Just over eight months ago, as they pulled my gurney out of the operating room, I remember thinking “half-way there,” then snuggling down into the warm blankets and the miraculous pain-free-ness of my epidural.
Halfway there. On my way. Almost able to see the finish line.
While I don’t actually remember when the pain began, I do remember being one busy, active, independent middle-aged woman. Despite my inability to go to sleep if we don’t have some spare cases of my favorite soda, the fact that my favorite fruit is the strawberry filling inside the dark chocolate Lindt bar and on my puffier days, I share the same dress size as Marilyn Monroe (look it up!), I was unreasonably healthy, with a 115/75 blood pressure—a good number for a 20-year-old—and the ability to breeze—no, dance— through a 50-60 hour work week that included the day job that I love plus at least a few nights or weekend days of consulting.
But somewhere along the way, I stopped being able to stand for any length of time, my knees gradually ached so much that I used to rest a hot cup of Starbucks on them during my commute just to ease the pain and when I got off a chair, it sounded like someone was rattling a bag of broken china. Genetics didn’t help—my father suffered both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, his life ending at 77 due to an immune system destroyed by the meds.
I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t angry. I just wanted to be fixed.
Last December’s left knee replacement was a voyage to the unknown. An adventure. I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t afraid. Just anxious to get it done, get started on the road back to my life. I was shocked that the hardest part wasn’t the pain or the hard physical work to walk again—it was the feeling of stepping away from who I was for months on end. At the end of this month, three days before my favorite long weekend of the year, I’ll be back in the operating room for a replacement on the right side. My sense of adventure isn’t quite as strong as the first time around. But my sense of being in progress of getting back to being me is, for good reason, even stronger than before.
Yes, the pain is going to be pretty rough. For the first couple of weeks anyway. That I know. Walking with a walker is clumsy and frustrating and there will be days when the anger and exhaustion feel like way more than I can handle. But other days will be full of victories. And yes, I’m going to have to work like crazy to get my strength and flexibility and extension back—and I’m probably going to feel the same sense of being cut off from all the things that constitute my normal life.
But in just a handful of months—there will be no stopping me.
I’ll be able to break into a wildly entertaining dance in an empty grocery store aisle when a golden oldie comes on the store PA system.
I’ll be able to reunite with many of my beloved shoes and boots—and of course, my handbags too—not having to give a second thought as to whether I’ll be able to walk or manage to carry the weight. I’m thinking of a new Fossil Emerson satchel in caramel brown—just because I can. Soon.
My rock star walk will be more Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick than Ossy Osborne. That still matters.
I’ll be able to stand in line at a bank. I can go to movies and not worry about fidgeting in the seat. I can go shopping without having to call in every so often to point out that I haven’t been transported to the ER and I can go for walks. Oh walks.
Most of all, I’ll be walking, running, dancing me again. I’ll feel at home in my body again, not like the slow limping stranger who inhabits it now. This is my second chance. And frankly, it’s about time.
Despite being a fine arts major, I wasn’t all that bad at math, particularly geometry because it involved pictures. And one thing I know for certain is there’s a fair bit of difference between a 90-degree angle and one that’s 120 degrees.
That’s the difference my knee has six weeks to bridge.
Never mind the fact that I can now tolerate walking for 30 minutes, double what I could 10 days ago. That I’m doing a much better job of sleeping through the night. Or the fact that I can clean out the dishwasher, put the dog in the yard, do laundry, feed the fur babies, make a meal, put on my own boots and (sort of) carry stuff upstairs, all by myself—things I couldn’t do just a short time ago.
Nope, according to my doctor, I have to get my knee to bend 120-degrees. It’s imperative. It’s possible. Apparently he did it while I was on the operating table.
The fact that I was so severely drugged up that I have no memory of this and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down at the time didn’t figure into that conversation.
It wouldn’t have mattered. I was too lightheaded from the Cirque du Soleil audition they had me doing in X-ray to make a witty retort. And slight nauseated from the sharp pain him of shoving my knee further back than I’d ever taken it.
The answer? Every 10 minutes, I am to bend my knee back, pulling my lower leg under me as far as it will go. Farther each day. Every 10 minutes. Doc wasn’t making a generalization. He meant every 10 minutes. As in six times an hour.
“Do you want more meds?” he asked before I left. “Yes, please,” I thought. “And while you’re at it, throw in a pound of medical marijuana, a bottle of Absolut citrus for Cosmos and a couple of quarts of Ben & Jerry’s. If you expect me to get through this bending thing.”
“Next time you see me, we should talk about getting you on the list for the right knee.”
I smiled and nodded. I’m sure he didn’t hear me say “oh goodie” as I entered the hall.
It took the rest of the night and the better part of the next morning for the disappointment and self-loathing of my tight inflexible body to dissipate. Then anger filled in the blanks. I would do it damn it. I would show him and the world that I could bend my fake knee just as well as anyone else. False bravado makes me feel better, more in control.
And not being able to walk properly after going through all this is, frankly, more than I can bear.
So I am bending. While waiting for my love at Lowes. Reading in bed. While drinking coffee in the morning. While typing this piece. Every time I think about it, which is really often. It’s the monkey on my back. The song that won’t get out of my head.
No, it’s probably not every 10 minutes, but it’s an awful lot of bending and trying to best myself each time.
I’m working on making it become an unconscious habit.
