My early birthday present this year was a bionic knee. My surgeon will tell you very clearly it is NOT a bionic knee: the Australiam Orthopaedic Association clearly advises, “After knee replacement you cannot run, squat, kneel, crawl or play twisting, impact sports“. So not very bionic, but I like the idea.
Warnings re this article.
- It is long. Very long.
- Your experience may be very different. Each body is unique. That’s why the title includes “My”.
- I do try to inject some humour into the proceedings, otherwise it is a very dry topic.
- There are wound photos, but none of them are gory. I forgot to ask the team to take gory photos.
- This is written from the patient perspective (obviously) and no, not everyone gets praise (most do) – there are some bouquets and brickbats at the end.
- I do not name hospitals, doctors or medications.
- This article deals with the period of hospitalisation and rehab. I will write a second about being home (and continuing physio).
We will call this knee Lennie (for left knee). Just to bring newer readers up to date with Lennie, back in 2014 it started being a little on the grumpy side. I had a Synvisc shot as an experiment and it worked well, but knee replacement was initially discussed back then. In October 2019 Lennie got really grumpy and I had fluid drained and a steroid shot. Temporary relief. By the end of January 2020, Lennie had me in hospital for five days. A cyst dissecting my popliteus muscle was discovered. At first it was thought that could be removed, but two eminently qualified orthopaedic surgeons said “No.” Mr T, the surgeon I went with, did explain a little more comprehensively. The view was the inflammation was so bad I’d simply develop more cysts. The time had come.
I was shocked. I had been expecting keyhole surgery to remove a cyst. NOW I was looking at rebuilding Lennie. Slightly more major event. Psychologically this was challenging for me – I WANTED to be able to manage the osteoarthritis (being careful here to distinguish from my psoriatic arthritis, different conditions) with exercise and strength and physiotherapy. Yet I had to admit this was not going to be a happening thing: Lennie was just a little too damaged. No matter what we did, Lennie would rage.
Once I made the decision, I was raring to go. Let’s get this show on the road. We had to time surgery around my drug trial injections. Surgery was booked for April 8, 2020.
This is not surgery undertaken lightly, let me tell you! After the consult with Mr T to agree to let him cut out some of my bone and insert some metal and plastic bits and pieces I then had a schedule.
- Consultation with a physician, Dr M
- Blood and other tests
- Visit with hospital staff re post-surgery planning
- Another pre-op consultation with surgeon
Dr M’s job was to make sure I was healthy enough to survive surgery. He was also responsible for my post-operative welfare in hospital. I spent an hour with him, lovely guy, very thorough. Pulled prior medical tests from my various other specialists, including the cardiologist. More on THAT a little later – because I got a little surprise.
Dr M also ordered me to stop some medications I was on. This is very patient specific but I can tell any women of my age reading, it includes stopping (temporarily) HRT. Also verboten were anti-inflammatories. This is fun when you have a rather inflamed knee and are still trying to walk three kilometres a day and do exercises to keep your muscles “recovery ready”.
Then Covid happened and everything got cancelled. I did however still go and have the blood tests and ECG. The plus was I could go back on anti-inflammatories and HRT (temporarily)!
During this time my left ankle was becoming more and more painful until one morning I absolutely could not weight bear at all. I was convinced this was all tied in with Lennie’s misbehaviour, as from my January hospital excursion I had been unable to control that foot. Mr T was unconvinced, but I also did not explain to him (my patient oversight) the specific loss of foot control I was experiencing. The 4 second video below illustrates what I could NOT do with my left foot.
FINALLY and fortunately and I am forever grateful I GOT A NEW SURGERY DATE! May 20, 2020. Back off the anti-inflammatories and HRT. This however meant my knee was swollen and painful. My GP worked out a pain management regime so I could keep moving. As always, I was very nervous about this as I didn’t want to develop a tolerance to medications and have pain medications not be as effective as possible post-surgery. My GP assured me I wasn’t taking enough, or for long enough, for that to happen. By the last couple of days pre-surgery, I was in considerable pain and not a very happy person.
