We’ve been married forty-five years and Barbara needs two knee replacements, but she doesn’t want to do it. A friend told her, “I had one knee done. Then I had the second knee done. It hurt so bad that, if I’d had a third leg, I’d have just said, ‘cut it off!’”
One doctor told Barbara, “We won’t replace your knee until it hurts.” But both knees are hurting more now, joint deterioration makes her walk bowlegged, and she can’t fully straighten her right leg. The time has come.
Friday, Sept. 11. Today, we meet with Dr. Heller, a fortyish, peripatetic, ADHD kind of guy who doesn’t bother changing out of his scrubs when he shuttles between surgery and office consultations. All marsupial, with instruments hanging from his sagging pockets, he seems confident when he reassures us, “I think you should do the knees now.”
Reluctantly Barbara agrees, but she asks, “Should I do one at a time, or both together?”
Dr. Heller, being a 21st century doctor who believes in patient free will, says, “It’s your call. I can do both at the same time—it’ll take about three hours. Or, we can do them one at a time.”
She seems uncertain, hesitates, but then shocks me when she says, “Let’s do them both at the same time!” Of course, I agree. Why go through the whole thing twice?
Barbara asks, “When you do both at once, do you make sure they’re the same length?”
I interrupt. “Actually, could you make one leg shorter? It’ll keep her closer to home.” (Dr. Heller laughs; Barbara rolls her eyes so hard they must hurt.)
Barbara has a certain fascination for dark scenarios, and asks, “What can go wrong with this operation?”
“Oh, it’s routine,” Dr. Heller says. “The only things we have to watch out for are infections, low hemoglobin, stressed kidneys, unregulated blood pressure, pneumonia, unstaunched bleeding, or blood clots that can go to your brain and give you a stroke and kill you.”
Somehow, Barbara doesn’t seem reassured. And I have images of blood transfusions, staph infection, or paralysis, but I tell her, “Dr. Heller does these operations each day and besides, all those side-affects are rare!” We pencil in “January 19” for the operation.
Friday, Sept. 18. It’s been a week since seeing Dr. Heller, and Barbara’s knee pain is increasing. She calls his assistant, Megan, to see if she can possibly get in earlier. Megan says, “I’ll put you on a waiting list in case someone cancels.”
Barbara says, “I’m already on the waiting list.”
“Okay. I’ll put you at the top of the list!”
Then, through a small miracle, Megan finds an earlier opening—October 20, so we immediately book it.
Tuesday, Oct. 20, 10:30 a.m. Today is the day. I drive Barbara to United Hospital and soon find myself standing by her gurney. When I take her hand I pray, “O Lord, we commit Barbara into your care. Give her peace. Guide the doctor’s skillful hands.” They wheel her away with a smile on her face. I will not see her again for hours.
My loyal friend Bill has come to vigil with me as we sit helplessly in the waiting room watching the clock nibble away the hours—11:30. 12:30. 1:30. 2:30. I start wondering what’s going on. Then the computer screen in the waiting room says, “B. Hurd, recovery room.” I’m relieved—the operation is over.
3:00 p.m. Dr. Heller pops in and tells us, “We did the right leg first, then the left. For each leg, I made a six-inch curved incision inside the knee, pushed aside the knee cap, along with the muscles and tendons, and installed a metallic piece on the bottom end of the femur. Then we cut off the end of the tibia, drilled a hole down into it, pushed in the artificial knee, and sewed everything up. It went great!” He reminds me of my mechanic explaining my car repairs.
(A month after the operation, Barbara will tell me, “I want to see a video of the operation.”
I say, “No, you don’t!” She never did.)
Dr. Heller says, “She’s in recovery for an hour or so. Then we’ll transfer her to her room and you can go up and see her.”
5 p.m. They have wheeled Barbara up to her sixth-floor hospital room. I walk in, and see her in a field of white—supine, inert, surrounded by machines. Both knees are wrapped and bandaged. Saline solution drips down an IV tube stuck into the back of her hand. An oxygen clip glows on her finger. They’re following her pulse and blood pressure. She’s wearing a wan smile. I carefully embrace her, and tell her I’m so glad to see her.
While we’re talking, I look around her crowded room. On her small table sits her cell phone, Kleenex, medications, water, and a floral bouquet. A wheelchair is folded against the back wall under the window beside her walker and knee-exercising machine. The commode-chair sits by the bed. All that long night I sleep beside her on the couch
Wednesday, Oct. 21. When I wake, Barbara says, “My knees are working, but I can’t raise the toes on my left foot.” It’s true. She tries in vain to bend her toes up, but cannot even move them. They’re already talking about a foot brace.
They had given her OxyContin for her pain, but she threw up this morning. So today they stop the OxyContin and start Dilaudid, another narcotic painkiller.
But the Dilaudid makes her irrational. She can’t answer questions such as, “Who’s the President of the United States?”
“She’s a Republican,” I tell the nurse. “Try another question.” The unsmiling nurse sees no humor in this.
Thursday, Oct. 22. They reduce the Dilaudid, and her mind clears. But she still cannot lift her left toes. The doctor is eager to get her walking and exercising, so he orders a simple brace that fits inside her shoe that will help her lift her foot.
She’s discomfited, just lying in bed. I rub her back, get stuff for her—lozenges, pillows, Kleenex, and her huge tackle-box makeup kit. I adjust the bed angle, adjust her knee exerciser, call the nurse, comb her hair, order her meal, dial numbers for her, arrange flowers and cards sent by well-wishers, sort her mail, restock her water, fetch things. I feel very busy.
I gaze through the window and see St. Paul’s topping the hill, its dome rising above the maples that glow in autumn’s lambent light, dragging their leaves like nets through the windy air. I have lots of time to ponder my own mental inscape. I feel thankful for Barbara’s good care.
