Becoming Bionic

I know this because when I first broke this knee 60 years ago, physical therapy had not yet come to Virginia, Minnesota. I actually broke my knee chasing boys. I was 16 at the time and had a serious crush on a boy in my class. My girlfriend and I were rushing to get to the front door of the school the same time as the boy and his friends so we could “accidentally bump into them “. However, it was winter time in Northern Minnesota which meant we were running down the school hall with our boots unzipped, our heavy coats unbuttoned and scarves trailing behind us. Halfway to the front door, I tripped over the scarf and fell directly on my left knee on the school’s indestructible cement floor.

A doctor’s visit and a three-day hospital stay followed, along with a cast from the top of my thigh to my ankle. After six weeks, the cast was removed and I was sent home with a stiff leg. I worked on the knee until I could walk without a limp but I never achieved the whole range of motion. Then, three years ago, I had a bad fall and broke that knee for the second time, the final insult to a body part that was already in trouble.

I knew that knee needed to be replaced but I kept putting it off. When it bothered me, I would dig up the ace bandages floating around the house and keep them on until the knee settled down. I learned to ignore the mild ache, the twinges of pain and the occasional feeling of collapse.

This past winter, when the knee began to complain more than usual I decided the time had come. I saw the doctor, scheduled the surgery and did all the pre-op requirements. Then (of course) the knee stopped hurting. I went back to all my activities and gave the knee lots of reasons to act up. Nothing happened. It felt great.

“I’m going to cancel,” I told my husband. “The knee is fine.” After more than fifty years of marriage, he knew better than to respond. He looked at me and sighed deeply.

The next day, I had a change of heart. “I should get it over with, shouldn’t I?” I said to my husband. “It’s going to start hurting again if I don’t do it.” Another deep sigh from my husband. This went on for the entire month before the surgery. I’d pick up the phone to cancel and then change my mind. I kept wishing the knee would hurt but there was not even a twinge. Finally, as you already know, I decided to go through with it. The biggest reward would be never again worrying about when I should have the surgery.

Of course, I’m not the only one of my friends’ with a new joint. As we age, a lot of our body parts wear out. Knees may be the most popular replacement but hips run a close second. Golfers and tennis players tend to need new shoulders since that’s the joint they wear out swinging at balls. I know a few people with multiple replacements.

All of us who decide it’s time (or past time) to get a repair job have physical therapy in common. By the end of the first day after surgery the physical therapist arrived at my bedside and, before I realized what was happening, she had me out of bed and walking down the hall, bending a bit and sitting in a chair. My pleas of pain and exhaustion fell on deaf ears. But once I was safely tucked back into bed, I actually felt much better. Exercise and movement, I realized, was going to be the key to getting back on my feet – and my left leg.

After the hospital, I spent five days in a rehabilitation facility where I had physical therapy twice a day. The therapist was a lovely young woman from the Philippines who was so tiny I was certain she couldn’t manipulate my knee. I was wrong. Then I went home and arrangements were made for a physical therapist came to our house. This therapist turned out to be an old friend, a woman who had worked with me several years ago when I had an accident (don’t ask!). I was delighted to see her and, in addition to PT, we caught up on each other’s lives. After a week, I was deemed ready to attend outpatient physical therapy (PT). This was definitely progress.

Patients arrive at PT with walkers, canes and crutches. Others are protecting an injured arm or shoulder and some are stooped with terrible back pain. When I see a thin red line running down someone’s knee, I know that person also has a new joint. We smile at each other and start a conversation about our surgery. But everyone has one thing in common; we’re all here to work with these amazing physical therapists whose main goal is to see each of us regain our mobility and return to our normal lives.

My physical therapist was Jeremy. He put me through the exercises that would give me back my mobility. He pushed and pulled and worked me hard and I went home exhausted. But the next day, I was immediately aware that my knee was a little stronger and bending further. As time went on, my walking improved and I began losing my cane ten times a day because I would forget it. Time to walk unassisted.

I asked Jeremy why he decided to become a physical therapist. He told me that originally he was in the Air Force where he repaired airplanes, a profession he loved. He had even flown in the planes that precede the president’s to ensure his safety when he’s traveling. However, while working on the planes, he had several serious accidents that sent him to the hospital and then to physical therapy. After he recovered, it became clear he couldn’t return to his old job. That’s when he decided to go back to school and become a physical therapist. Jeremy told me that many of the therapists had spent time in PT themselves, which is why they chose this occupation and why they really understand what their patients are going through.