THE TRAITOROUS KNEE
I recently hurt – or as we trained and aging athletes like to say – “blew out” my knee. I was running across the tennis court – all right, not running but moving as quickly as I’m capable of – and as I lunged for the ball – all right, not so much lunged as started to fall down – my foot “stuck” – obviously the shoe’s fault – and my leg twisted and the next thing you know, there I was, writhing on the ground, making a very big deal of it; in my mind comparing myself to a hall of fame running back, stopped by a dozen defenders at the goal line, thinking that in a moment I’d get up and soldier on – score!! – to cheers and adoration.
Only when I got up I couldn’t put any weight on my leg.
There is an odd, mixed feeling to be injured doing something you really like. You find yourself thinking – oh, good, I don’t have to do this for a while — coupled with – Oh, god, when will I be able to do this again? You realize you’re going to have some extra free time on your hands which is nice. You have no idea what you’re going to do with it which is bad. What if you’re forced to take up golf again?
Around where I live, when one is an aging tennis warrior and one is injured, there is really only one thing to do and that is to go and see Doctor Stu.
Besides being an avid tennis player, Dr. Stu is an orthopedic surgeon of note and has traveled with The Davis Cup Team as medical advisor. Dr. Stu was a Division I middleweight wrestler in college. For those who don’t know, wrestling is a sport where you train until you puke and then puke till you make weight. Unless it’s to gain it, most middle aged tennis players gave up on making weight long ago. At sixty, Dr. Stu still greets every new day with two hundred sit ups and three hundred push-ups. When Dr. Stu comes to play tennis he does so wearing ominous looking, black metal braces on both knees. He wears a black, rubber shirt and has a towel around his neck. He bounces up and down and rolls his head from side to side like a prizefighter, all the while swinging his racket in front of him as if he is going to seriously decapitate some flowers. You just know, even if he loses the match, Dr. Stu is capable of taking you down and pinning you at set point.
If Dr. Stu weren’t a doctor, he’d be beating up linebackers in the NFL.
It’s always interesting to see friends in professional mode. You realize they actually do something besides hit the occasional tennis ball, shoot the shit and drink beer. You realize they are, when they have to be, serious people who do serious things. As one who has never done anything serious in his entire life, I’m always somewhat embarrassed and very impressed. My only serious talent is in trying to make people slightly chuckle.
Dr. Stu’s waiting room is filled with injured, middle-aged white people of which I am one. There are casts on wrists and ankles. There are people on crutches. There is a woman in a neck brace. Where do people like this hurt themselves, I wonder – the supermarket? Was there a rugby scrum on isle 5 near the frozen foods? I’m suddenly reminded of my father, who at the age of 70, farted and broke a rib. So it goes.
For an orthopod, Dr. Stu’s magazines leave a lot to be desired. Women’s Home Journal. Redbook. People. You can never tell what medical practitioner is going to have decent reading material in his waiting room but you really expect a guy who deals with joint injuries to at least stock Sports Illustrated. On the other hand, my friend, Paul, who is a dentist, tells me he spends a hundred bucks a month on magazine subscriptions and they’re usually gone from the office by the end of the week. I would call this stealing but as magazines often walk out offices with me, I consider it borrowing until next time. It all goes on your health plan anyway.
When I finally get in to see Dr. Stu he pokes and prods at my knee, measures it and twists it. He makes doctors sounds.
Mmm, he says, poking.
Ahh, he says, prodding.
Does that hurt, he says, twisting?
Yes, no, I dunno, maybe, ahhh!!!, I say.
Let’s take a look, he says and he takes me down the hall to some machine that shows a picture on a computer screen. He operates this miracle machine himself. Amazing! Just another thing I can’t do. Look, he says. Where I see shadows, he sees bone and ligaments, cartilage and padding. He sees wear and tear. Tsk, tsk, he says – not so much criticizing me as the aging process.
Dr. Stu proceeds to drain my swollen knee. Do you like needles, he says, taking out a six inch syringe. I like needles only slightly less than I like electroshock treatment.
This won’t hurt much, says Dr. Stu as he dabs my knee with what he says is a numbing agent. Much. What is much to a man who once wrestled the Olympic champion, Dan Gable? What is much to a man who once had a colonoscopy done without sedation or anesthetic, just so he could watch the procedure on the screen along the with the gastroenterologist. He liked it – he thought it all was interesting.
One – two – !
Dr. Stu doesn’t wait for three – he sticks you on two and a half as if you’ll be so surprised you won’t feel a thing. It’s a nice gesture but unnecessary. The examination room is small and the table is against the wall. I have nowhere to run.
Take a look, Steve, this is really interesting.