Due to Covid, the hospital appointment mentioned earlier happened by phone. I also needed another (updated) lot of blood tests, which I had done at the hospital on May 8.
I had groceries delivered the day before surgery, changed the bed linen, did all the laundry and the dishes and cleaned the fridge. All I would need when arriving home was fresh milk and fresh fruit.
I was VERY happy to arrive at the hospital at 6 am on May 20, after starving myself from midnight.
The very first thing I was required to do was have an antiseptic shower. I was first on the theatre list. The anaesthetist popped in to see me, the assistant surgeon dropped in, Mr T popped in to draw on my leg (the big black arrow from my ankle you will see in a later photo). I commented to him I’d love to watch the surgery. I think he was a bit surprised. His response was it was a worksite and I wouldn’t “want to hear all the swearing”. I figure I’d have talked too much anyway, asked too many questions: I’d have distracted them from the task at hand.
Dr M popped in at some stage, I forget exactly the sequence of events now, BUT he blithely informed me I was going to the HDU post-surgery. The conversation went a little like this.
Dr M: You’ll be going to the HDU post-surgery.
Me: What is the HDU?
Dr M: The High Dependency Unit
Me: WHY? I’m healthy as an ox, I just have a bung knee!
Dr. M: You have a nocturnal AV block.
I had no idea what a noctural AV block is, or that I actually had one. My recollection of my cardiological investigations was I was pretty damn good on the cardiovascular front, just every now and then my heart would miss a beat, nothing to worry about – I certainly don’t still see a cardiologist! Unless, it seems, you are having fairly major surgery. As I write I still do not know much about the mysterious nocturnal AV block, but I’ve been busy concentrating on my knee. I’ll find about the AV block later (that’s going to be delegated to my trusty GP).
By 7:30 am I’d seen four doctors, been drawn on and discovered I had something that was sending me to the HDU. I also mentioned to the surgeon and the anaesthetist that it had occurred to me I never research the anaesthetist, despite the number of surgeries I’ve had. Check out the surgeon, yes, but then just trust him/her to pick an anaesthetist that will keep me alive! I just found it interesting.
My daughter and I had agreed they would not visit on the day of surgery as I might be a bit “out of it”. As it turns out, the day of surgery I was fine, would have been a great day to visit! Day 1, when they did visit, I was “out of it”.
I woke up to be greeted by this.
Now when I say I could feel nothing, that’s exactly what I mean. Nothing! I could not move the leg at all, it was like a lead weight, seriously. It was also cocooned on a padded frame I did not take a photo of. Just holds the leg safely in position.
I thought if this is as bad as it gets, this is a walk in the park.
Mr T did pop in to see me and share with me the news that he had not been able to remove all the inflamed tissue as per his normal practice as that would have been just a bit too dangerous in my case. In my experience doctors use the word “dangerous” very sparingly so I’m guessing my knee was a little messy once it was opened up. Will find out more detail when I see him again in a couple of weeks.
Then My Glutes Went Crazy
At about 10 pm, so roughly ten to twelve hours post-surgery, I mentioned to the nurses that I was starting to feel pain and my glutes (the muscles in the buttocks) were spasming. This glute spasming thing had happened back in January too. Wasn’t fun in either January or May, let me tell you. I won’t go into all the detail of the next few hours, but those hours were not pleasant. The anaesthetist got a 4 am wake up call (although apparently he was already awake – do those guys ever sleep?). Dr M got in on the pain management act as well. I want to stress here, it really wasn’t the knee that was causing me the issues. It was everything else: the glutes and the ITB mainly (I’ll talk about the ITB later, at this point I didn’t separate the knee from the ITB pain, that dawned on me later in rehab).
The glute spasms came in waves, just as they had in January. Those wave peaks were intense. The great team did get it all under control fairly quickly, but the glutes continued to be an issue, reducing in severity over time, for nearly four weeks. In hospital the nurses would ask that great pain question “What is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” My answer would often be, “The knee is zero, the glutes are 6.”
I ended up with three drips in various locations on my right arm and I was on a cocktail of drugs Day 1 (surgery day is Day 0).
