The gift of mobility

By Caitlin Kelly

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Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland — June 2015

Maybe you just walked to work or enjoyed a bike ride or went dancing last night.

Maybe you’re training for a marathon or triathlon — or happy to race with your dog(s) along a trail.

Today’s the day I celebrate my body’s rebirth to full mobility – on Feb. 6, 2012, I was wheeled into an operating room to have my left hip replaced.

caiti flag

I was young for the surgery, as most people have it in their 60s or beyond; my 86 year old father only had his hip done in May of 2015.

I was very fearful, (I’d already had 3 prior orthopedic surgeries, [both knees, right shoulder] within the decade, all of which had gone well), and had put the operation off for more than two years. I was sick to death of surgeries and rehab and doctors and the whole thing.

And, as someone who’s wholly self-employed with a fluctuating income, I also had to fund a month off and the cost of co-pays for physical therapy rehab.

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Another beloved activity — this is Daybreaker — a 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. regular dance party in Manhattan

Those two years of avoidance, though, were crazy.

The arthritis in my left hip had required a course of steroids — whose side effects, (called avascular necrosis), instead destroyed my hip bone.

The resulting pain was 24/7 and exhausting. It made every step I took painful; even crossing a room was tiring.

Buying groceries in the enormous stores here in the suburbs of New York was a misery. Museum visits became marathons and I carried painkillers with me everywhere.

By the fall of 2010, in desperation, I went on crutches for three months just for a brief respite from pain. I bought a pair off the Internet, the short kind typically associated with long-term disability (think of FDR photos). Heaven!

With renewed energy and the ability to move more safely, painlessly and quickly, I went to the movies and theater, (scooching sideways across those narrow aisles), and even flew to Las Vegas to address a conference there.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Yet another event my new hip allowed me to experience.

By December of 2011, I was just too worn out from pain and booked the operation.

Three days before it, I was a featured speaker at — of all things — a conference of liquor store retailers in New Orleans, wandering that city’s streets with a limp so pronounced I walked like a drunken sailor. I’d been invited as a result of my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” to share my research into low-wage labor.

Sheer luck brought me that gig — and earned me $6,500, enough to take time off to just rest, rehab and recover.

A highly active person — I walk, cycle, dance, play softball, ice skate, ski and do a variety of other sports — I feared that a poor surgical result would mean the end to my athletic life. Or that my doctor would utter the dreaded word “moderate”, as a verb.

Not in my vocabulary!

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid, March 2014

Here’s my cover story from Arthritis Today about that life pre-surgery. I like the photos they took, but you can how heavy I got because it hurt so much to exercise.

Today I take jazz dance  class twice a week, one of them so vigorous I leave sweat puddles on the floor, and enjoy full range of motion. (OK, I don’t do the splits anymore.)

I also live in an apartment building filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, many of whom can now only ambulate safely using a cane or walker.

It’s sobering and instructive to see what aging, (and/or a poorly done surgery), can do to our blessed ability to run, dance, jump and simply enjoy the grace and power of our bodies.

Never take it for granted!

One (slow, halting) step at a time

English: Walking with the parallel bars
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a new sound in my life — the click, click of my sexy French crutches — as I learn to walk normally again after two years of 24/7 pain and a gait so altered I started to look like Quasimodo, that ruined my shoes and swelled my right foot and increased the diameter of my right calf by an inch from overcompensation.

It’s been almost a month since my hip replacement, and I’m learning to trust my body again. It feels really good to stretch, to break a sweat and (yay!) to reach my toes.

“Patient”  — the adjective, not the noun — is not my most obvious quality. This recovery, from full hip replacement, includes dire warnings about doing too much too soon and how not to push it. More is not better. But you don’t know you’ve done too much until…

Daily, I circumambulate our apartment building and garage in warm, dry weather and our apartment building hallway, where 12.5 laps equals a mile, when it’s wet or really cold. My goal is a daily mile, only after which do I get to shed my $38/pair white surgical stockings I wear 23 hours a day to prevent blood clots.

Physical therapy, three times a week, (and $60 week in copays), is slow, incremental, dull, repetitive — and utterly essential to a full recovery.

