Me and My Cane

by

07/01/2008

Greenwich Village, Union Square, West Side, 10012

Neighborhood: West Village

“What happened to your knee?”

Not since my pregnancy have so many people elevated a distended part of my body to public discourse. My neoprene knee stabilizer invited countless questions and unsolicited advice from friends and strangers in Greenwich Village, where I live, on the #6 train, and in the physical therapist’s office in Union Square—where I shared stories about doctors and joint recovery with patients my parents’ age.

Here’s the short version of my knee injury: I’d planned to spend two weeks vacation in a bucolic rural setting 400 miles from the city. After an hour of tennis, my knee mysteriously became swollen beyond recognition, and I ended up trading my sun visor for dark basement X-ray units of the local hospital. Limping my way through vacation, I paused every few hours to ice my grotesquely engorged right knee.

I suffered through everyone’s knee stories, including assorted cures: from P.T. to reflexology. We had all become our parents, talking unabashedly about our aching joints—not over bridge games, but while pairing blush wines with hummus and Mediterranean olives. Of course I also endured everyone’s rotator cuff, lumbar, cervical, and feet tribulations—including my husband’s reiteration of his year-long struggle with plantar fasciitis. By the time we reached dessert, we were talking orthotics.

So began my search for a doctor in today’s labyrinth of managed care restrictions and pre-certification numbers, slick doctor web sites, and internet blogs on knee treatment disasters. Years ago, when I ruptured a disc in a dance class, I could choose any doctor I wanted. I didn’t like the arrogant young surgeon who immediately pronounced I’d need surgery. I spent 30 days in traction as a conservative approach before capitulating to the surgeon’s scalpel. I was cured immediately; he had that I-told-you-so look my mother used to use; soon after he became famous for saving a celebrity’s back after a car crash. “That’s my surgeon!” I’d brag, pointing to him on TV.

Just as everyone has a knee story, everyone has a knee doctor they either love or hate. I made two lists, researching only the ones with “love” after their recommendations. Googling the net, plugging names into my insurance web site, narrowing down possibilities based on medical school qualifications and residency training. The way some of my friends searched for soul mates on the web, I was trying to find a doctor match. One had impressive credentials, but he was as young as my back surgeon had been—and I had grown much older. Could I trust my knee with someone who hadn’t even been born when President Kennedy was getting back injections?

My first blind doctor date was a basketball player on the west side. There had only been a “head shot” on his web site, but I shouldn’t have been so surprised how tall he was. College team photos hung on his office wall next to his residency orthopedic training.

“You ever been scoped?” he asked.

“No,” I said. At least I didn’t think so.

In five minutes he said, “We’re looking at arthroscopic surgery.” And on the white paper used to cover the exam table, he created an original rendering of my alleged torn cartilage, illustrating which part he would cut away. My back surgeon had also drawn pictures of my ruptured disc. Perhaps medical school ended their art careers.

“We do it on Friday, you’re back at work on Monday,” said the basketball player artiste, handing me a prescription for an MRI.

More research to find an open MRI on my insurance plan and a second opinion doctor. My knee injury was now my career. I spent sleepless nights poring over KneeHipPain.com.

The basketball player called me at 8 a.m. “Surgery,” said he. “This is what you want to hear. I can repair it. I’ll put Novocain into your knee. It’s like going to the dentist.”

I needed a Valium just to schedule a dental appointment.

“The tissue is not functioning and cannot repair itself,” he insisted. “You have a big tear in the medial meniscus.”

“How big?”

“Big. We do it on Friday, you’re back at work on Monday.”

The second opinion: a handsome child doctor told me arthritis was my real problem, and we needed to treat that. “You may not be a candidate for surgery,” he said, adding with a smile, “If I operated on everyone who walked in here with a torn cartilage, I could retire in three years.” He explained that my knee was swollen because it “wasn’t happy,” and he drained it with a needle, insisting on showing me the vials of yellow fluid. “Fifty cc’s!” he said enthusiastically. “Ten times normal.”

I visited six doctors, was told to put orthotics in my shoes, change my sneakers, get “scoped,” strengthen my quads, stretch my hamstrings, switch to clay tennis courts, give up tennis, swim but avoid the butterfly, get a steroid injection, take glucosomine and ibuprofen, massage my muscles with Arnica, ice my knee, use heat on my knee, elevate my knee, wear a knee sleeve, not wear a knee sleeve, avoid stairs, avoid doctors. And of course I kept bumping into other knee sufferers, like the colleague in the dressing room of Banana Republic, once crippled with knee pain, yet she ignored five of New York’s top orthopedic surgeons, went for rigorous P.T., and was absolutely fine. “But what do you think of this dress?” she inquired, before telling the tailor to shorten it just above her knee.

I went home and did what any confused, aching joint patient should do: opened a bottle of wine and made sure to elevate my knee by my third glass…and contemplate acupuncture.

 

I was born in this city and always assumed I’d grow old here. Little did I know I’d experience a preview of what it’s like to be a frail New Yorker until after my arthroscopic surgery, when I had to navigate these fast-paced streets with a swollen knee, a limp, and a cane. My injury and surgery had transformed me from a speed walker racing to work into a woman patiently waiting for the bus driver to lower the entrance steps…only to feel on display to the impatient travelers on line behind me as I slowly ascended.

What a rush I’d always been in before! Running for traffic lights, dashing for the express train lest I have to wait another three minutes, sprinting to the ticket holders’ line so I could secure an aisle seat in the movies.

Now I hobbled. Everyone on these dense Manhattan sidewalks left me behind in the dust, soot, and bus fumes. I was on one of those slow-moving escalator walkways in the airport, but everyone else briskly wheeled their suitcases past me.

I got bumped and pushed, jostled and nearly swept off my one good foot, with mumbled “sorries” or more often no apologies at all. Despite their stereotype, New Yorkers are not rude or uncaring; they’re just in such a rush, unable to slow down, and don’t notice the tortoises slugging behind. I missed countless lights, and while I waited for the traffic to whiz by and the light to turn green, I wondered: What was I losing with all these missed seconds and minutes?

Actually, I began to see new things: the tops of buildings and their unique architectural details, nannies escorting well-groomed children to school, bicycle riders (with and without helmets), flowers painted on taxis, different styles of gardens in front of concrete buildings, and many older city residents with shopping carts, walkers, hunched shoulders, and canes—just like mine.

In spite of my former fast-paced city gait, I (almost) always stopped and helped seniors across the street. “Are you all right now?” I’d inquire, and they’d nod yes, even though I worried that they were too frail to navigate these dangerous streets…vulnerable and alone.

Now I planned my day around my disability. Avoided rush hour subways, feared to walk through throngs of shoppers in Soho on a sunny weekend afternoon, went to restaurants at the unhip hour of 6 p.m. It was an odd dichotomy: I felt as if everyone was staring at me, and at the same time I was invisible—except to the injured and the elderly. We shared park benches and waited for lights to turn green and sometimes even struck up conversations about total joint replacements.

When I threw my cane away and even started jogging to make the light once in awhile, I reminded myself to slow down—life didn’t have to be this fast. There would always be another light, another train, another lingering citizen who was my companion in waiting. I’d take a deep breath and ask if he or she needed assistance in crossing the street, and when a fragile hand extended my way, I took it with a keen understanding, and we both walked slowly across the street while the cars edgily waited to zoom past us.

 

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in many national publications, and she has just completed a memoir. She teaches writing at The New School.

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