A joint endeavor

By Carolyn Marsh | Nov 13, 2009

Take it from me: If you’re going to have joint-replacement surgery, do it with a buddy. My friend Kathie and I each had a knee replaced a week ago (her left, my right), and without the endlessly patient graces of her husband, Robin, and the numerous phone calls and visits we exchange every day, I for one would by now have thrown my Camoped out the window and gobbled all my pain meds in one fell swoop.

As it is, we are able to soothe each other’s fears and compare notes on our progress. It helps to have a friend in pain like yours. And no, doing both knees at the same time is not the same thing.

We started doing our research a few months ago when it turned out we both needed a new knee. Our search led us to the minimally invasive procedure in the person of Dr. Wolfgang Fitz, at Brigham & Women’s in Boston, a devastatingly personable surgeon who is considered one of the leading lights (you thought I was going to say cutting edge?) in the field and came highly recommended by some of the local knees he had already replaced. We went through the initial and the pre-op meetings as scheduled by Dr. Fitz’s wonderful assistant Evelyn, who under medical ethics rules couldn’t tell us when the other person’s appointment was but let us know we were being kept together by saying, "It’s all right," medical code for it’s all right.

At the last moment but one, our surgeries were moved up from Tuesday, Nov. 3, to Monday, Nov. 2. This was fine for Kathie but not so great for me, who had missed a crucial element of the pre-op process by not getting a full-leg X-ray so the doctor would know how long my leg was originally with the goal of having it end up the same length after surgery.

I was scheduled for surgery at 7 a.m. and Kathie at 3 p.m., so the nice nurses at Faulkner Hospital, where this dual digiticide (digitology?) (are legs digits, like fingers?) was to take place, switched us, which gave me time to get the X-ray that morning (and I won’t mention that particular Boston public transit odyssey except to say that this time the taxi ride was $50 and I now have a Charlie Card of my own) but meant Kathie had to get up really early in the morning. At first she was not at all happy but was OK with the change later on since it meant she could eat a lot sooner than I could.

We ate our last supper at a Chinese restaurant in Dedham, a buffet, which is a great way to eat Chinese because you don’t have to resent giving someone else part of the dish you ordered because that’s what you wanted to eat, not share. The hotel to which the restaurant was semidetached was so full of invalids and post-invalids and ante-invalids that it ran a shuttle service to a number of area hospitals. The driver, whom I met the next day, was very nice and had been out for a few days with — you guessed it, knee troubles.

At Faulkner on Monday, the nurses were, like most of the nurses I have had the happiness to encounter, wonderful. They loved it that we were from Maine and that we were together. And they loved it that the last thing they heard from Kathie as she was wheeled into the operating room was “Please make sure I don’t get Carolyn Marsh’s knee!”

Kathie was out before I went under, and it was impossible to believe, when I saw her late that morning, that she had just gotten a new knee. And the next morning it was just as impossible to believe that I had gotten a new knee. Aside from the thin plastic covering the incision, the IV and the unmistakable hospital air, I felt as though I could have my other knee replaced on the spot and go home the same day.

Hold it right there, as Bob Cummings used to say. Sometime during that day and the first night, the pain med that had been delivered directly to the cut wore off and the real world reared its ugly, painful head. We didn’t know this until later, when we compared notes, but I am ashamed to say that when I first heard Kathie had had a bad night, I was a little smug about bearing the pain better. A prelapsarian (so to speak) error of judgment, for which I have apologized profusely.

A few days later we were out of there, having spent the time walker-ing or caning up and down the hall to each other’s room and practicing the play stairs and then the real thing. We got a joint debriefing from the staff and a regular parade to the hospital exit, and as we drove off I felt a little twinge of regret at leaving my comfortable little cocoon. The high point of the trip back was at the rest stop in New Hampshire, where we paused to stretch our legs. First the car doors opened, then a couple of walkers shot out, followed by a couple of canes and Kathie and me. By this time quite a crowd had gathered, and as we tottered around, I’ll bet someone was putting money on who’d stay upright the longest. The actual high point, for both of us, was getting home a little later.

Now we are embarked on the most important part of the process: therapy. We discuss pain levels, amount of pain meds, time spent on the Camoped, time spent with Mr. IceMan (no, I do not miss the old-fashioned icepack at all), appetite and loss of same, expectations for our follow-up visits on Nov. 20 and the chance to get another Chinese buffet. It does occur to me, however, that the little twinge I felt on leaving the hospital was actually my left knee, saying, "Don’t worry. You’ll be back."
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