I’m an information technology person: we make ONE change at a time when troubleshooting. If that change doesn’t give the desired result, we roll it back, make another change, test. Rinse and repeat. When you have a patient in considerable pain, I can understand they don’t have the luxury of the time to try one drug, it doesn’t work, take it away, try another one, rinse and repeat. Hence the cocktail. To me, with my background, it was like “But which one worked/is working?” I’m a pain medication minimalist at the best of times, I make an exception for surgery, but I was staring at the IV pole in horror.
Yes, it was an unpleasant few hours but would not happen to every patient and was probably more specific to the state of my anatomy at the time. Nowhere in all the copious information are glute spasms mentioned as a possible post-surgery event! I’d got an extra five years out of the knee since surgery was first discussed, so I can’t complain too much if during that five years other tissues had suffered: shortened, tightened, etc due to coping with the damaged knee.
Preventing Blood Clots
Blood clot prevention is big these days! Compression stockings, daily injections of a blood-thinning agent and these intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) sleeves. Apparently some people hate them, but I loved them. I would have stolen them if possible. Like a constant leg massage. The only problem was I would count the compressions. One leg was doing 17 before the rest between sequences, the other leg was only doing 5 compressions. Was something wrong, I wondered? Did I have faulty sleeves? As a patient, I expected them to do the same thing to both legs. No-one seemed to know, which worried me even more. They rebooted the pump, unplugged and replugged the connectors, still the same. I can’t remember now who did know the answer, but apparently these sleeves don’t work in unison, but have a pre-programmed variation. It is likely many patients would not sit there counting the compressions to compare, but of course, I did!
I still find it amusing that I had to stop anti-inflammatories before surgery because they thin the blood (don’t want us bleeding too much in theatre, after all) then as soon as surgery is over, we get blood-thinners daily! I understand the logic and am very grateful for the level of care, but it still amuses me.
Dr M also gave me deep breathing and coughing exercises to do.
Day 2 Onwards
Day 2 it was suggested I go to rehab. By Day 2 I was feeling much better, but thought I’d be guided by the experts, so I agreed. I do live alone and thought perhaps this may be a wise choice. Transfer was scheduled for the coming Monday. The remainder of my hospital stay was reasonably uneventful. The glutes were kept under control, I gradually lost IV connections and started to move about. Had my first shower sitting in a chair (first time ever!). That was the only chair shower I had, all others were standing. Another issue was sleeping on my back. I have never been a person that sleeps on my back, but all of a sudden I was expected to. That was hard. My back didn’t like it overly either. As soon as I was able to sleep on my side using a myriad of carefully positioned pillows, I did.
I learnt how to hook my right foot under my left ankle and swing my still as heavy as lead leg up onto the bed. The monkey bars above the bed were a great assistance! You will of course note by then I had painted my nails!
Day 2 I also had an x-ray. Mobile x-rays are wonderful things, plus the lovely staff took photos of the x-rays for me. I could finally see IN my knee! I could see Mr T’s handiwork, even though I missed out on seeing it happen.
The bubble wrap looking stuff is the dressing. But there it was – Lennie was replaced, no more angry knee. Yes, my patella got some attention as part of the whole deal, so it lights up as well. Apparently, yes, I will set off the airport metal detectors.
The actual knee itself looked pretty good, if somewhat swollen (as is to be expected). And there is the aforementioned big arrow the surgeon drew on my leg before it all started.
BEST OF ALL? I discovered I had control of my foot again! I could move it as demonstrated in the little video above! The nurses were a bit mystified at my excitement, but I was ecstatic. I had control of my foot back!
I swapped between a walker and crutches for a couple of days as I have to say the walker was convenient for hanging clothes and towels on moving from bed to bathroom. Other times I would use the crutches. I had little exercises to do in bed to start stretching and bending the knee.
Day 4 I was feeling pretty chipper, but was still in a nightdress. Still no haircut either.
Off to Rehab
Day 5 was off to rehab day. I got dressed!!! All by myself! The last IV connection came out and off in the ambulance I went (very squishy ambulance, just as an observation).
