Good-bye to a knee
I’m at the age where body parts start to wear out and break. After 18 knee surgeries over some 30-odd years – each successive one more of a patch job that barely allowed me to keep running, biking, practicing martial arts and playing rugby, it was time for my first total knee replacement. That brought my knee-operation total to 19. This post is about my feelings going into my second total knee replacement operation – knee operation #20. It’s my opinion and definitely not intended to be medical advice. I simply want to share what you can achieve with tons of motivation, grit and optimism.
Running again after two knee replacements is possible if you’re willing to put in the hard work. And I am! As I mentioned earlier, I’ve already replaced my left knee with a state-of-the-art titanium joint and have postponed replacing my right knee as long as possible. I always knew I was fighting a losing battle but hoped to get a few more years out of what has in recent years been my “good knee.” But alas, it was not to be. I severely damaged (again) my already-ravaged knee in a manner that I can’t reveal at present. How this happened will become apparent a few months from now. Why am I being so sentimental about a knee, you’re probably wondering? Well, there are many reasons.
This is the last of the two factory-equipment knees that powered me through sports from the first grade through high school and beyond. Playing, running, football, baseball, basketball, water skiing, snow-skiing, martial arts, wrestling, hiking, biking, walking and rugby are just a few of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years, thanks to my knees. Mind you, more than a few of the sports fell by the wayside after my first knee replacement two years ago. Still, I managed to keep running, biking and walking once my rehab was over (ca. 9 months). I enjoyed playing rugby with my older son (now 41) as he rose through the ranks and I descended. We finally played together in the second team. Unfortunately, I won’t get experience that joy with my younger son (14) once this surgery is complete.
I can also thank my knees for the outstanding support they gave me throughout my military years, even if the military was where I first injured my left knee. All the “duck-walking” (walking long distances in a squatting position) in BUD/S weakened my Anterior-Cruciate Ligaments. Back then, the Navy didn’t know this, but they do today, which is why duck-walking has been replaced with “bear-crawling.” It’s just as horrible but better on the knees, I’ve been told. Parachuting undoubtedly further strained my knees, as my landings were not always textbook perfect, to say the least. And I would love to say that the first severe knee injury happened while gallantly charging the enemy or in hand-to-hand combat, but sadly, it wasn’t so.
The cold, hard truth is that it happened at “Gitmo” (Guantanamo Bay), a US Navy base in Cuba famous today for the incarceration of captured terrorists. I was playing second base in a softball game and was stretching out with my leg and arm for a throw to put the runner out. The throw came and the runner was out, but he slid into my outstretched leg and bent the knee backward. Gitmo was just a rest stop on our way to a deployment in South America and I didn’t want to be sent home. The only way I would be allowed to continue the deployment was to let the doctor to put a cast on the leg so I couldn’t bend it. The knee hurt like hell but the thought of not completing my deployment hurt even more.
I promised him, of course, that I would keep the cast for at least eight weeks. I promised him I would take it easy. I promised him I would do the necessary rehab before resuming my duties. As soon as we left Gitmo (3 days later), I had our platoon corpsman cut the cast off my leg so I could operate as usual. Needless to say, the knee was still crap. And that was the beginning of a string of knee operations that will culminate (hopefully) in my upcoming 20th (the knee replacement). But, I did keep the cast once it had been cut off, so I kept my promise to the good doctor – kind of. But hey, I was young, dumb and bullets bounced off my chest (so I thought).
But now it’s time to say farewell to my trusty companion. I must admit that this scares this old frogman. After the first knee replacement, I fought a raging battle with opioids that I nearly lost. I wrote about the crazy thoughts that raced through my head before I decided to go cold turkey and ditch the painkillers altogether. But the specter of that battle looms large again in my head. Although I’m much better prepared this time around and know what to expect, I still can’t help but wonder. Nevertheless, I’m determined to wrestle this monster to the ground. I intend to stay in the fight and never give up.
So, what’s next? Will I be able to live the adventurous life I’ve lived up to now with two artificial knees. Will I only be able to walk and bike? Will I be able to undertake crazy challenges like Survivor (Robinson in Sweden) and other similar adventures? Only time will tell! But first, I’ve got about nine months of rehab ahead of me. And believe me, I’ve learned from my stupid adventure as a 20-year-old. I’m going to give everything I’ve got in this process no matter how much it hurts. “You don’t gotta like it. You just gotta do it,” as we used to say in the “Teams.”
In good company
Legendary marathon runner Dick Beardsley (now in his 60s) continues to defy the odds and naysayers by running as many as 50 miles a week on two artificial knees. He’s living proof that artificial parts don’t need to slow you down. And I love the mindset of his surgeon. According to Dr. Matthew Heinrich, an orthopedist based in Austin, Texas, “The whole point of joint-replacement surgery is to get your patients out again.” Following rehab after my first knee replacement, I beat my goal of running for one hour before a year was up. I’m keen to see what I can do after this one! Two artificial knees will definitely slow me down. But it won’t stop me! I may have lost a battle, but I haven’t lost the war. Hooyah!