My new knees: From pain to possibilities

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Editor’s note: Starting today, Sandi Wicher, a Walla Walla-based master tai chi trainer, will begin a four-part series about her personal experience with bilateral knee replacement surgery, from diagnosis to recovery. Her columns will run in the U-B’s Health & Fitness section on Thursdays.

As a baby boomer, I have lived with a mindset of bigger, faster, stronger.

Aerobics and exercise nonstop, seven days a week.

I’d always felt better and healthier when I kept moving and kept exercising. As I aged, my thoughts changed as my knees started giving me trouble.

Pain when walking, then swelling. Discomfort when cycling, then swelling. Discomforts when riding my horses, then swelling.

It started to seem like anything I would do there would be discomfort, then swelling. I began to wear knee braces to teach my tai chi classes. I spent more time sitting with ice on them and my legs up because of the swelling.

Life without being able to enjoy doing the everyday things I enjoyed doing, I decided to practice what I teach and see a physician.

The first physician confirmed what I had thought: I needed a knee replacement. As recommended whenever it appears major surgery is needed, I sought a second opinion. This time, though, I asked the second doctor to check my left knee also as it actually had begun to hurt more when my right knee was first diagnosed. It was confirmed I needed both knees replaced.

I asked if both knees could be done at the same time, not wanting interrupt my active life twice for long recovery periods. After I spent a long time with the doctor, asking questions, getting information on knee replacements, seeing knee replacement models, letting the doctor see what type of person I was and getting to know and trust him, he said I was a good candidate for both at once, called bilateral knee replacement.

The surgery was done in early October 2012. The day after, a physical therapist came to my room and said it was time to get up and try to walk. He went through his instructions and safety concerns.

I quickly realized wished I had strengthened my abdominal muscles more before surgery. Without the use of my legs, it was a challenge moving in and out of bed using my arms and stomach muscles. By the third day, though, I was walking down the hall with the use of a walker and ready to go home.

Waiting at home were three machines that would become a part of my life for the next three weeks. One was to move my legs up and down (three to four hours on the left leg, then on the right leg, at least twice a day). Two other machines, one for each leg, supplied cold to my knees to help keep the swelling down, and a third provided a pulsing compression to my feet to keep the circulation moving.

A nurse came once a week to answer questions, check on my pain medications and check my vitals. The physical therapist came twice a week to introduce me to required exercises and instructions on completing them several times a day. (Of course this is while I have machines for ice and movement attached. How many hours are there in a day?)

The exercises the therapist instructed me to do were hard and they hurt, but I was determined. I also added seated tai chi to my required exercises.

By the second week, the therapist was amazed with my progress and attributed it to my dedication to doing the exercises.

In reality, the hardest thing to do was get out of bed, get up off the toilet and sleep. I am a stomach sleeper so sleeping on my back was extremely difficult. The third week I developed a calf muscle cramp that hurt more when walking then my knees did.

I am so thankful for a couple of things. I had prepared myself and conditioned my body before surgery, which was a big help getting started in recovery.

And I’m thankful for my husband Gordon, who was my nurse, cook, gofer, house cleaner, my crutch and my strength when I questioned my decision to do both knees at the same time. He was at my side when I needed help, to change my machines, disconnect or move them and to get anything I needed or wanted.

My private health insurance also deserves thanks. It was good to learn it would pay for the physical therapy machines at home for three weeks and the home visits from the physical therapist and nurse. I would also be covered for extended outpatient therapy during recovery.

Usually I don’t even have enough medical expenses in a year to meet my $5,000 deductible, so I was glad to be covered when needed. Insurance is an expense I realize is important, but I wonder every time I write a check if it is worth all the money I put out. A definite yes!

I was also grateful for my pain meds. I do not take any medicines and do not like to take anything besides vitamins. But drugs to keep my bowels moving were a must because of the pain meds I was taking. I also had medication to help me sleep. The pain medication helped me get through all the exercises and allowed my stitches to heal with a tolerable level of pain.

My mind told me I could get off the pain meds quicker than one should, but my body told me to wait till I was healed and ready.

Next week: Outpatient physical therapy — pain and persistence on the road back to normal use.

Sandi Wicher is a master trainer for the Tai Chi for Health Institute and owner of Harmony and Health teaching classes and workshops at Many Waters Wellness Center in Walla Walla. She can be reached at Sandi99362@gmail.com or 509-386-4305.

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