaces for communicating or amputees who adapt to perform high-level athletics, for example.
No one should have to lose their livelihood from one ill-fated moment on the ice rink.
Loss and livelihood
I am slowly gaining more mobility in my hand and feeling better every day. But this experience has greatly changed my view of the growing gig economy. While I am fortunate to have a spouse who is a paycheck worker with health insurance (medical fees for the surgery and healthcare from the incident top $20K without insurance) and family sick leave he used to stay home and care for me, I cannot imagine what would have happened if we were both gig workers… or what happens to gig workers living alone.
I hope sharing my experience will help those in similar situations feel less alone and will start a conversation about protecting gig workers in times of crisis. No one should have to lose their livelihood from one ill-fated moment on the ice rink.
And yes, I typed this story with one hand.