“How’s your summer going?” It’s the question we all ask or hear when we run into someone we haven’t seen since the silly season started. The common response, “Busy,” is often punctuated by a resigned shrug, and maybe followed by a plea that September hurry up and get here.
This year, my one-word response, “Great,” has prompted a quizzical expression until I explain that I got a new knee in early June, and that I’ve been laid up since then, doctor’s orders. “Great?” Well yes, actually, considering how well my recovery has gone.
For several years I’ve known I’d need new knees if I wanted to stay active. I wrecked my originals by running too much in my 30s and 40s, oblivious of long-term implications. And now the payment was due. Or was it?
I could still walk, after all, and maybe that’s all that I should expect at 71, no longer even a summer chicken. I appreciated it when people told me that 70 is only a number, that you’re only as old as you feel and all that, but body don’t lie, after all, and too many of my contemporaries hold onto the fantasy that we’re forever young, sometimes with a death grip. I’d read, and appreciated, “Being Mortal,” Atul Gawande’s 2014 book about being open and honest and curious about aging and disease.
Fine…except that nowadays replacement parts are available, parts that indefinitely forestall the inevitable decline into the recliner. Incredible. Ineffable!
I’d had arthroscopic surgery on both knees and on my right shoulder (twice), and various other “procedures,” so I knew about IVs and being knocked out, but I’d never spent a night in a hospital.
Until June 8, when Dr. Mark Scheffer replaced my right knee at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The first night was a breeze, thanks to a right-leg block and spinal anesthesia. By noon on the second day, the pain declared itself, in spades, and for the next 24 hours I was pretty miserable, even scared at times, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. By the third night I’d gotten used to the pain, thanks to morphine and oxycodone, and was staying ahead of it, as advised. My care in the hospital was exceptional, from a blend of familiar and fresh faces. I’d hit the lull between the arrival of extra staff for the summer and the onslaught of the seasonal swarm.
My recovery from total knee replacement (TKR) has been remarkable, according to Dr. Scheffer, physical therapists Aubyn Veno and Susan White, and several acquaintances who’ve gotten new knees recently. Sent home with a walker and a commode, I used the former for two days and the other not at all. I stopped using a cane after eight days, started driving after 12 — stick-shift at 18. I walked 1.8 miles along Lambert’s Cove Road on day 20, and four weeks out I walked for a full hour down at Sepiessa.
Before June 8, I couldn’t walk for 20 minutes without pain in both knees so sharp it would queer the rest of my day and, especially, the following night. I’d never known intense, insistent pain like that, discoloring my everything. By comparison, the post-op pain was mild.
Being mobile and mostly pain-free so soon seduced me into forgetting that I’d just had major surgery, as Patty French, Dr. Scheffer’s sharp, upbeat nurse, reminded me more than once.
Major surgery: After I’d been numbed completely from the waist down, Dr. Scheffer opened up my right leg with an eight-inch incision, dismantled my knee, and then rebuilt it with new parts, way after-market. First, he sawed off 10 millimeters (about 3/8 of an inch) of the bottom of my femur and the top of my tibia. And it wasn’t gentle: I heard what sounded like a Sawzall through the haze. After another 10 mm was removed from the inside of my kneecap, three replacement parts were cemented into place, and then I was cleaned up, sewn up, and glued up — all in an hour. My femur and tibia needed size 8 replacement components, while my patella called for a size 41. OK,…
Reading the good doctor’s Operative Report took some of the mystery out of the process, thanks to terms like lughole and Dermabond glue, but none of the magic. Not so long ago, I would have been sentenced to an increasingly sedentary, homebound existence, getting flabbier and grumpier by the day, probably drinking more — for the boredom if not the pain — and then I’d die.
Instead, I’m already romping in the surf in Chilmark again, and I’ll be able to skate around Duarte’s until my lungs feel like they’ll explode, and chase stripers off Gay Head in my 20-foot SeaCraft. I can dream of hiking across England next to Hadrian’s Wall, tromping around Istanbul, climbing a pyramid in the Yucatan. Maybe I’d been too quick to snicker when an old friend sent me a copy of his new bible, Younger Next Year, sub-titled “Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy — Until You’re 80 and Beyond,” and then broke several bones and concussed himself when he crashed his motorcycle on a mountain road six months before his 70th birthday.
Lucky, lucky me: I haven’t been this excited since I was 12 years old and just got a new baseball glove. At times I’ve felt almost giddy, and I’ve even pampered myself a bit. I’ve napped when I felt weary, and I’ve followed a whim when I felt like it, including a spree of random reading, from “Bleak House” to “Breakfast of Champions,” “Zorba the Greek,” and “The Wind in the Willows.”
Too often driven by obligations and expectations, I’m just listening to myself, I think that’s what it is, and I’m moving at my own pace, not to the beat of someone else’s drum. And I can’t get enough of it: this is what I can muster right now, and it’s plenty.
It’s a bit early to know if my new knee has given me a new lease on life, as TKR veterans had forecast, but I’m off to a heck of a start. Facing a flood tide of degeneration, I feel so darn lucky. Who knows, maybe I can be younger next year.
Luck has played a part, and thanks for that, but I know a team effort when I see one. The captain, of course, is Mark (“The Knife”) Scheffer, who’s so so good at what he does — providing a hustle-free explanation of my options up front, preparing me (with a giant assist from Patty French) for the “procedure” itself, and then performing it. Just behind him is Karen Cullinan, a body alignment expert who, in five months of demanding training, taught me how to stand up straight and strengthen my knees (but not chew gum) at the same time. And Aubyn and Susan have kept me on task with the grunt work — the tedious, painful, but critical physical therapy.
Finally, I have to admit that I played a big part in the process. Both ahead of time and since June 8, I paid attention and worked my ass off.
And the rewards? Long-term, who knows, but at least I’ve given myself the gift of hope. Short-term, I’ve been tickled by the kudos from the professionals who treated me. Dr. Scheffer told me at five weeks out that I was a remarkable healer, a compliment that I tried to deflect by reminding him that he did it, which he, in turn, tried to re-deflect back to me. P.T.s Veno and White constantly told me how well I was doing, how far ahead of schedule.
Before I left Dr. Scheffer’s office for the last time, Patty French called out Brenda Mullins and another colleague to admire my knee. After a chorus of oohs and aahs, they started to tease me about my nice legs, a sure sign of their delight. I hadn’t had such a fuss made over me since the middle of the last century, it didn’t seem, and I loved it: I’ve been showing off my scar whenever I can since then.
And so, on with summer! Bring on August, here and now and hectic. Forget about dreams of Maine and points north. With my recuper-vacation behind me, it’s time to get busy again. Soon enough I’ll have to start prepping for my left TKR, coming up on October 19.
Whit Griswold lives in West Tisbury is a former charter captain, editor and most recently, proofreader for The Times.