What Happened to My Knee

After my arthroscopic surgery, I got a preview of what it's really like to be a frail urbanite

Photograph by Getty Images

"What happened to your knee?"

My neoprene knee stabilizer invited countless questions and unsolicited advice from friends and strangers in my neighborhood and in the physical therapist's office—where I shared stories about doctors and joint recovery with patients my parents' age.

I'd planned to spend two weeks' vacation in a bucolic rural setting. After an hour of tennis, my knee became swollen beyond recognition, and I traded my sun visor for dark basement X-ray units of the local hospital. Limping through vacation, I paused every few hours to ice my grotesquely engorged right knee.

I suffered through everyone's knee stories, including cures from reflexology to reiki. We had all become our parents, talking unabashedly about our aching joints—not over bridge games, but while pairing blush wines with Mediterranean olives. I also endured everyone's rotator cuff, lumbar and feet tribulations—including my husband's year-long struggle with plantar fasciitis. By the time we reached dessert, we were comparing orthotics.

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So began my search for a doctor in the labyrinth of managed care restrictions, pre-certification numbers and slick doctor websites. Googling and plugging names into my insurance website, narrowing possibilities based on residency training. The way friends searched for soulmates on the Web, I was seeking a doctor match.

My first blind doctor date was a basketball player. There had only been a headshot on this former dribbler's website. College team photos hung on his office wall.

"You ever been scoped?" he asked.

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"No," I said. At least I didn't think so.

"We're looking at arthroscopic surgery." On the white paper used to cover the exam table, he created an original rendering of my alleged torn cartilage, illustrating which part he would cut away.

"We do it on Friday," he said, "you're back at work on Monday."

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More research to find an open MRI on my insurance plan and a second-opinion doctor. My knee injury was now my career. I spent sleepless nights poring over

The basketball player called me at 8 AM.

"Surgery," he said. "This is what you want to hear. I can repair it. I'll put Novocain into your knee. It's like going to the dentist."

I needed a Valium just to schedule a dental appointment.

"You have a big tear in the medial meniscus," he said a little too enthusiastically.

"How big?"

"Big. We do it on Friday, you're back at work on Monday."

The second opinion: a handsome child doctor told me arthritis was my real problem.

"You may not be a candidate for surgery," he said, adding with a smile. "If I operated on everyone who walked in here, I could retire in three years."

He explained that my knee was swollen because it "wasn't happy," and he drained it with a needle, insisting on showing me the vials of yellow fluid.

"Fifty cc's! Ten times normal."

I visited six doctors, was told to put orthotics in my shoes, change my sneakers, strengthen my quads, stretch my hamstrings, switch to clay tennis courts, give up tennis, swim but avoid the butterfly, get a steroid injection, take glucosomine and ibuprofen, massage my muscles with arnica, ice my knee, use heat on my knee, elevate my knee, wear a knee sleeve, not wear a knee sleeve, avoid stairs, avoid doctors.

And, of course, I kept bumping into other knee sufferers, like the colleague in the dressing room of Banana Republic, once crippled with knee pain, yet she ignored five of New York's top orthopedic surgeons, went for rigorous P.T., and was absolutely fine.

"But what do you think of this dress?" she inquired, before telling the tailor to shorten it just above her knee.

I went home and did what any confused, aching joint patient should do: opened a bottle of wine and made sure to elevate my knee by my third glass … and contemplate acupuncture. The next day, I scheduled surgery.

I was born in New York City and always assumed I'd grow old here. Little did I know I'd experience a preview of what it's like to be a frail urbanite until after my arthroscopic surgery, when I had to navigate fast-paced streets with a swollen knee, a limp and a cane. My surgery transformed me from a speed walker racing to work into a woman patiently waiting for the bus driver to lower the entrance steps.

What a rush I'd always been in! Running for traffic lights, dashing for the express train, sprinting to the ticket holders' to secure an aisle seat in the movies. Now I hobbled. Everyone left me behind in the dust, soot and bus fumes. I was on one of those slow-moving escalator walkways in the airport, but everyone else briskly wheeled their suitcases past me.

I got bumped, jostled and nearly swept off my one good leg, with mumbled "sorries" or no apologies at all. I missed countless lights. Waiting for the traffic to whiz by and the light to turn green, I wondered: What was I losing with all these missed seconds and minutes?

Actually, I began to see new things: the tops of buildings and their unique architectural details; nannies escorting well-groomed children to school; bicycle riders (with and without helmets); flowers painted on taxis; different styles of gardens in front of concrete buildings; and many older city residents with shopping carts, walkers, hunched shoulders, and canes—just like mine.

In spite of my former fast-paced city gait, I (almost) always stopped and helped seniors across the street. "Are you all right now?" I'd inquire, and they'd nod yes, even though I worried that they were vulnerable and alone.

Now I planned my day around my disability. Avoided rush hour subways, feared walking through throngs of shoppers on a sunny afternoon, dined out at the unhip hour of 6 PM. I felt as if everyone were staring at me, and at the same time I was invisible—except to the injured and the elderly. We shared park benches and waited for lights to turn green. Struck up conversations about total joint replacements.

When I threw my cane away and started jogging to make the light once in awhile, I reminded myself to slow down—life didn't have to be this fast. There would always be another light, another train, another lingering citizen who was my companion in waiting. I'd take a deep breath and ask if she needed assistance in crossing the street, and when a fragile hand extended my way, I took it with a keen understanding, and we both walked slowly across the street while the cars edgily waited to zoom past us.

Tags: well being

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