Rehab is mostly about physiotherapy, moving, functionality. The monkey bars are gone, for a start, as was the walker (although I’d not used that for a few days by then). I ended up with the start of abrasions on my elbows from dragging myself up the bed, so we had to cover my elbows at one stage to protect the skin. I did learn to use my hands more than my elbows, which helped!
Unfortunately, the glutes decided to spasm badly again once I reached rehab. That was disappointing and frustrating. I missed a physio session due to the glutes. The whole pain management process started again, but this was about the glutes, not the knee.
They have a gym! First trip to the gym is in a wheelchair, but most after that on crutches (even if the physio followed me with a wheelchair “just in case”). Some physio sessions were in the room. For example, I’d go to the gym in the morning, then in the afternoon the physio would come to me.
It was in the gym I had my ITB epiphany. Refer back to the above section about the glutes going crazy. At that point, immediately post-op, I hadn’t differentiated between my knee (the operated bit) and the ITB. As a patient you are still a bit foggy from the anaesthesia, it is all in the same area, pain is pain at that point. But in the gym, six days later, your brain is working a lot better. I was doing one of the rehab exercises and realised it wasn’t the surgical site that was hurting, it was my ITB. It was painful and restricting my movement.
The physiotherapist and I had a chat about what we could do. The rehab hospital had a clinical massage therapist so we decided to give that a go. ONE treatment and the ITB pain was gone. I have no idea what he did, but it was fantastic! He also worked on the glutes a bit too. I had two treatments with him. My own physio, now four weeks later, is still working on those areas for me.
I’d have a heat pack on my glutes and an ice pack on my knee. The knee wasn’t necessarily painful, the ice was more preventative and to help with the swelling.
The goal for release from rehab is knee flexion (bend) of 90 degrees. I reached 93 degrees on Day 11 (post-surgery day count, that is). That was also the day I found myself in the bathroom with no crutches – I’d just got off the chair and wandered into the bathroom. Hmmm, I thought to myself, perhaps I’d better get Mr T’s OK, because I don’t think this is the first time I’ve done this in the last couple of days. Mr T’s office said that was fine, I was close enough to two weeks. I could “potter about” without crutches or walking stick. I promised not to go to the supermarket (just yet) without crutches.
By the very next day, my knee flexion was 105 degrees. Day 14 I finally came home! Now, almost a month after surgery, I am walking about 3,000 steps a day and my flexion is 125 degrees (as of Tuesday this week) – more on that in Episode II.
I had an appointment to see my surgeon on Day 13, but because I was in rehab we agreed the rehab doctors could review me and so that appointment was cancelled. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone to that appointment, just for information and post-op guidance.
Bouquets and Brickbats
Mostly I have bouquets. Just three small brickbats. Overall the care and staff were fantastic.
Surgeon – wonderful work. What more can I say? Fantastic.
Physician, anaesthetist, assistant surgeon – as far as I can tell, all did a great job! Sorry about the 4 am wake-up call.
Physiotherapists – terrific. They were really encouraging, understanding and supportive.
Nurses – all bar one night nurse were wonderful.
Food – some was great, some was not so great, but hey, it isn’t a restaurant. I was happy to get home to a higher protein diet though.
Pillows – terrible. Next time I am taking my own pillows into hospital IF that is allowed (it occurs to me maybe that would be considered an infection risk).
One rehab night nurse – I was not impressed. Towards the end of my stay I avoided calling her at all costs. HOWEVER, given the number of wonderful nurses over the 14 days, I think only one being not as helpful as I would have liked was not too bad really.
Release Process – oh, OK, discharge. I was sent home with various medications, two of them were pain medications. I was released just before a long weekend, so I was thankful for the coverage. It occurred to me over the weekend I had been given NO instructions how to get off these things. Remember I’m the pain medication minimalist – BUT I was also aware I’d had pretty invasive surgery, I didn’t want to change anything on a long weekend and cause a pain episode. Off to my GP I went to find out what I could stop taking and when. We stopped the slow release, kept some instant release up our sleeves IF necessary. I was happy. On reflection, I feel not enough information was given to me on discharge about the medications. Really, a small complaint very easily rectified by a visit to my GP.