I’m hoping it stops hurting so damn much.
“It went beautifully Joy. I’m going to go talk to Lynn now.”
I’m peacefully foggy but recognize my surgeon despite his cap and mask and I realize the surgery–the event that my entire life has been pointed at, on hold for, for the past 18 months, is over. I feel a goofy grin spread over my face. It dawns on me that I’m wearing a paper hat. I wondered if they were short-staffed in the cafeteria.
In recovery, with a nurse admonishing me to breath deeply and cough, the events of the morning fall into order. The fistful of pills I had to down with a thimble of water. The space age inflatable blanket, powered by what it looked like a cross between a rental floor cleaner and R2D2, that wrapped me in a weightless cocoon of warm air. The catheter hooked into the back of my hand, through which a whole lot of drugs travelled into my bloodstream. The tiny bit of dread that made me ask Dr. Eva, as she checked my airways in the event of an emergency intubation, if I was going to hear or see anything—I had opted for a spinal and “cocktail” instead of a knock-out to the core general anesthetic—a choice that had friends calling me the bravest person they knew. Still, I knew some heavy equipment would be used to attach the new joint to my leg bones and the last thing I wanted to hear was workshop sounds.
“No way,” she grinned. “We let you see what’s going on and next thing you know, you’ll be wanting to give all your friends new knees at home. We couldn’t risk letting you cut into our business that way.”
I liked this woman. She had kind eyes and I could tell she was going to light me up good.
Once we got into the operating room, the team asked me to crawl over on to the operating table and I did just that. I rolled over and crawled across the table, exposing all that wasn’t covered by my tiny little gown to those assembled. “No, no, sweetheart,” someone said, “We need you on your back.” The sedatives must have been working because I was rather amused that I’d mooned the room. I also vaguely remember being held up by someone, whom I may or may not have been hugging back. Took me a day or two to connect that encounter with the faint bruise on my lower back from the spinal.
Yes, I was that out of it. Gratefully I still couldn’t feel anything below my waist. And I would continue to slug back a cupful of pills every few hours and ignore the morning ritual of a heparin shot to the stomach. During my stay, I didn’t mention the hallucinations the pain pills were creating, neither the multitude of cats I thought were walking around my room, nor the fact that a gift basket brought by a friend kept turning into a Carmen Miranda-like figure. I wiggled my toes every hour as prescribed. I gained the appreciation of the nurses because I wasn’t afraid of needles (we’re a small group apparently) and I didn’t flinch, whine or ask unnecessary questions. Even when the interest in my health moved north. Around dinnertime on the day following my surgery, a porter showed up to take me to x-ray. I had already been there in the morning to check my leg, but this time they did some chest shots.
That’s the beauty of heavy post-op drugs. I knew something was wrong—but I could’t work up the effort to ask about it.
The following day, one of my surgeon’s residents showed up to explain that my blood oxygen factor was too low and my heart beat too fast—and there was a slight effusion (scary doctor talk for a bit of fluid) on my lung. That explained the chest x-ray. There was a fear that I’d developed a blood clot, which could be really dangerous. An ECG later, I learn I’m scheduled for a CT scan sometime later that day. That’s when the real adventure begins.
CT scans are wider than MRI machines, so I avoided the claustrophobic sense of panic I was expecting. But despite the technician’s warning, I wasn’t prepared for the effects of the dye they shot into my veins through yet another new catheter on my arm. A smoky, metal taste exploded in the back of my throat, I went hot all over and an intense headache crept in immediately. By the time I got back to my room, I was shaky, my blood oxygen was way too low and my blood pressure was scary high. I could feel my heart bumping in my chest. My night nurse, funny and refreshingly heavy on the profanity, told me I was having a mild allergic reaction to the CT dye. The doctor on call was called. The only thing to be done was flush the dye from my system.
For the next three hours—the duration of the final episode of Survivor I was watching on my iPad—I alternated between sips of water and watered-down Coke, using a spare gown to swing my stapled up knee to the floor so I could steer my walker and my overfilled bladder into the bathroom. Eight trips later, past midnight—and just after the winner of the series was announced—my vitals were in an acceptable range. As my nurse tucked me in and made sure my call button was handy, he leaned over and whispered, “Now go the f#*% to sleep.”
I did. And just after my sort of French toast arrived in the morning, another resident showed up to tell me all the tests had cleared. The problem was that a small portion of my lungs had collapsed just a little during surgery—a fairly common event if you aren’t intubated and something that would work itself out with enough deep breaths. I’m surprised he bothered to tell me the good news—at first I didn’t realize he was a doctor and asked him to help me clean up the dirty cups and mess that had accumulated on my tray. Good sport that he was, he followed me and my flapping gown to the garbage pail outside the room.
He also decided it was safe to release me.
“You tend to run a little hot,” he said. “You’re in fine health, but your vitals are just a touch higher than most people.” I smiled. One of those times I’d have preferred to be struck with the status quo.
A wheelchair ride down to the car, a cup of good MacDonald’s coffee from the drive-thru and a shower later, I was wearing my own pjs and lying on my own couch, drinking a decent Coke. Plenty of pills and pain and physiotherapy were still ahead. Along with the same operation on my right leg, to be scheduled once my left fully healed—but now I knew what to expect.
Thanks to all the tests, all that we had learned and all the mysteries that had been dispelled, the second time around would be standard operating procedure.