I have been staring at the ceiling since “much” and I decide to venture a quick look. The glass tube attached to the syringe is filling with fluid. Fluid from my swollen knee. My fluid.
I feel faint.
Hmmm. Not bad, says Dr. Stu. Pretty clear.
He likes the fluid in my knee so much, he decides to take two more syringes full.
We make an appointment for an MRI.
I have reached that point in my life where I can toss and turn and stare at the ceiling at 2 am in the morning and yet put me in a recumbent position in the course of the day – the dentist chair for example, with the light in my face and the water gurgling and a metal pick in my mouth – and I’ll be asleep in a matter of moments. So goes my experience with the MRI – magnetic resonance imaging – for my traitorous knee. The machine, which they slide you into after asking if you’re claustrophobic and wouldn’t you rather go home is a huge donut that clanks and whistles and hums and burps and belches and is loud enough that they give you earphones to deaden the noise. The earphones in this case are playing Barry Manilow – hardly an improvement on burps and belches – and I’m tempted to wildly wave at the technician to change the channel – but it’s too late, I’m already dozing off. I wake up a half an hour later to Celine Dion.
I am told Dr. Stu will have the results on Monday and will call. Not one to sit on bad news, he calls me Sunday night and tells me that I have a partial tear of the meniscus and a totally blown out ACL. I know what these are by name only but am able to translate that my knee is seriously fucked up.
Not so, says Dr. Stu. “We’re going to fix you right back up, as good as new, Steve.”
I find this alarming. “We” suggests that I’m going to be a part of this and as mentioned, I’m always more comfortable when other people do things for me.
The bad news, says Dr. Stu, is that we are going to be rehabilitating for six months. That, I realize, is where the “we” meaning “me” comes in. As one who hates the monotony of repetitive exercise – I would rather trim toenails than lifts weights – this is going to be a bitch.
I’ve had it twice before – very simple carpel tunnel on the hand (knock wood) and a we-shall-not-go-into-details colonoscopy. Both involved general anesthesia and it made me realize I am one of those people who are afraid they won’t wake up. I found it to be an acute form of airplane travel. You’re pretty positive that nothing is going to happen, but at the same time you’re aware disasters do happen and you would find it very disconcerting if one should happen to you.
In terms of general anesthesia, I also find it annoying to think that if I don’t wake up, there’s the possibility I won’t even know that I didn’t wake up. And this, of course, invariably gets me thinking/obsessing on the complexities of an unconfirmed afterlife. Do plants believe in heaven? If they don’t, why should I? Do plants know they’ll be reborn again in the spring? Even if they do, I don’t. I want facts, not faith.
I arrive at the outpatient clinic at 5:30 for 7 am surgery. I read a golf magazine which, after years obsessing about the game, I now find boring. I read a men’s fitness magazine which features an article on a tattooed, cross training television actor who eats six small gluten free meals a day and drinks two gallons of water, After years of working there, I now find Hollywood boring.
Forty minutes and three magazines later, one of them Popular Mechanics, I am taken to a small pre-op space where a no nonsense nurse who I sense doesn’t like me, asks me do I smoke, drink alcohol, have dentures, contacts, open sores, metal plates in my head, implants and when is the last you ate and/or drank water.
No, just a little, no, no, not presently, do loose screws count, huh? and as instructed, yesterday evening and before bedtime respectively.
She gives me a paper smock and booties, tells me to change and goes to talk to the patient on other side of the curtain. In a matter of fact voice he tells her that he smokes two packs a day, goes through maybe a six pack or more every evening, has several false teeth, wears a pacemaker and had juice, coffee and a breakfast bagel a little more than an hour ago. When questioned further, he says it’s his shoulder being operated on, not his stomach.
The plane is leaving the gate.
My anesthesiologist is Dr. Levine. He is friendly and personable and far too cheerful, and I immediately suspect he’s not telling me something. In a minute, says Dr. Levine, we’ll be going down the hall to the operating theatre where he’ll give me a little buurschh – he makes a sound effect – and voila, I’ll be out like a light. It sounds ominous and I say so. Dr. Levine just smiles and tells me to start “planning my dream”. But first he has a few questions. Do I smoke, drink alcohol, have dentures, pacemakers, metal plates in my head, implants and when did I eat and drink last?
Inspired by my neighbor, this time I tell the truth about the alcohol.
When I get to the operating room – it’s 20 yards away and they make me walk – Dr. Stu is waiting. I greet him by his title – Doctor Stu, I say – it seems only appropriate in this, his work place. Unlike me, he looks confident and rested and his blue scrubs emphasize his muscles. You know he’s gotten in his push-ups and sit-ups before coming in this morning. Dr. Stu looks like he’s been anticipating this one for months.
