See that woman below in the photo, the one with the strong core, solid muscles, and gleeful smile?
I wouldn’t have believed it two years ago, but that’s me.
The Day Before The Surgery:
In August of 2020, I got a partial joint replacement, on the outside half of my right knee. Yes, the very knee bearing most of my weight in that photo.
Icky to look at; often excruciating to live with.
The day before the surgery, I could barely walk. I’d had knee pain off and on for about 10 years at that point, but the previous six months had been excruciating, especially after an arthroscopic surgery meant to clean rough edges off my meniscus (the rubbery cartilage separating your shinbone from your thigh bone) instead revealed what a macerated disaster the right side of it actually was.
And once they’d cleaned that out, there really wasn’t much separating the femur from the tibia on the right side of my knee. It was bone-on-bone. And, making it worse, without that ruined cartilage filling out the space, in the months following the arthroscopy my knee started to cave in. Icky to look at; often excruciating to live with.
Partial Knee Replacement:
“On the plus side,” said my surgeon, when I went back to see him, “the other side of your knee looks perfect. You’re a great candidate for a partial knee replacement.”
Knee replacement? Partial or otherwise, wasn’t that for people much, much older than youthful, still-goofy me? I still get the occasional zit. I think fart jokes are hilarious. And I love learning new technology, can make my 20-something nephews and nieces double over in laughter, would love to go out dancing (if the bars didn’t open so damn late). A new knee?? Are you kidding me?!?
But the truth was my bum knee was making me old.
I used to be an avid hiker. Eighteen years ago, I consoled myself about turning 40 by embarking on a solo five-day backpacking adventure through Yosemite National Park. There was no way I was capable of that kind of exertion anymore, with the state of my knee.
“My increasingly sluggish lifestyle made its way to my waistline, as well.”
Sources Of Exercise:
Living on a 53-acre farm, with goats and chickens and cats and one large, very spoiled dog, has made a completely sedentary life impossible for my wife and me, it’s true. But while she has also maintained fitness as a runner, competing in 5Ks and half-marathons, I had allowed myself to devolve into letting mucking goat stalls and walking the dog on our trails be my only sources of exercise.
And the worse my knee became, even those activities were beginning to fall by the wayside. My increasingly sluggish lifestyle made its way to my waistline, as well.
So when my surgeon made his pitch, I turned to him with a sigh. “Well, Doctor,” I replied. “Whaddya got? When do we do it?”
Over the next two months leading up to the surgery, I made the decision to make this a major turning point in my life. I’d lost too much time already not doing the things I loved, especially exercise.
Learning To Love Exercise:
I could barely walk but I could ride a bicycle without pain, so I got a head start on my goal by spending 20 to 30 minutes a day on the stationary bike in our garage. And before you nod knowingly about how lucky I am to be able to afford a pricey Peloton or the like, you should know that this was actually an old road bike attached to a $125 indoor bike training stand.
But it did the trick: By the time of my operation, I’d already lost five pounds, and I could feel my endurance increasing. Heading into surgery, I had smug fantasies about conversations between the doctor and his assistants as they marveled at the muscle density they were forced to cut through to get to my knee.
“But once I was able to climb back up on that stationary bike, I was absolutely determined to get that ability back.”
And cut they did. Much of the day after the surgery, I was pretty high on painkillers that were numbing me to the fact that I had an eight-inch gash in my leg which was swollen to twice its normal width. I would use a walker just to get from my bed to the bathroom for the next two weeks. Let me tell you, nothing makes you channel every ancient elder you’ve ever known more than using a walker. Terrifying.
Determined To Get That Ability Back With Exercise:
But I also used that walker, with the help of a home physical therapist, to get to my stationary bike, and with his help I climbed aboard. Once I could do it by myself, I was climbing aboard and riding four or five days a week.
And once I was cleared to drive myself, I was going to see an amazing physical therapist several times a week for the first couple of months. I still see her, actually, a couple times a month—but now she’s more a personal trainer for me, helping me to work on all the muscles in my body, not just my legs.
Two years ago I was a wreck, wondering if I’d squandered the strength and stability I’d once had on not doing some of the things I loved — hiking, biking, climbing, exploring, traveling — and wondering if I’d ever have the ability to do them again. But once I was able to climb back up on that stationary bike, I was absolutely determined to get that ability back.
What We Get With Exercise:
Thankfully, whether luck in having the right orthopedic surgeon, or having decent genetics that allowed me to heal correctly, or somehow landing at random with just the right inspirational PT, or some other metaphysical factor I had no control over, no complication or defect or unforeseen medical setback kept me from simply and single-mindedly pursuing that goal. I was incredibly lucky that, in the end, all I needed was that determination to get stronger.
“The act of having achieved that strength, still makes me feel proud..”
Now, two years later and more than 20 pounds lighter, I’m in the best physical shape I’ve been in since at least my 20s. I finally understand, for the first time in my life, the serenity and fulfillment that exercisers like my wife get after a great workout, and the craving for more that a pleasantly exhausted body can feel. Who would have thought I would obtain that understanding in my late 50s?
Still Pushing 60:
A few weeks ago, on the two-year anniversary (or, as I like to call it, the aKNEEversary) of my surgery, I asked my PT to take that photo of me doing the “Star Pose,” resting nearly all my weight on the side of that leg that was split down the middle in surgery. I’m hiking again, biking like crazy, ready and finally able to get back to those activities I’ve always loved.
I wish I’d done this ten, 15, 20 years ago, and it pisses me off that even feeling this good won’t forestall the beat-down that time is still going to hand a woman of my age — heck, is actively handing me, as I look at the wrinkles on my now-heavily-muscled arms. You may be strong, those wrinkles say, but you’re still pushing 60.
Maybe so, but that strength, and the act of having achieved that strength, still makes me feel proud, and strong, and not just physically so. Proving that it’s never too late to love exercise.