Friday, Oct. 23. Good news—Barbara can now lift her left toes!—her foot seems to work perfectly now. We are thankful for this answer to our prayers. One leg is lying on the knee exerciser—straighten, flex, straighten, flex. She’s blowing into the spirometer to improve her breathing and prevent pneumonia, and is transitioning from the wheelchair to walker. Today, her bulky bandage wraps come off her knees. I stare at the tumid, purple incisions with their small butterfly bandages. The alien-angled knees are now in perfect alignment.
Dr. Heller proclaims that Barbara is ready for the rehab center—we can transfer her tomorrow. Her begin organizing her medicines and collecting all her stuff.
Saturday, Oct. 24. I push Barbara’s wheelchair to the elevator and then outside to the waiting ambulance. The driver locks the wheelchair to the floor, and whisks off. I follow them in our car.
The Interlude staff welcomes us. Interlude is a rehabilitation center near Unity Hospital in Fridley, run by Allina Health and the Catholic Benedictine order. An in-house chef prepares your meals to order (although Barbara doesn’t have much appetite). I get free coffee. The nurses and aides are attentive, compassionate women—mostly African, or African-American. They install her in a semi-private room. That would be a room where the patient in the adjacent room finishes your sentences. We hear the garrulous woman next door bellowing at the nurse, “I’ve worked very hard on my health… I want to know everything you’re doing” (insistent, demanding.) I think, How can the aides be so patient with her!
Saturday, Nov. 7. Barbara’s now had two weeks of rehab. I sense she wants me to stop in frequently—I visit three times today. As I walk from the entry door toward the elevator, I notice Lisa, the no-nonsense reception lady. Pleasant, but professional, she takes her job seriously. She points to a sign on her desk—“Please sign in and out.” I sign. But, when Lisa’s not sitting there, I don’t sign. Later, I confess to her my careless disregard—but I still don’t change my behavior. I remember the 60s mantra—“Question authority.”
I elevator up to the second floor. Barbara is now using her cane to walk herself down to PT, which she calls “physical torture.” It’s good seeing her progress—knees bending 109o on right and 118o on the left. Some redness and swelling on her right knee. The 20-something occupational therapist bounces in, and asks me if I have any questions. I tell her, “If she gives you any trouble, just call me. Make sure she can cook and do laundry before she leaves, because there’s no competent person at home.” Barbara just smiles. (My bacheloring during this time will have to wait for another story.)
Many friends visit. Barbara accommodates them, hoisting her pant legs so they can carefully inspect the healing scars. They bear gifts—orchids, roses, snapdragons. And chocolate. I reason that chocolate may hinder Barbara’s recovery, so I confiscate it all, planning to consume it before she’s discharged.
Tuesday, Nov. 10. Barbara is sending signals she’s getting better—she says she’s bored, she’s resurrecting her “To Do” lists (one for herself and of course, one for me), she’s phoning people to re-energize her social network, and (the greatest sign) she’s reviving her interest in our tortured church politics. The swelling in her knee and calf is subsiding. At her care conference today, all agree that she will go home on Thursday. The staff doctor reviewed her prescriptions (side effects, doses), and then said, “But I know you’ll do what you want to, anyway.” She must know Barbara well.
Thursday, Nov. 12. Today’s homecoming day! It’s been 23 days since Barbara’s surgery. I dollop a gob of icy-hot on her lower back and rub it in, help her brush her teeth, and walk her to the bathroom. She uses her walker to walk to the elevator, and then out to our waiting car. I have put a foam pillow in the passenger seat with a plastic bag on top to help slide her in and out. We put all her stuff in the car—clothes, flowers, gifts, walker, cane, a flexible plastic rod to help her with her leg lift exercises, and a grabber to get stuff she may not be able to reach.
We stop by Walmart to buy Tramadol (an opioid painkiller) and Midnight Melatonin, a natural sleep aid. Driving into our garage for the first time in three weeks, she opens our house door and says, “It’s so great coming home!”
“What’s for dinner?” I ask her. She ignores me.
Actually, I don’t mind making meals, but I keep them simple, and don’t dirty too many dishes.
That evening, Barbara banishes me from the master bedroom. She says, “I toss at night and get up a lot. You’ll sleep better if you’re in the guest room.” Okay…
Saturday, Nov. 14 Piercing pain in her right knee wakes Barbara up tonight. She’s depressed and sometimes crying. Her new knees provide the greatest challenge, but she’s also feeling back pain, and stomach upset from the strong meds. She walks well with the walker. She likes the grab bars I installed in the shower.
I schedule our new routine—three outpatient therapy visits per week, picking up meds at the pharmacy, calling the nurse, and resuming our visits to the Y, where she uses her walker to circle the exercise track.
Wednesday, Nov. 18. We’re going out together now, and Barbara enters the grocery store walker-less—the shopping cart provides enough support. Lois the massage therapist stops in today to give Barbara a one-and-a-half-hour massage. I think, Spiritual and physical healing.
Saturday, Nov. 28. We celebrate our family Thanksgiving a bit late. Barbara spends several hours to-ing and fro-ing in the kitchen. It’s extra special, what with Barbara’s recovery and the epiphany of our two grandsons.
Thursday, Dec. 3. Today, Barbara’s out and about, walking without a cane, and standing up almost straight! Thank God. I told her, “Take your cane to Young at Heart [our church senior group]; you’ll get more sympathy!” She did, but left it hanging on the coat rack.
* * *
Forty-five years ago we promised to love each other “in sickness and in health.” Now’s the test. But with Barbara struggling to be independent, it isn’t hard. She’s thrilled with her new knees, and happy that she got them both done at the same time. We’re grateful for her healing, and we look forward to our future.
Now, if I could just get back into the master bedroom…