NOTE: This article contains graphic images of a surgery in progress.
I was laying on the operating bed in an ice cold operating room draped in medical skivvies. There was no fanfare from the doctors preparing to cut open my knee. I didn’t feel any heart pounding fear as I lay there. I’d be asleep for the worst of it I thought. I remember the shivering draft as one of the assistants ran a nerve blocker into my upper thigh with a needle that I made sure to avoid looking at. From that moment, I would not be able to feel the full heft of my left leg for a week. I wouldn’t be able to feel the stitches or titanium pin. I also wouldn’t be able to feel the pain. So there I lay, ready to be cut open and put back together, ignorant to the trials that would come after I woke up, after feeling returned to my leg, after I, two months on, could bear to walk again. The last words I remember as the doctors kindly drugged my eyes shut were please take deep breaths.
My left knee and its general neighborhood of my anatomy have been obstacles in my life since I was a rising high school freshman, with hopes of playing basketball for the high school the men in my family had poured so much time, money, and love into. I never did play varsity ball. But I’ve always wondered how my life would be different if I hadn’t hurt myself shooting hoops while wearing untied basketball shoes in my backyard.
My high school years were pockmarked with knee injuries, ice packs, a grapefruit knee, and physical therapy. When I left for college these problems still existed. When I crumpled to the hardwood last February those gimpy, under-muscled chickens came home to roost. My knee remained swollen for months, but it held my weight enough to finish the semester. I spent hours underneath x-rays and MRIs to determine the best course of action. Surgery was the only option and, hopefully, the final solution. The alternative was arthritis at the crisp age of thirty. The pictures from my operation certainly reinforced that notion. The cartilage underneath my knee had been cratered from five years of injuries and insufficient recoveries. The missing pieces were freely floating in my swollen knee. My kneecap rested comfortably skewed from its rightful cradle my body had built. Surgery meant flipping over said kneecap to install fresh cartilage and removing the damaged, escaped bits. Adjusting my kneecap’s location meant rebuilding a ligament that I’d likely lost years before. I have a long scar and several smaller ones to show for it.
After surgery was decided upon, I found myself wondering how many extra years surgery would give me in my race against arthritis. Five? Fifty? In my mind, there’s a grim light at the end of a tunnel somewhere with a sign that reads “knee replacement.” These thoughts came with the realization that my knee will always have an outsized importance to my health and my life. I did not appreciate this realization until weeks and months after I came to surrounded by family on a nondescript Wednesday in May.
Waking up post surgery felt as if I’d woken from a restful nap. Then I attempted to perform simple actions and form words. Talking was impossible without apple juice. Moving made my head swoon thanks to one set of drugs wearing off and another kicking in. I had one leg, and I had a dead log. I could not move my own body much at all. I needed help getting in the car to get home, and I was virtually carried to bed once I got there. And that bed was where I lay, unable to walk without a nauseous effort on wobbling crutches, for two weeks. Getting up to use the bathroom was a non starter for the first two days. Getting to the bathroom drew a sweat after that. By day three, pins and needles came to my left leg, and the painkillers did their job. The first time I left my recovery bed room was on a trip to my doctor for a follow up. Physical therapy started the week after.
The rehab regimen for my refurbished knee was a process that moved ahead in inches. At the start, I was unable to bend my knee at all on account of my new, extra taut ligament and the absurd amount of swelling. There was no muscle to speak of on my left leg. It was comical in comparison to my overworked right leg. I had relinquished all muscle control; I had a leg and a half at that point.
After a month of therapy twice a week, my leg reached a bend of 60 degrees. I still had no muscle to speak of, but I could control my leg enough to raise it off of the floor. Within subsequent weeks, I began to use a single crutch and learned how to maneuver on stairs. I could sit on the couch with my family and watch TV. My bio-stitches closed up and dissolved, and I began to nurse the scar itself. Slowly but surely I regained control of my leg muscles. By month three I ditched the crutches while at home and reached a bend around 100 degrees enough to ride a stationary bike if I leaned far enough to the right. It was around then, the middle of July, that I was able to leave my house for anything other than a doctor’s appointment. I was given the all clear to drive. Getting into and out of the car took creativity, but getting out of bed and out of the house was a revelation. By then, the simple act of carefully walking into the kitchen to make myself a meal was empowering. Slowly regaining the ability to walk was a trial and a triumph. Most days I measured progress in single degrees and a throbbing knee. The weeks spent in bed in a drugged limbo seem like another life and another person.
I received permission to walk unaided outside of the house three days before I left for school. My kneecap sat in its designated spot and the replacement cartilage was healthy and full. I could swing my legs back and forth like a kid on the playground. I could enter bring my knees to my chest. I could stretch my tiny, but now existent hamstring. I was not fully healed, but I was the closest I’d been in five years. Then it was off to school.
I did not realize how my summer had changed me until I took my first steps back on campus away from family and home. As I walked up a hill on campus, I felt an odd mix of sadness and excitement. My first steps alone were more deliberate than I remembered. I acknowledged each step I took, the way my leg wobbled and my knee creaked. Stairs still represent progress reports and going downhill is more difficult than it should be. I’m still improving and still getting stronger. I walk more now, and I walk more consciously. I’ve spent many weekends strolling around Burlington, walking and listening and breathing—saluting each step, and reveling in putting the next one down.