When I met my surgeon, I handed him a list of a few of my many sports, and asked how soon I would be back at them. My softball team, having missed me for two years, keeps asking when I’ll return. I’m hoping within six months; friends my age (and much older) who’ve had this procedure have since climbed the Great Wall, hiked Guatemala and climbed four flights of stairs without trouble.

I’ve had to recuse myself from real life for a while, missing a friend’s book party, unable to get to my regular hairstylist in Manhattan, a 45-minute drive or train/cab away, closed off from movies, concerts and anything that would require me to sit more than than 60 minutes at a time I’m allowed.

Maybe because I did a silent 8-day retreat last summer, I’ve really appreciated a time of peace and quiet, of reflection and withdrawal. For weeks, I had to rely fully on my husband for the simplest of tasks, from helping scrub me in the shower, (after an 18-day wait!), to putting on my left sock and shoe, counting out my 10 pills a day, cooking.

I miss his companionship since he returned to work this week, leaving home at 7:30 and only returning 12 long hours later after his commute.

Soon, I hope, I’ll once more be my usual blur.

Healing is emotional as well

Doctor's office again
Doctor's office again (Photo credit: Sidereal)

One of the most essential elements of healing a body that has been injured, damaged or ill is to soothe and comfort the psyche, the soul of the person whose corporeal armor has, in a significant way, (even in the aid of better health), been pierced.

But it’s the piece that is consistently left out. When you leave hospital after a major surgery, you’re handed a thick sheaf of instructions, some in boldface type, all of which are — of necessity — focused on the physical.

Who addresses the needs of the soul?

Which is why, when I met a fellow hip patient in the hallway, a former dancer, a woman my age, we couldn’t stop talking to one another about how we felt.

Not our bones or muscles, but our hearts and minds.

A sense of shame and failure that years of diligent activity and careful eating and attention to posture…led us into an operating suite. The feeling of isolation, of being cut from the herd of your tribe, the lithe and limber, the fleet of foot. The fragility of suddenly relying very heavily on a husband whose innate nature may, or may not be, to nurture.

And a husband who knows all too well that physical intimacy is almost impossible, sometimes for years, when your loved one is sighing not with desire but in deep pain. When your hips simply can’t move as you wish they would, and once did. It is a private, personal loss with no place to discuss it.

I’m deeply grateful to know a few women like me: feisty, active, super-independent and all recovering, now or a while ago, from hip replacement. Every tribe has a scar, a mark, a tattoo.

Ours is  a vertical six inches.

Time to wear it proudly.

Say a little prayer, please!

English: An unidentified yellow flower at the ...
Flowers make me happy! Image via Wikipedia

This morning, while it’s still dark here, we’re driving north up the road to my local community hospital to have my left hip replaced.

My husband, Jose, is taking three weeks off to stay home with me, (blessedly able to have that much paid time off and willing to nursemaid me), and a friend from our church has offered to coordinate meals and drives when he needs a break.

She, too, will be with us as she recently had bypass surgery and knows the drill all too well.

I’ve tried for weeks to wrap my head around the idea that a foreign object — the ceramic head made (je suis ravie!) in France, the rest in Warsaw, Indiana — will become part of my body.

In the United States, where 47 million people suffer (as I do) from arthritis and millions are obese or overweight (guilty), 200,000 of these procedures are done every year. It’s hardly unusual. But that doesn’t make it any less scary. My hip was destroyed, ironically, by the drug given to me in May 2010 to reduce severe inflammation, producing AVN. Beware!

Thanks to friends who write on these issues, I’ve got checklists on how to try and avoid infection; one friend wrote the book on MRSA.

Please say a little prayer — or a big one — for me!

I hope to be back here with you in four or five days, and Jose may post in the meantime.

My Weekly Ritual — Softball Lite — In Today's New York Times

BEIJING - AUGUST 12:  Lovieanne Jung #3 of the...
Image by Bongarts/Getty Images via @daylife

The joy of a new editor and a new section….here’s my story in today’s Times about my beloved co-ed weekly softball game. It’s been nine years and we’re still going strong, even as I now need someone to run the bases for me (my hip) and I’m still, on a good day, lead-off hitter:

It’s lite because, with an age range of 14 to over 70, we’re looking for fun, not more pressure to perform. People don’t yell or look at their BlackBerrys or answer their cellphones while on base. We’re skilled and competitive, but chill enough that we don’t obsess over the score.

