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Thursday, January 26, 2017

My New Knee - Back to the Game

If I wanted to keep playing golf, I needed a new knee. This is my report on my first 10 weeks after my knee replacement surgery.

It's been 10 long, painful weeks since I submitted to the inevitable and got a new knee. I've been nursing a worn-out knee with no cartilage for years - the result, I suspect, of bad genes, arthritis and two decades of running, running, and running.

I held off as long as possible with those miraculous cortisone shots, at first every four months. Gradually the duration of effect diminished - from 16 weeks to 14 weeks to 12 weeks. When I showed up in my orthopod's office last fall 10 weeks after my last cortisone injection and confessed I was nibbling tramadol in order to play a full 18-hole round, he lifted his eyebrow and delicately suggested it might be time for a "permanent solution" to my knee problem.

I knew what he meant and I didn't like it.

The thought of some surgeon slicing open my leg, peeling back my muscles and tendons, sawing off the ends of my tibia and fibula, drilling holes in them and inserting titanium implants that vaguely resemble a natural knee joint, and a plastic disc that functions as cartilage doesn't leave me feeling warm and fuzzy and optimistic.

Still, my back was against the wall - the cortisone shots weren't going to work much longer and eventually my knee was going to decompensate. I scheduled the surgery.

I talked to other golfers. To a person, they told me they wished they'd gotten their new knees sooner. I took comfort from the fact that Freddie Couples has the same titanium implants. I jogged half an hour per day in the pool for three months before my surgery, conditioning my leg for the trauma.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the emotional devastation I felt during my first week post-op, when I couldn't lift my foot, or even reposition it on it's little pillow. Despite assurances that everything was securely in place, I was initially terrified to put any weight on my leg and maintained a white-knuckle grip on my walker.  But over the subsequent weeks the physical therapists had their way with me.

From small early steps - showering independently, putting on my socks and shoes - I progressed to leg lifts, short walks - first with my walker and then my cane, flexing my leg - 90, 95, 100, 120 and then 130 degrees. Each increase involved pain. Days rolled into weeks. I worked on balance and stability.  I shifted from pain medication to tylenol. I started driving again.

Yesterday, under a sunny blue sky on a shirtsleeves-warm January day I drove to the golf course and pulled my clubs out of the trunk. With a couple of wedges, my 7-iron, a hybrid, and a bucket of balls in hand I walked (without my cane) to the driving range and got back to doing what I love - hitting golf balls.

At first I was awkward. Herky-jerky. But it didn't take long to relax, let muscle memory guide me, and start road testing my new knee.  She performed beautifully - I've named her Justine.

I started with some short chips and pitches, but the lure of the full swing was irresistible! I took a deep breath and relaxed into the process: Such incredible joy from watching my balls fly straight and true, down the range to their targets. I twisted and turned and pivoted without pain or fear.

When my bucket was empty my heart told me I could continue hitting balls forever, but my head knew better. I needed ice and tylenol.

I think I'm still a week or two away from taking Justine onto the golf course. I still need to check out my long irons and the big girls - my driver and my fairway woods - on the range.  But I'm certainly closer to that round than I was 10 weeks ago.