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My Brand-New Hip: A Personal Tale

Helpful friends, expert therapy and a new surgery technique make hip replacement a success

Caitlin Kelly wrote a personal essay about her hip replacement surgery and the recovery process

Caitlin Kelly takes her first steps after a hip replacement. — Photo by Jose R. Lopez

Things aren't good when your 83-year-old father has more energy and stamina than you do. An athletic and highly active person since childhood — whose activities included jazz dance, softball, horseback riding, cycling and sailboat racing — I found my life shrinking at 52 due to arthritis in my left hip.

When I'd been diagnosed with it two years earlier, I continued many of my activities. But by the time I was 52, in January 2010, every step was painful, and a hip replacement was inevitable.

See also: 5 steps to a successful hip replacement.

The timing couldn't have been worse, with work commitments and a mother, living alone on the other side of the country, who needed my help. But I was heartened to learn from friends about a newer surgical practice, known as the "anterior" method, that creates a smaller incision, cuts less muscle and, as a result, often has a faster and less painful recovery. I found a surgeon who used the anterior method, hoping that I'd face almost no restrictions on my life while recuperating, and be able to drive within a few weeks.

Pumping pillows

I had the surgery Feb. 6, 2012, at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. I spent three days in the hospital, with small plastic pillows strapped around each foot that filled with air every 90 seconds to push blood through my system to help prevent clots. I was only allowed to remove them to use the toilet, and I could only do that with the help of a nurse, unable on my own to lift my sore, swollen operative leg. I heard that some patients really hated wearing them and would remove them or turn them off but I was very determined to do everything possible to avoid clots, complications or infection, so nothing bothered me much.

For the first few weeks as the incision healed and my swelling subsided, I could only sleep on my back — not much fun for a side sleeper.

In the hospital, nurses offered me pain medications every few hours, from powerful oxycodone — which I refused within 26 hours of the surgery – to an over-the-counter pain medicine, in addition to intravenous painkillers. Heavy pain medications left me dizzy and nauseated, killing my appetite.

Thankfully, I didn't need them for long. My pain was never more than a 2.5 (10 being the worst). It wasn't nearly as rough as I'd feared, and easily managed with medication and ice packs. I was in such terrible pain before the operation that I was mostly just relieved to be pain free and on the other side of the fear of the surgery itself.

I walked the day after surgery, using a walker. It was tiring to manage the entire hospital floor, but it also felt good to start moving. Sent home with a thick pile of post-op instructions, I took 10 types of pills every day for a month. These included two aspirin a day to help prevent clots as well as folic acid and iron to rebuild my bone and speed healing. My husband, Jose, made a printed schedule to help us keep track of them all.

For the first couple weeks after I got home, a physical therapist came to our apartment, two to three times a week, and started me on the basics, like lifting my leg while seated in a chair, or standing at the kitchen counter and doing deep knee bends. He had me walk around the room several times a day to prevent blood clots. I was also expected to start walking, using a cane or crutches. None of this physical therapy proved painful. For the first few days I felt shaky and nervous as I began to stand up straight again and put weight on that hip. But my fear dissolved as I gained strength and mobility.

Next: How to prepare for hip replacement surgery. »

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