Since a number of players are in their 50s and beyond, some of us have been known to limp to the diamond. My team has seen me through shoulder surgery and a foot stress fracture, so when I hobbled up recently and warned the gang that I’d need someone to run for me — I had a newly arthritic hip — everyone shrugged. “I showed up on crutches,” said Joan, a medical editor.

I can still hit to the outfield, so even unable to run, I was lead-off hitter, and Alan, a lean, swift lawyer running for me, scored a double. In Westchester County, N.Y., not known for its diversity, we’ve got a pretty good mix, with players driving or coming by train from Queens, Long Island and Harlem: five lawyers, a literary agent, a pastry chef, schoolteachers, a retired ironworker and his three adult sons, a psychiatrist, a scientist. Perhaps most fortunate, an orthopedic surgeon, one of our more competitive players.

One unspoken rule of Softball Lite is that men don’t help the women — who usually make up roughly a third of about 20 players each time — or tell them what to do. We know what to do, and after a few games, our teammates know and trust our skills as well. If we goof up, well, it’s not fatal and we’re quite aware that we goofed. I usually play second base, and I didn’t appreciate one new male player who marked a spot in the dust and told me where to stand.

Even the photo than ran with the Times piece was taken by a good friend, fellow freelancer Alan Zale.

As a Canadian, I didn’t grow up playing softball, so my skills came much later in life, which is half the joy of them. I so treasure this little island of camaraderie in a sea of competitiveness.

Do you have a beloved sports team you still hang out with?

The Medical-Industral Complex Will Just Have To Wait A Little While Longer For Me

A thoracic surgeon performs a mitral valve rep...
Image via Wikipedia

Went to see the orthopedic surgeon this morning who asked — sort of like ” Wanna latte?” or “Want to see a movie?” how I felt about having my left hip replaced within the next seven months.

Not an option, I said. He insists it will be within the next two years.

Sigh.

Am I the only person (or maybe the only person of the female gender?) in the United States who doesn’t get all excited by the notion of being cut open? Who finds it wearying to keep having to explain how I feel about my health and proposed treatments/medication/therapy/surgery? I feel like I’ve moved to Azerbaijan or some rural outpost of a small African nation where my mouth is moving, but the sounds coming out of it are so unfamiliar as to be disorienting to the listener.

No, I really don’t want: to swallow fistfuls of pills daily; sign up for major surgery; worry that my needs to be treated like a human being are scary or difficult for the medical professionals I deal with.

I think this is deeply cultural. How we feel about our bodies and the people we allow to help us heal is very culturally determined; I grew up and spent 30 years in Canada. Rates of orthopedic surgery are lower there, maybe because the rates of obesity (which aggravate joint pain and mobility) have traditionally been lower and because surgeries aren’t as lucrative or profitable for the medical-industrial complex.

When you see a doctor, do you care if they care about your feelings?

Or do you just want everything fixed now, everything else be damned?

The Guys I Rely On — And Yours?

The barber
Image via Wikipedia

Sort of a board of directors, but better. I met two young men today, my two new physical therapists. It’s a little weird having a handsome young man twisting you like a Gumby doll, sort of pleasant. But, hey, medically required.

There’s Tony, the massage therapist; Alex, the hairdresser; Mike, the shoe repairman; Jose, the drycleaning guy; Hassan, who runs the gourmet store; Gregg, who owns the hardware store; Aqueel, the local pharmacist who sat me down to actually explain the effects of various medications, John, the X-ray tech at my doctor’s who’s always got a smile, a bunch of orthopedic surgeons dealing with my latest tear, sprain or fracture and Bill, my irascible mechanic of 15+ years.

If it were not for their skill, good humor, warmth and concern, the world would be a much colder place. I can barter with Tony, know I can rely on Alex to give me a haircut that gives me enough confidence to appear on TV, try some amazing new cheese that Hassan will slice off and offer, as he does to all his customers, with a gentle smile. One of my doctors, an avid shooter, keeps giving people copies of my book and another loves art as much as I do. I value the humanity behind our commercial or medical transactions.

