The Road to Recovery

Well, this doesn’t have much to do with wandering or Wanda, but it is what’s up for me and my knee issues have given me second thoughts about making certain trips with Wanda. Also, when my knee began hurting several years ago I started thinking it might be time to retire from teaching so that I can do some of the things I want to do while my body is still working well. So my knee was part of my inspiration to take a year leave of absence from work and start a whole new life for myself…

Wanda is waiting patiently for me to be able to drive a stick shift again…and for warmer weather!

It all began about 6 ½ years ago when I went swimming across a lake with fins on, striving to increase my workouts and build up muscle to improve my metabolism. I was on a roll and feeling great about my body! After the swim, which was over a mile from one side to the other and back, my knee became quite painful and swollen. I found it hard to hike that afternoon, and for the rest of the canoe camping trip I took it easy. I figured I strained a tendon or ligament, but after several months of pain I consulted with an orthopedic surgeon, which lead to a series of treatments: physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, cortisone shots, Simvisc injections, massage to break down scar tissue, meniscus repair surgery, more PT, stem cell injections, more PT, more specialized kinds of massage, changing my diet, and taking supplements to reduce inflammation. Some things helped for awhile, enabling me to do some awesome hikes and even dance again, but overall my knee continued to get more painful and seemed especially vulnerable to injury. I was taking more and more activities off of my list to enjoy.

The surgeon that was covered by my insurance said I needed a replacement, but I couldn’t stand the thought of having my bones cut off and replaced by something artificial–what if it also didn’t work well? What if my body rejected the new appliance? What if I hadn’t tried every less invasive possibility first? And besides–he said it would only last 20 years or so, and I didn’t like the idea of having another surgery when I was close to my eighties. If only I had a positive attitude and believed in my body’s ability to heal itself, surely I would be able to get pain-free results without something so invasive. I got pretty close, but things kept happening that would leave me in pain again–like my friend’s dog slamming into the side of my knee while we were hiking together. Healing from that took about a year before I could walk relatively pain-free again.

Waiting for surgery preparations…

Finally, when a trip to visit my daughter in Rwanda and go gorilla trekking in Uganda was threatened by my knee seizing up into a locked position that left me gasping in pain, knee replacement surgery began to look good. I had to make some changes in my insurance to get a surgeon I felt good about, but everything fell into place, and there I was in the prep room at Mammoth Hospital, telling each nurse and doctor who walked in which knee was to be operated on…. I felt almost ecstatic! I had never been more ready for surgery, envisioning being able to hike and dance and adventure for at least a couple more decades after I healed from the procedure. Cloaked in a warmed cozy blanket, my feet began to dance with the enthusiasm oozing through my body.

I had done a lot of preparation for this procedure–both emotionally and physically. I did a one month Ayurvedic cleanse to reduce toxins in my body, lose some weight to make healing easier, and develop a practice of loving self-care. I did a three day session of three myofacial release treatments each day, trying to re-train my muscles and ligaments and fascia to relax and get as close as possible to optimal alignment before the surgery. I did post-op knee exercises to build muscle and Qigong practice to keep energy flowing and my body flexible and strong. My daily meditations focused on seeing my body as whole and capable of healing, transforming fear into trust. All of these contributed to the sense of elation I felt when I was finally at the hospital, anticipating the surgery.

During the pre-op talk with my surgeon, Dr. K, I asked if he would take a photo of my knee after he opened it up. I wanted to see what in the hell was causing all of that pain. Then my anesthesiologist came in to give me the menu of choices for how much consciousness I wanted to experience during the procedure. She made it sound like I was going on some fun adventure as she took note of my preferences: the least harmful drugs for the most pleasant effect, and most importantly, do whatever will result in the best outcome for my knee. After I was wheeled in to the surgery room each person introduced themselves to me with a big smile and some personal comment or joke. The upbeat mellow rock ‘n roll music added to the positive environment, which felt like it was created just for me. I was talking and interacting and taking it all in, feeling myself sink into the padded surgery table, then all of a sudden I was being wheeled down the hall to a hospital room, feeling like I no longer had any connection to my body.

