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.
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.
The right pre-op prep
One thing I've learned — having had three prior orthopedic surgeries since 2000 — is how helpful it is to arrive at that operating room door as strong, healthy and lean as you can be. I had lifted weights to strengthen my arms to move myself in bed for several weeks using only my upper body. This "pre-hab" also gave me a sense of control as I headed into three months of healing and recovery.
Jose was willing and able to take three weeks' paid vacation from his job. We also asked our church for aid, and fellow parishioners stepped up, delivering us two weeks' worth of home-cooked dinners.
Photo by Jose R. Lopez
This gave Jose a welcome break as I needed his help in every way: to dress, put on my socks, shoes and surgical stockings, even to help sponge bathe me for the first 18 days until my staples were removed.
Normally super-independent, I found it tough to be so helpless. My tight white surgical stockings — worn 23 hours a day for a month — were a challenge, as my poor husband wrestled hard every single time to get them over my foot and ankle until I could pull them to my thigh. For weeks, I wore his soft jersey boxer shorts; anything else put pressure in the middle of my wound.
A terrifying task
The hardest part of those first few weeks was having Jose clean my incision every day, which I found a little terrifying, even though he was very careful. He would wash his hands with surgical scrub, put on a fresh pair of latex gloves and very gently swab me with disinfectant and change the dressing as I lay on the bed. The best part was being fussed over, as he often brought me meals in bed and lent me his iPad to watch movies and play endless games of Scrabble.
Getting my 10 staples removed was difficult. The poor nurse practitioner, pulling them out as gently as she possibly could, cringed in sympathy as I yelped curses. My patient husband held my hand the whole time.
After two weeks of home-based physical therapy, I started therapy at a nearby rehab facility, going three times a week for six weeks, with an hour each time of exercises, stretching and strength-building, including biking for 10 minutes and 10 minutes on an elliptical trainer. None of it was painful, and it was encouraging to hear my therapists tell me how well I was doing.
Within a few weeks of this regimen, I was walking a mile, using short crutches. Within a month I was walking with no aids at all. To my great relief, I'd been nearly pain-free — since leaving the hospital the only pain medication I needed was one or two painkillers once a day.
Within six weeks of the surgery, I flew to San Francisco from my home in New York on a story assignment. I walked everywhere confidently, easily and without pain or discomfort.
Friends, colleagues and neighbors in my apartment building — many of them in their 60s, 70s and 80s — told me I looked like a new person once I was free of pain again. Looking back, I wouldn't do anything differently. I took my time researching my options, making sure I fully understood the operation and the length and demands of recovery and rehab. I carefully chose a surgeon I like and trust, with a low infection rate and many satisfied patients. I worked hard at physical therapy and am still doing many exercises at home.
Life is now back on track.
Also of interest: Tai chi helps prevent falls.