Issue #112: Where is the life that I recognize?
At one time, there wasn’t any pain.
I would go about the day, walking, sometimes jogging. The route, smooth as silk. The recovery, predictable as a warm sun in July.
Then one day, while working out at the gym, doing leg extensions, I felt a twinge in my right knee. Subtle but strange.
Four years thereafter, I ignored the twinge and continued to walk and run, thinking the minor irritation would improve and, with enough stretching and working out, the gathering pain would somehow dissipate.
Unfortunately — you can almost sense where this story is headed — the pain worsened. Several X-rays and an MRI later, it was determined I had a right-knee meniscus tear. It was, apparently, made more extensive because of three years of neglect. The tear worsened.
I had surgery to clean up the tear in April 2021, still with the COVID-19 pandemic raging.
Surgery and rehab went well. I could walk again. But so much of the meniscus was filed down. Eventually the wear and tear on the connective tissue worsened to the point that in October 2022, I was diagnosed with Stage 5 osteoarthritis. The knee joint was bone-on-bone.
I immediately opted for knee replacement surgery on Nov. 16, 2022.
The beginning of the end.
But like the horrors of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” there is a happy ending.
I grossly underestimated and sadly tried to predict how much recovery from knee-replacement surgery I would need. I grossly underestimated the post-surgical pain management I would need as well.
I underestimated the blatant life disruption I was about to face. Blatant, humiliating life disruption.
Two weeks before the surgery, I had to start twice-a-day rehab exercises at home. I had to stop consuming all vitamins and supplements, which I rely on heavily.
One week before surgery, I had to start taking a laxative. I had to give up taking any anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin. I had to start using an antibiotic soap daily when I showered.
Three days before surgery, I was required to wash my right knee every day with a special antibiotic soap the hospital provided.
No eating breakfast the morning of surgery.
All good things taken away.
I can hear the line in Duran Duran’s song, “Ordinary World” : Where is the life that I recognize?
I had to be at the hospital at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2022. Actual surgery was about 12:30 p.m.
I remember cringing when they were trying to insert the IV and having to try again. I remember a nurse administering an IV drip and inserting something she called “Be Brave,” whatever that was. I remember being asked about what type of anesthetic the specialist, a gentleman (I don’t remember his name), told me about, and wondering if I was OK with the “best” they had (a spinal injection to numb my legs, another injection at the top of my right thigh followed by a sleeping anesthesia, Propofol). OK, I said, give me your best, I’ll take all three. After all, I was being Brave.
The nurse noted the spinal needle was short. She was great at that, because I didn’t feel a thing as I sat on the edge of the gurney, with my face in a pillow that a very kind male nurse held for me. He warned me after the injection that my legs would tingle and then go numb as they moved me straightaway lying down on the gurney. He was right.
The most frightening thing was not being able to feel or move my legs.
I can’t remember the thigh anesthesia injection.
All I remember is asking the anestheologist if I should count down from 100. The anesthesiologist said they don’t do that anymore as the mask, no doubt spewing Propofol, was placed over my face. Some specialist kept adjusting an array of lights over my head. I turned to the left to see what they were doing, and the world went blank.
Surgery is time travel. In a second, you move from one place to another, instantly, with no sense of the passage of time.
In actuality, about two hours passed when I recovered. Thank God, I thought, I am alive, with an oxygen tube up my nose. What time is it? I asked the nurse. About 2:30, she said.
There were a lot of staff members taking care of me post-surgery. I remember taking Oxycodone for the first time later in the evening. There was no pain.
(I would have a love-hate relationship with that dangerous opioid for the next two weeks and was finally able to be off of it in Week 3.)
I told you, at one time there was no pain. That was to change rather dramatically, as the summer day of my life was invaded by a crippling tornado.
I remained in the hospital overnight. Miraculously, after having my skin incised, muscle issue torn, knee sawed off, fake knee attached, and skin/tissue weaved and closed and finished with staples, there was no pain.
I was discharged at noon, with very little good sleep, the next day, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.
That, so far, was the worst day of my life.
In the car going home, driven by Kim, my mother-in-law’s then-caregiver, I can remember a slow, persistent ache. I was able to hobble out of the hospital and into the car with a walker. My issues seemed slight and bearable.
Just before I returned home, with my newly sawed-off knee, I started to feel the pain grow. Dark clouds forming in the summer sky. Hey, I thought, I can handle bad weather. I’ve got this!
Worsening, deepening, agonizing pain.
By 7 p.m. that night, my knee was a blowtorch with unquenchable fire. Oxycodone, which I would soon grow to love and depend on, in addition to handfuls of laxative, would shortly become a LifeLion rescue helicopter.
I held my wife’s hand. I was near tears. It was easily the worst pain of my life. It was, to put it mildly, unbearable.
After all, my knee was sawed off.
I lost track of time after 7 p.m. I took extra Oxycodone, which finally kicked in at about 11 p.m.
I’ve experienced searing pain before: when I nearly separated my right thumb and my index finger playing flag football in high school, and when I felt the blowtorch fire of a pulled hamstring in high school soccer and, as an adult, playing goalie in basement street hockey and getting belted in my crotch by a street-hockey ball at 100 mph. Those were all brutal, but nothing compared to knee-surgery post-operative pain.
You know what pleasure sometimes is? The absence of pain.
The end was far from over.
There were endless hours of the ice packs with my leg raised on pillows.
I couldn’t muster much strength to wash or brush my teeth. Forget taking a shower for about a week.
I couldn’t walk upstairs to the bedroom, wash my teeth or take a bath for several days. I couldn’t make it to the bathroom, so I used a toilet canister.
I couldn’t make any of my own food. Or dress myself. Or drive anywhere. My routines were shot to hell.
I was sleeping when I wasn’t in dire pain.
Where was the life that I recognized?
Friday, Nov. 18, I made my first of a six-week visit to the physical therapist, The Hetrick Center, in Middletown. I took the small elevator accompanied by my wonderful assistant, Kim, to the therapy floor. The staff, including Zach Schoenly, were required to take measurements.
I was glad to leave that day. Because the real rehab was to start the following Monday.
Oh, the pain.
On top and beyond the pain of healing was the rehabilitation sessions. The first two weeks were appallingly brutal, filled with knee flexions and compressions.
I saw the Star of Bethlehem, because the pain created by compression was so bad. I dropped the F bomb a few times. I cried out for mercy as the PT staff, I thought, were going to destroy my knee. I saw stars again and again.
I still needed help getting myself dressed. Forget about taking a shower, I was lucky to get a sponge bath. I depended on my wife, Deb, completely, for everything. She was an angel in my hell.
The worst part was I received so little information from my PT nurse at the hospital, before I was discharged, about how long a time and in what quantity I would need to manage pain.
Thank God for the inventions of Oxycodone, Advil Dual Action and 8-hour Tylenol, probably in that order.
I was able to get back to my bed upstairs on Thanksgiving Eve. Progress!
The knee pain started to subside after I had 22 staples taken out Dec. 5, 2022. I had my first shower since the morning of Nov. 16.
Eventually, at six weeks after surgery, all I felt was tightness and some pain after PT. Six weeks!
I could walk extensively again. I walked about a half mile on Dec. 8.
The moral of my own story became clear, very strident: knee-replacement surgery is extremely painful and disruptive. As I write this, seven weeks after surgery, I have most of my life back.
I shall never take for granted my healthy knees, or my routines, again.
The life I recognize. Finally. Returns.
Next time in True Review:
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