Two or three nurses helped to roll me off the gurney and onto my new bed when I realized it was over, and I felt how incapacitated I was. A nurse said, “Can you wiggle your toes for me?” I tried with great effort, but felt no sensation 0f any wiggling down there. “No, I can’t,” I said defeatedly. “Oh, good job!” she replied, and I looked down and saw my toes making some tiny movements that I had no sensation of. My leg was in a tight white stocking that covered a very well padded area around my knee, making that leg about twice as thick as my other one. I looked at the clock and realized 2 ½ hours had passed–I thought it was supposed to be an hour long surgery. Was it more complicated than expected? The nurse set me up with all the controls and taught me how to operate the bed, gave me water, and encouraged me to push on the call button if I needed anything at all. Another nurse came in to teach me how to use the spirometer, a breathing machine to help prevent pneumonia. She made it sound like a fun and challenging game, so I religiously breathed into it 10 times each hour, delighting when I made the big blue marker on the piston reach my goal each time. All those Qigong breathing exercises must have paid off!

Two hours after arriving in my hospital room a physical therapist introduced himself to me and taught me how to get out of bed and use a walker to take a stroll down the hospital hallway. I could not believe what I was doing! I still had very little sensation in my leg, but my feet could feel the floor and as long as I glided the walker along in front of me, I felt very stable. Lowering myself down on a toilet seat was the next feat, which also went pretty well. I was given instructions to take trips down the hall as often as I liked, though I had to contact a nurse to disconnect my IV and the machine that pumped pressurized air around my calves to prevent blood clots each time I wanted to get out of bed.

Dr. K came in later that afternoon to check on me. “Did you get the videos? I got some good ones of your knee!”

“No, no yet. Maybe they went to my daughter’s phone?”

“Well, your knee was pretty messed up! There were two dime-sized pieces of calcified cartilage inside. That was probably causing most of the pain.” I had a hard time imagining that–no wonder I felt such shooting pain at unpredictable times. Soon after he left I got the videos, and excitedly pushed play, filled with curiosity. I saw something I couldn’t even believe. My knee and lower leg were in the center of the frame, but I couldn’t begin to recognize it. On either side was someone dressed up in what looked like a space suit–a clear shield in front of the face and everything else covered up in a baggy, white fabric. The person on the left was whacking a mallet down onto a chisel-like tool positioned at the top of my knee. I glared in shock, watching and wondering how what he was doing didn’t break my precious femur. My knee was split open, the skin peeled back, revealing the two heads of my femur, which he then poked a drill into. It looked just like the prized drill driver from my toolkit. In the next video he pulled out some sort of noisy saw and poked the blade into my bone. The whole scene suddenly looked like an auto shop garage, rather than the serene, welcoming surgery center I was aware of before I went off into another reality, thanks to the anesthesiologist. I guess when they got to this part she turned up the stronger stuff to make me unconscious.

This bruise and swelling is some indication of how traumatic the surgery was to my body

For the next week or two I tried to get that image out of my head. Every time I felt a naggy ache in my pelvis or lower back, I remembered that whacking mallet, and thought it would take a long time to recover from that kind of trauma. The videos were a far cry from the up close photo I envisioned that would show the condition of the ends of my femur and tibia. I wanted to see what those pieces of calcified material looked like, and what kind of shape my ligaments and knee cap were in. (I was also very impressed that my surgeon was willing to have a texting relationship with me. I texted him several times with questions after I left the hospital.)

I went back to relaxing in my bed, plugging in some soothing music on my iPod and drifting off to sleep. That was hard to do because someone came into my room every hour or so to check on my vitals or watch me breathe into the spirometer or adjust my pain meds or to take my meal order or see if I needed spiritual counseling or to bring me a notice of other services offered at the hospital. I felt very well cared for, but what I wanted was sleep. Later that day I took another couple of strolls down the hallway. That night they unhooked my IV and I figured out how to disconnect the pumps from my legs, so I took walks on my own, venturing further and further down the hall each time, enjoying my independence.

On day two another physical therapist came in the morning and got me walking with crutches. She made sure I could go up and down steps with my crutches, a requirement before being able to leave the hospital. Everything checked out great, so I got mentally prepared for my release. Though I enjoyed being cared for so completely (the food was even pretty decent!), I looked forward to sleeping through the night in my own bed without being woken up at least every two hours.

