OPINION: Surgery brings forth the titanium-knee shuffle

Credit: Hospital nurse

Credit: Hospital nurse

Two days after a surgeon went all Texas Chain Saw Massacre on my right knee last month, a physical therapist came to my home and told me to grab my walker and get moving.

He wanted to see if I could shuffle through the house for five minutes. After three, I waved my hand in surrender, saying I felt woozy. I had to lay down.

This was distressing. I’ve always prided myself as someone able to plow through travail. I once shattered my right hand in the first round of a Golden Gloves bout but finished the three-round fight with both arms flailing, embodying the never-give-up style of Rocky.

But darned if it wasn’t Rocky who helped me into this predicament in the first place: His rousing movie factored into my long affair as a participant in the sport. A necessary evil of competing is pounding out miles of roadwork. And true to the movie, I did so, running hundreds of miles through the years, often in barely padded Converse All Stars, just like the Italian Stallion.

It’s not fair to blame my total knee replacement on Rocky Balboa. I should also point a finger at my old man. He got both knees replaced when he was in 60s, as am I. So, it seems to run in the genes.

Body parts apparently have an end-on date and my right knee expired this year.

Credit: Julie Hodack

Credit: Julie Hodack

I’m a Baby Boomer and am representative of another massive trend — joint replacement. Some 800,000 Americans get total knee replacements each year, a figure estimated to increase two thirds by 2030.

Add in hips and that’s a lot of us getting the TSA doublecheck.

The fact that joint replacements are so common means everyone — and I mean everyone — has a story or advice.

When I explain why I’m limping or have a cane (which I recently ditched ), I hear an endless array of tales from good-intentioned folks telling me at length about a father/aunt/brother/co-worker or even guy-from-down-the-block who went through the same procedure. And by procedure, I mean ordeal.

“Make sure you do the exercises,” the armchair physiotherapists advise. I nod and offer thanks, glad for guidance that will prevent me from a lifetime of lurching with a limb frozen stiff as if it’s filled with plaster.

Over the past few years, I increasingly hobbled while getting about, having transformed from an active jump-roping, box-jumping hot shot to someone who dragged a leg like a zombie if forced to walk a mile. Father Time is unforgiving.

At my mom’s funeral last year, I had to go out and buy a pair of black gym shoes to match my suit. Standing on the altar’s marble floor in dress shoes while delivering the eulogy would have been unbearable. It was about then I said “Enough!” and agreed to go under the knife.

Going “under the knife” would be a tummy rub in comparison.

Actually, you are going under the power drill, saw, hammer and something called the tibial cutting block. An orthopedic surgeon is largely a really smart carpenter.

I have a bone doctor acquaintance who focuses on hips and knees. Once, while discussing his craft, I noted, “So you have to use one of those fancy Sawzalls?”

“No,” he corrected me, smiling, a gleam in his eye. “I don’t have to use them. I get to use them.”

I suppose molding and crafting the human form is cooler than doing some weekend woodwork.

It wasn’t until after surgery that I peeked at some online videos to see what they were really doing. I am glad I waited.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

In essence, the doctor saws off the bottom of your thigh bone and the top of the shin bone, affixes (hammers in) titanium replacements and medical grade polyethylene (plastic), moves the muscles back in place and staples you up.

The high point is when he pulls out what looks like a hockey puck of bone.

Thank God for the drugs!

Barely three hours after Dr. Allen McDonald stapled me up in the operating room, I was wheeled out of the hospital and stepping into the family minivan. Talk about up and out.

The therapy is as grueling as advertised, although not terrible. The key is to regain strength and flexibility. It’s a matter of banging out 40 minutes of exercises (both at home or at the physical therapist’s office) twice a day, followed by laying on the floor for 30 minutes with the sore, swollen joint packed with ice. Rehab is like a having second job.

Then there are the frequent walks, the mini stretching and the foot plants on the floor, pushing the knee achingly forward to see what range of motion you can achieve. I’m up to 117 degrees of knee bending. Not bad. At least for nearly four weeks in.

According to The Knee Society, of which I guess I’m now an official member, I can in the relatively near future look forward to swimming, low-resistance rowing, walking, ballroom dancing, shuffleboard — and croquet. But not aggressive croquet.

In a few months, I can work up to low-impact aerobics, hiking, horseback riding, and even some in-line skating, not that I ever did much of those activities.

The “not recommended” activities include baseball, basketball, soccer, gymnastics, jogging, rock climbing, hang gliding or parachuting.

Darn. Lately, I’ve been aching to leap from a plane.