Thursday, March 14, 2013

Awakening from the Knee Nightmare

It was just barely wintertime when the knee nightmare began for my son Will and our family. Three operations, five emergency room visits, four record-setting knee drains, a staph infection, a blood clot, three hospitalizations and weeks of pain and immobility later, it’s almost Spring, and we’re beginning to come out of this bad dream. Or we can at least, at times, glimpse the dawning of normalcy.

It’s been a long, painful road, and one that taught me, as parent and caregiver and makeshift nurse, many lessons. I expect the ordeal has taught, and is still teaching, lessons, too, for Will, who despite it all -- and it was very bad for a while -- soldiered on most of the times with a smile for his caregivers and a determination to walk and be pain-free again. He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there.

The staph and blood clot are gone, leaving behind a swollen, scarred and stubborn knee, requiring intense work to bend, straighten and act like a knee again.

There’s no need to detail the nightmare – how a routine knee scope for a cyst on a knee ligament developed into life-threatening conditions – except to say that most everything that could go wrong did.

But looking back -- as I prepare to return to work after two months off on Family Medical Leave and Will continues to struggle to walk, now on a walker, eyeing a cane and keeping as his goal the prize of walking well as a healthy 30 year old -- we learned many lessons and continue to. I’ll list a few here.

  1. Family members should not have operations (even minor knee scopes) during the same time period. My knee scope for a torn meniscus was two weeks before Will’s. It just worked out that way, but after all that happened, I saw clearly (after walking the steps to Will’s part of the house umpteen times a day) the folly of the caregiver also having a recovering knee. Part B to this lesson: think long and hard before you have any surgery, because you never know what’s going to happen.
  2. Doctors don’t know everything. We just expect them to.
  3. Nurses are saints, or nearly so. Many hours and days in the hospital with Will and in doctor’s offices galore renewed my respect for nurses in particular and health care professionals in general.
  4. You never know what you are capable of, until you have to do it. My renewed respect for nurses was boosted by this journalism major being pressed into medical service, giving Will injections in his stomach (an early treatment for blood clots), giving IV antibiotic injections (for the staph infection) in the PIC line in Will’s arm three times a day for 28 days, and coordinating treatments between four doctors, home health and physical therapy. I remember saying often, aloud and to myself, “I don’t know. I’m a writer.”
  5. Emergency rooms are not just for emergencies anymore. I suspect this is because our health crisis occurred at about the same time Birmingham’s Cooper Green Hospital stopped in-patient care. Overcrowded emergency rooms are the norm these days, and in our case, when yet another on-call doctor sent us to the emergency room, a septic knee or suspected blood clot lined up in crowded emergency rooms next to a bunch of folks who just didn’t feel good and a child with ringworm.
  6. A dog is man’s best friend. Lucille, our labra-chow circle-turning dog, rarely left Will’s side and was probably as important to his recovery as the antibiotics and satchel full of pills. And, one afternoon when Will fell and couldn’t get up or get to his phone, Lucille ran upstairs and got help, nudging and circling until she got a caregiver’s attention. Lassie couldn’t have done any better.
  7. Staph and blood clots are more common than you’d think. When a sturdy 6’3” young man is in a wheelchair with an outsized knee, you get lots of questions, and you learn how many folks have had staph and blood clots, but not that many had them at the same time. We met folks who had had MRSA, the super-bad staph that’s difficult to treat, a waitress who had a staph infection in her heart, and a doctor who had staph infection in his knee, in Vietnam, from days and nights spent in swamps and rice paddies and far away from today’s treatments.
  8. The view is different from a wheelchair or walker. Being in a wheelchair, even short term, and depending on a walker, changes your perspective on the handicapped. Most people are nice, and many will hold a door for you, but many, too, don’t really look at a person in a wheelchair. That person is invisible and too visible at the same time. For Will, I think, seeing folks who live their lives in wheelchairs and immobile made him feel lucky.
  9. Physical therapy works. Anyone who has been prescribed physical therapy and grew to nickname it torture therapy knows the challenge of doing repetitive, sometimes difficult moves and motions and wondering what good does this do? The answer is motion is the potion, and that’s never been more evident than when a leg and knee has been immobile, really frozen, and has to be moved under anesthesia. That was Will’s last surgery, and since then, motion continues to be the potion, and the physical therapy professionals he’s working with have become his lifeline. It’s not fun, but it works.
  10. Prayers work, too. We are grateful for the prayers, cards, meals, visits and well wishes from friends and family.  Even though Will still has weeks of physical therapy work ahead on the road to walking well again, we are surviving the knee nightmare, thanks to prayers, modern medicine, hard work and one heroic dog. 

Will and constant companion and hero dog Lucille

I Won't Back Down
by Tom Petty
"I won't back down, won't be turned around.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell, and I won't back down."


  1. Outstanding! Your best blog ever. That's because it's personal and painful. Love you ... and Will ... and Lucille!

  2. My thoughts and prayers are with Will. I am still recovering from knee surgery myself. The pain is a lot better and my knee feels better most of the time, but not 100% yet. Don't think I will have the other knee worked on at this point. I see Lucille is my namesake. Thank you! Cathy Baughn

  3. JAckie, Sorry to hear things have been so tough lately. But Kathy's right -- some of the best, most heart-felt writing I've seen you do! Susan larkin