Friday, September 22, 2006

Knee Surgery

For months, absolutely no one has been begging me to tell the story of my knee surgery. So here it is:Sometime last October I noticed that my right knee looked swollen. At least I thought it looked swollen; I wasn’t really sure. It looked bigger than my left knee but it didn’t hurt or anything so I thought, maybe it’s always looked like that and it’s just taken me 41 years to notice. I mean, it’s not like I’d been in the habit of looking at my knees every morning and saying, “Nope, not swollen today.”

I’m an avid runner and my right knee has always been my bomber knee. The one that never complains, the one that says “whatever load you must bear, brother, put it on me; I’ll carry it for you.” Not like my left knee which I knew to be moody, prone to bellyaching and frankly, at times, being a bit of a sissy. Many’s the time when I’ve been out running and Lefty will see a child being pushed in a baby jogger and start whining that I should get one of those to push him around.

In early November, however, Righty began to hurt whenever I ran. Not just a little. With a vengeance. Like he was mad at me because I owed him money. It felt like there was a pebble stuck inside my knee joint that I couldn’t shake loose.

Runner that I am, I charged on figuring I just had to find the magic minor adjustment that would put me back on the trails and road. I stretched more. I stretched less. I warmed my knee with a heating pad before I ran. Chilled it with an ice pack afterward. Tried new shoes. Tried new shorts. Tried parting my hair on the other side. Nothing helped. It was swollen and hurting and I couldn’t run.

It must be stated that not being able to run during the dreary Bellingham winters is not good for me. To me, running is as much for psyche as it is for body. When I’m running, the murky waters of my mind finally have a chance to settle. By the end of an hour’s gallop through the woods, on even the rainiest of days, the skies have turned an azure blue and all the world seems bursting with possibility. Take that away and in no time at all I’m a cranky melancholic mess.

Thankfully though, because I couldn’t run, I gained 12 pounds in what must be an age-group record for Western Washington males. (I’m sorry, did I write, “thankfully”? I meant to write, *#@!&#*^@!!!”)

In late November, I had an appointment with Bellingham physical therapist Ted Molaski who, after five minutes of poking, prodding and questioning, suspected I had a torn meniscus. (Essentially, torn cartilage.) Ah, what does he know, I thought to myself. He only went to five years of physical therapy school and has been poking and prodding people’s knees for the past 24 years. I’ve spent 20 minutes on the Internet and am pretty darn sure that all I’ve got is chondromalacia (runner’s knee). A little rest and I’ll be fine.

Three weeks later, I tried running again and it hurt worse. I went back to Ted who recommended an MRI, the sound of which I loved. For the first time in my life, I felt like an athlete. I imagined sportscasters on ESPN announcing, “Bellingham trail boy Mike McQuaide is scheduled to have an MRI on Thursday with surgery, if necessary, scheduled for Friday. He could be out three to six weeks, but doctors say he should return 100 percent.” I could be running again in three weeks! Yippee!

Thing is, that’s ESPN. My real-life MRI wouldn’t take place for three-and-a-half weeks, the results wouldn’t be available for a few days after that, and if I needed surgery, it could be months from now!

In early January, a few days after lying perfectly still while the giant donut-shaped MRI machine went “ZOINKA-ZOINKA-ZOINKA!” and “CHUNGA-CHUNGA-CHUNGA” and “DUHRUBA-DUHRUBA-DUHRUBA!” at decibel levels that’d be good training if I ever wanted to try for Metallica, I found out that—guess what—Ted was right. I had a tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. Not a major affair but if I wanted to run again—even to just chase my son around the yard—I’d need surgery.

The meniscus is like a cushioning pad between the shinbone and the thighbone. If you imagine the meniscus as a miniature pizza it’s the crust part that does most of the cushioning. My tear was not on the crust but on the inside part of the pizza. You fix it with arthroscopic surgery, an outpatient affair wherein the surgeon, using his tiny tools, goes in and snips out the offending nasties. I was bummed about needing surgery, but there were benefits to having such an exotic, Latin-ish sounding affliction. I could say to my wife, “Honey, I’d love to climb that ladder and clean out the muck that’s clogging the gutters and dripping down the side of the house, but I have a torn medial meniscus, the posterior horn to be exact.”

Next, it was on to meet the surgeon, Dr. Michael Gannon. He explained what he’d be doing and I nodded thoughtfully as if it didn’t really gross me out. He gave me the option of staying alert and watching the operation on a monitor to which I pretended to be foreign and unable to understand English. So, I was going under the knife. For a scaredy cat like me, it was daunting, but I steeled myself with the knowledge that afterward, I’d get to live for a few days in a glorious Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds painkiller haze. That I’d be waited on hand and foot by my wife and friends and whomever else whose sympathy buttons I could press.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Surgery went smoothly all right, but the post-surgery nuclear pain bomb I was told to expect never detonated. So I couldn’t justify the painkillers, which didn’t really do anything except give me the jimmy legs when I tried to sleep.

I was off crutches the next day, taking walks around the neighborhood in three days, and did my first kinda-run, kinda-shuffle in a week. It was amazing! The pain was completely gone, like a thorn that had been removed. Once again, Righty and I were the best of pals! But May was the real test: I finished the Sunflower Iron Event, a 21.5-mile trail running race from Mazama to Twisp one weekend, the 100-mile Skagit Spring Class bike ride the next, and two weeks later the Wuhoo! Urban Adventure Race in Tacoma. Righty performed admirably. So did Lefty for that matter. Best yet, I earned the right to annoy my friends by saying I did these things just three months after knee surgery.

Now that I’m running again, the world once more seems full of possibility. Summer’s just around the corner and I almost can’t help but feel like I’m 15 again. The only bummer is now I have no excuse for not climbing that ladder and cleaning out the muck that’s clogging the gutters and dripping down the side of the house.Though now that I look at it, my left knee looks a little swollen. Better not chance it.

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