I grew up an only child with my Dad gone a lot traveling on business and was living on my own at 19. Taught to be independent, expected to fend for myself and figure most things out without coaching or instruction, I really appreciate these smart, competent men and the way they generously and good-naturedly help me navigate my challenges, whether getting my arthritic hip into good enough shape to hit the softball diamond this summer or making sure the battered old Subaru keeps running smoothly.

I don’t know what I’d do without them.

Is there a team of guys (or women) like this in your life? Whose skills do you rely on beyond yourself or your immediate family?

Our Lady Of Perpetual Orthpedics — Or How I'm Learning to Love My Alphabet Soup: MRIs, Xrays And PT

A product technician gives a demonstration ins...
My best friend, the MRI machine...Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Latest headcount: four MDs: orthopedic surgeon (hip specialist); GP (acpuncturist); GP and neurologist. Five, if you include the ER doctor who saw my back spasm at midnight. Three Xrays, one MRI. One walker and a cane.

My most recent MRI — I’ve lost track how many I’ve had over the past decade — was the weirdest I’ve had as the machine focused on my lower back.

If you’ve never had one, they are extremely challenging if you are the slightest bit (and who isn’t?) claustrophobic: you lie on an extremely narrow platform that slides into a round machine  — you’re the center of its donut. The smooth gray plastic interior is no more than six or eight inches from your face and I was in it for only 20 minutes — it can be 40 or more. Our MRI usually gives us headphones to listen to music but I could only use earplugs. (There are such things as open MRIs for those who just can’t do one of these.)

The noise alternated between: jackhammer/a hammer tapping on my butt/a knocking noise, staccato/a low, deep buzzing that — reframe! stay calm! — sounded like being inside a not very interesting Philip Glass or Steve Reich composition.

Meds: Flexeril, Prednisone, Advil, codeine, Tramadol. Only Advil and codeine work well in my system; the others produce nasty side effects and I stopped taking two of them right away. About to start Voltaren and Prevacid.

I’ve been to my orthopods — a group practice (now on specialist number four there) — since 2000, when I had my first knee arthroscopy. I know their phone number off by heart and have been next door to the physical therapists, or PTs, who I wrote about, with gratitude, for The New York Times, since then many, many times.

I am not 80!

But, which is deeply, frustratingly painful and annoying, my left hip, when it acts up, behaves like I’m about 106. I have osteoarthritis there — like 2 million other Americans — which means either painful inflammation (which rest and drugs can help) or thinning cartilage (which they cannot.)

As someone who lives to move athletically: softball, jazz dance, walking, biking, hiking — I am losing cartilage — and trying not to panic because my life’s core identity, my social life, my stress relief — are all through sports, activity and motion.

Jane Brody, longtime New York Times health writer, recently wrote about how essential exercise — and its social joys — are to her and her readers:

So many nonhealth benefits keep me exercising every day that I’m sure my life would be greatly diminished without them.

Shortly after 6 the other morning, a stunning full moon hugging the horizon enhanced our walk around our local park, and I remarked, “Look what the stay-a-beds are missing.” Soon after came a picture-postcard scene of two Siberian huskies trotting through the snow-covered woods. The week before, we were treated to glorious snow-laden trees as we trudged through the falling snow.

Note that I said “we.” Two to five of us walk for an hour every morning. We chat about our days, share our thoughts and problems, seek and offer advice, bolster sagging spirits, provide logistical support, alert one another to coming cultural events, discuss the news, books, articles and what-have-you. No matter how awful I may feel when I get up in the morning, I always feel better after that walk. And so I always do it, come rain, shine or blizzard.

The members of this walking group, which I joined (admittedly reluctantly) about 15 years ago, have become more than dear friends. They are a sounding board for any and all problems, providing both emotional and practical support when needed. They have introduced me to wonderful activities — museum and gallery shows, concerts and operas, movies and books — I might have otherwise missed.

I miss my jazz dance class, my softball buddies and the fellow walkers on our reservoir, all off limits until I am pain-free and stronger.

I clicked around four Manhattan blocks with my cane today. It helped me stay erect — and visually warned self-absorbed, fast-walking New Yorkers to not bump into me!

I am am very grateful for: having something that is treatable and not life-threatening; excellent, compassionate doctors and the insurance that allows me to see them; warm spring sunshine so I can rest, as ordered, on a park bench outdoors.