How we doing, Steve, we ready?
Yes, I say. We are.
I lay down on the operating table. It is surprisingly comfortable. Someone places a pillow beneath my head and wonderfully, warm blankets across my body. The lights are bright, just like the dentist’s office. Wait a minute, I could sleep through this all by myself. Who needs anesthesia? I am just about to bring up the possibility –
– I’m out. –
I am a terrible patient. The lovely wife tells me this so it must be so. She says I would try and micro-manage from my death bed. I find this unfair. I just want things the way I want them when I want them. Especially when it comes to my own physical well-being which is pretty much all the time.
I bring this up because, yes, I have survived knee surgery. Amazing! One moment I was in the operating theatre, the next I was in a comfy bed with an ankle to thigh ace bandage and a Darth Veder-like contraction of black straps and metal brace surrounding my belabored joint.
Dr. Stu had come to visit and because I wasn’t awake to interrupt, has had a nice conversation with the lovely wife. The procedure had gone well and Dr. Stu had taken a “really good tendon” from my hamstring.
I’m known for my tendons.
I vaguely remember getting to the car. I don’t remember the ride home. I vaguely remember the whole family spotting me, gathered in a weaving circle, as I wended my way up the front walk towards the door. I remember telling them I was a whizz on crutches having broken my leg when I was 9 and 12 respectively.
And then teasing them, I tripped and fell.
I was carried to the couch. Give me a few minutes, I said and I’ll go downstairs to my office. I have work to do, people to call, art to create! There’s also tennis to watch. Somewhere in the middle of this, I decided to fall asleep for five hours.
When I awoke, the lovely wife insisted I drink water. The lovely wife is a big proponents of water. She says it flushes the system. I would rather flush my system with beer.
I drank some water. The lovely wife suggested a pain pill. Hah! I said. I am tough, I am already on the mend. I fear no pain. Pain fears me. Unlike water, on this I stand fast.
An hour later, half of it spent whimpering and quivering like a dog trying to pass a tennis ball, I begged her for a pain pill. How about two, I suggested. No, I would have to wait three hours for the second. As with water, the lovely wife is a big proponent of labels.
Gah! What to do? I am not tough. I hate pain. Pain makes me a wimp. Outraged, I called Dr. Stu and got his answering service. Tell him this wasn’t supposed to hurt, I said and I indignantly hung up. In short order, I called my tennis friends, George, Adam, Blayney, Holiday, Mullen and Lucia. They had all gone through knee surgery. They would tell me what to do.
You’re confusing me with George, said Adam, Mullen and Holiday
It didn’t hurt a bit, said George.
They gave me a nerve block that lasted a week, said Lucia.
I called my friend, Dr. Cliff whose main tennis strategy is talking you death between points. I asked him where was a nerve block when I needed one? Hah! he said. Ha-ha!
I called my neighbor, Dr. Colin. Dr. Colin, who is an oenophile and gourmet of note, would know what to do. What wine accompanies Percocet, I asked him, certain he would have the properly expensive bottle in his vast cellar and would bring it over post haste because that’s the kind of healer he is.
Percocet is a narcotic, said Dr. Colin sternly, you should be drinking nothing but water.
Gah! Determined now, to wipe out the pain with even a greater pain, I read an Entertainment Tonight that the sweet daughter had quietly put on the reading table for me. George Clooney was breaking up with someone while in Italy. Amazing! Jennifer Aniston had a chin implant! Who knew! Transformers was an A+. Knee temporarily forgotten, I buried my head in my hands and wept. It was working.
It’s Dr. Stu, said the lovely wife, handing me the phone along with a large glass of water.
How’s it going, Steve, said Dr. Stu, sounding as enthusiastic as usual. Boy, do you have great tendons!
I’m… just a bit uncomfortable.
Loosen the straps and bandage, said Dr. Stu.
I can do that, I said?
Of course. We want you to feel good. Oh – and make sure you drink lots of water.
The lovely wife seemingly having an unending supply, I drank some water. Still hurting, I decided to take refuge, yet again, in sweet slumber.
I loosened the straps and bandage. I took a pain pill, caged a second as back-up and waited for a narcotic euphoria that never came but if it did, came in the form of bad dreams. I slept, fitfully at best.
Three hours later, writhing dramatically in pain, I woke with a bladder-busting need to take a leak.
Stay tuned. The lovely wife gets her whimpering, naked blob of a husband out of bed, onto his crutches and to the bathroom as he curses water.
Dr. Stu says that in six months I’ll be walking and playing tennis again.