At last, driving home, sharing the beautiful views along 395 with Kira

Back at home, I was blessed to have my daughter, Kira, taking care of me and my dog, Riley, plus everything else required to live in the remote town of Darwin. She drove me to all my physical therapy appointments (90 miles away), did all the shopping, carried in wood to keep the house warm, cooked all the meals, took Riley for walks twice a day, helped me take showers, kept my ice machine stocked with frozen bottles of water, and made my recovery fun. Sometimes she even helped me remember when I last took pain meds, which I found very challenging to track. Each day I saw amazing progress in what I was able to do. The pain I experienced diminished as I quickly progressed from crutches to using a cane, to walking free-handed within about a week and a half.

Many friends and my dad (who had both of his knees replaced) emphasized the importance of keeping up with my PT. Dr. K told me the success of the procedure would depend on how well I did my PT, so I took this seriously. At my first session my therapist furrowed his brow at the pain I felt when trying to straighten my leg, and also how little I could bend it. Bending my knee felt like I was tearing my skin through the staples, so I was afraid to push it. He gave me a few exercises to work on this, set me up with an ice pack for 5 minutes, and sent me home. The second session he was more encouraging, saying he was really concerned after the first time he saw me. My knee was pretty straight and I was able to bend more, though I walked with a limp as I dragged my right foot forward instead of lifting it to place my heal down first. One thing that bugged me about his technique with me is that he did not seem interested in hearing about my experience or answering my questions. He’d give me an exercise, then walk away to his laptop until I was done. I heard other therapists in the office talking with their clients encouragingly, and I wondered if we were mismatched.

Later that week I was looking for a yoga class for Kira to take while I was in PT and discovered a MFR practitioner who also does PT. I contacted him immediately to see if he might be a better match for me. I’ve been going to him ever since! Soft music, hands on most of the session, great listener, very encouraging, and gentle, yet effective exercises with each visit. I’m so glad I listened within to what I needed for optimal healing, rather than sticking with what I had in order to not have conflict or make someone feel bad if I didn’t like their style. In fact, I loved the way this new practitioner came to me–it was as if I had the yearning and vision of what I wanted to experience, then I let it go, and within days I discovered exactly the option I was looking for!

My family came to my place for Thanksgiving since I wasn’t able to travel yet
I discovered that walking in the snow was good physical therapy! I used my cane in case I slipped.

Now it’s been 6 weeks since my surgery. I’m walking over 1 ½ miles each day, riding my bike around town, driving without discomfort, sitting and standing for longer and longer amounts of time, and am practicing Qigong again. I am amazed at how quickly my body has recovered from such an invasive procedure. And I’m grateful that I’ve learned to trust myself and created a new loving attitude toward a part of my body I used to see as not right, broken, a problem. I still experience a fair amount of pain–mostly in the middle of the night when I can’t get comfortable after my knee stiffens up from lack of movement, but I’m off pain medicine and am feeling very capable of taking care of myself. I’ve learned to experiment around with movement, delighting in finding new ways to get down on the floor and back up again, to stretch and strengthen all of my body, and not just my right knee. It’s been a journey of self-discovery as well as accepting help from others.

Next year, I look forward to dancing and hiking and swimming and biking without constant worry that I’m going to feel a shooting sharp pain. I am so grateful for new technology and that I found such personalized care by moving to a more remote area. Dr. K told me I would get the best care possible because of living in a small town where he sees his clients in the coffee shop–and word spreads fast if people aren’t happy with their results. Wow!! I’m feeling pretty darn lucky these days…

A beautiful place I discovered to take the dogs for a walk after my physical therapy visits in Bishop–yes, I’m already going on some pretty good hikes! (No steep inclines, yet, though)

3 thoughts on “The Road to Recovery

  1. I’m so proud of you for taking such care of your body and your soul! You are a woman of courage and strength, and such an inspiration. Sending love and hugs,
    Ellie (from Alt Ed)

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  2. I just got my 2020 calendar- remind me what dates will you be here?  BTW= its too late now, but when I was recovering from my brain surgery I had to keep a log of meds, and everything for a while b/c I could remember any of it!Glad you are improving so well.Hugs! Happy New Year!XO L

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