Sailors tell sea stories, drunks have drunk-a-logs, and old-farts give organ recitals; I am fluent in all three genres.
It’s here. Finally: After years of agonizing physical preparation and months of building emotional apprehension, the time has arrived to etch another notch in my seemingly ever-expanding belt of graceless aging.
Tomorrow, November 15, 2013, I am scheduled to have total knee replacement surgery on my left knee. The technical term is a Total Knee Anthroplasty (TKA). After more than 54 years of football, running, hiking, golfing , car accidents, and generally just not acting my age, the ol’ buggah has finally worn out and its time for a new one.
This is not my first surgical rodeo; this will be my second TKA (the right knee was done in 2010). In total, this will be my 6th knee surgery since 1978.
I’d like to think with all this experience I’d be a little less fearful than I am. That’s the irony of experience: The good news is I know what I’m getting myself into; the bad news… I know what I’m getting myself into!
My knee problems have been around for a long time. In November 1976, with only 4 minutes remaining in my final football game of my senior high school season, it happened. Scrambling from an oncoming rush one defender caught hold of my jersey at the sleeve; it was just enough to slow me down and throw me off-balance. As I twisted and pulled away from the would-be tackle, a second rusher came flying through the air, his shoulder pad slamming squarely into my outstretched leg, hitting me just above the right knee. I don’t remember the pain. What I do remember is the sound of a chicken bone snapping in my knee, and the immediate sharp twinge in my gut. The sound reverberated across my ribcage. It wasn’t the pain in my knee that caused me to scream and writhe about on the Astroturf at Aloha Stadium, it was the pure fear of my unfamiliar gut reaction.
I was put in a plaster cast with hinges at the knee. Although surgery was an alternative, it was not an option as it would have precluded my ability to enter the Naval Academy the following summer. I recovered well enough to run track in the spring, but never at the same level of performance of prior years.
The physical rigors of ‘authorized’ Plebe Summer indoctrination were difficult enough on the knee. But it was an ‘unauthorized (although encouraged)’ late night recon raid that dealt the next blow. I was among a small group of Hotel Company mates that snuck out to decorate Tecumseh, the Bronze figurehead facing the main entrance to Bancroft Hall. A surprise appearance by the Officer of the Day prompted me to jump from the elevated base. That chicken bone snapping sound echoed through my chest once again.
The injury kept me from pursuing my dream of playing football for Navy.
In January 1978, 14 months after the initial injury, my right knee underwent a lateral meniscectomy performed at the former Naval Hospital on Hospital Point in Annapolis. This put me on crutches and wearing the White Works “Excuse Squad” uniform for my entire second semester. Needless to say, orthopedic surgical technology has evolved quite a bit since 1978. Today, recovery times are often measured in weeks, not months, as arthroscopic surgery can get a player back on the field after missing only a few games.
Information on knee surgeries abounds on the internet. Quite frankly, although I find it overwhelming and often disturbingly graphic, it is phenomenal to see how significant the technological progress that has been made. There is more technology used in the making of a YouTube animation video* today than was available when I had my first knee cut on in 1978!
No matter how much experience I have, no matter how much contemporary information I get, and no matter how far technology may have come, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the emotional turmoil in the days leading up to surgery. Pain is at the core of my apprehensiveness: Past pain, current pain, and future pain. Pain may be the touchstone of spiritual growth, but chronic pain is debilitating as it spills into every aspect of my being.
I’ve been reminded in this final week that my favorite little blue pill is Aleve. I often have referred to it as my Vitamin A, but with pre-surgical protocol requiring I stopped using it for the past 7 days, all I can say is “Yikes!”
I honestly didn’t think I used it that often, but clearly, I need it quite regularly. Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder. Looking at the positive side, I am reminded that I really need this new knee and grateful to live in a time and place where I can get it.
Another fear wrapped up in pain is the post-surgical dance of narcotics and my addictive personality. Pain management is essential to both my physical rehabilitation as well as my emotional wellbeing. I am quite wary of both the runaway freight train of pain when I under-medicate, as I am for the potential of hallucinogenic impairment when I over-medicate. I’ve experienced both: Both suck. My history of abusing anything that alters my emotional state is suspect: It’s important for me to acknowledge this today.
The final leg of this tripod of fear is steeped in the time required for my physical recovery. I am blessed beyond measure with the support of my business partners and teammates. We are compensated in a “you eat what you kill” commission sales structure: The direct impact on their personal time and our overall team production while I convalesce is not insignificant as I will not likely return to full duty for possibly two months. I am very grateful for their support and very motivated for as quick a return as I can manage.
My real fear on the speed of recovery, however, is not tied to my returning to work; it’s wrapped up in keeping pace with my fellow 5:30 AM gym rats. It’s said that God puts people in our lives for a reason. My friend Wade had his first TKA about three months prior to my first replacement. We’re around the same age and I’ve used him as a model for my own recovery. Interestingly enough, Wade had his second TKA just three months ago. How serendipitous is that? There are about 40-50 people who show up at the gym at this un-Godly hour, and he and his knees are forging the path ahead of me.
My fear is stirred by my propensity to measure and compare: I’m wondering if I can keep up. Wade’s return to the gym this go around occurred at an alarmingly fast pace. It’s intimidating! I’m afraid of using his recovery timetable as a schedule to beat – as opposed to a beacon of hope for encouragement. For me it can be a thin line between the two. I need to be like Wade, not beat Wade.
But you can bet I’m counting my days until I’m back at the gym!
It’s been nearly 37 years to the day since I first heard that chicken bone snapping sound on the turf at Aloha Stadium. What a long strange trip it’s been. A strange trip filled with sea stories, drunk-a-logs, and organ recitals.
I hope to be back writing soon.
*Here is a soundless animated clip which gives an overview of the TKA surgical procedure without the sounds of saws, drills or random orthopedic humor.