In the past five years, techniques to fix dodgy knees have come a long way. Back in 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, the only option for me was to twiddle my thumbs until I qualified for a knee replacement a few decades later. I was 22. Fast forward to now, and I’ve taken part in a trial with a pioneering surgeon, where a transplanted meniscal cartilage allograft was parachuted into my knee, just like Bond and the Queen for the London Games. My bone surfaces were drilled in order to encourage fibro-cartilage to regenerate, which is a relatively new technique developed from stem cell research. Winging it’s way to me via snail mail is a knee brace that looks like something from Batman’s wardrobe, an accessory I’ll wear for the next 3 months to complete my ‘Bionic woman’ look.
The post-surgery care in Rugby Hospital was far more advanced than my previous three operations. I was fitted with a compression pump sock for two days to ensure the blood in my good leg didn’t pool as I laid in bed. A cryogenic sleeve, which sounds like something straight from Austin Powers, was wrapped around my leg and fitted to a Hilotherapy ice machine. The minimal swelling and bruising was incredible when I remember the size that my knee has ballooned to before.
I met my physio at St George’s hospital on Monday. I was impressed by the gymnasium, where a man who had scars pointing to an ACL reconstruction was practicing lay-ups in front of a mirror. He scored every hoop. Waiting behind a white screen on wheels, I took in the two people besides me. The white-haired chap to my right had two long scars running over each knee, with delicate white dots which looked like an Aboriginal pattern. Knee replacements are a complex orthopaedic operation, yet the recovery time is much quicker than some other procedures as everything is set and ready to go. There’s no risk of ripping anything out like an ACL replacement / cartilage graft. The middle-aged lady besides me wore leggings, and she seemed to be in working order as she flicked through a magazine and tapped her feet, so my curiosity was left intact.
I’d been relatively pleased with my progress since seeing the surgeon at Coventry at the end of May. I’d been working hard to rebuild my muscles which had wasted away, and my legs now felt the same length which was a relief. It’s been painful, but I’m now able to transfer more weight to my left leg, and am working hard to straighten my gait so my knee doesn’t lopsidedly swing towards the other one. The physio wasn’t as happy though – I was still wonky and couldn’t push my knee cap back to straighten my leg. As a result, I’d invented a new walking style that matched the purplish-grey colour of my zombie foot. She said that my poor circulation could lead to a clot, which positively broke my stride, so to speak. The lack of sleep I’ve had for the past two weeks, along with another obstacle to face in my recovery, made me a tad ’emosh’ as my friend Annie would say.
The soft tissue damage from the surgery has meant that moving my knee backwards so it’s fully straight was impossible without manipulation. Walking on the ground and exercising on the bench couldn’t touch it and risked overloading the joint, so I’ve been booked in for hydrotherapy for the first time. I also get to test-drive the intriguing ‘anti-gravity’ treadmill. These methods are meant to make it easier to move naturally after injury without the pain of weight bearing, and the water provides more resistance that will hopefully increase my recovery pace. Given how difficult it is for me to get into the shower unaided, the water therapy will also provide the bonus of a bath. It’s been a longer slog than I expected, but I’m trying to not beat myself up about it. I’ll get there as soon as I physically can.
When I posted a picture of what happens when you spend a whole month off your leg here, one friend suggested that I could pretend I’d returned from a space mission. Other than feeling spaced out most of the time from my painkillers, I suppose this whole experience is a bit like training for NASA: lots of fitness and mental preparation beforehand, advanced technology during the operation, cool gadgets, unavoidable muscle atrophy, and the same sense of watching the world go by. The anti-gravity and underwater therapy is akin to the training which bidding astronauts undergo to recreate conditions in space. I also now have my very own Major Tom to look after me, which is fortunate as I crash landed the other day.
Pictures from L-R: Chris Hadfield on the ISS; my unexpected bump to Earth
Here’s a video of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, former Commander of the International Space Station, singing Bowie’s famous ‘Space Oddity’ song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo
Follow British astronaut Tim Peake’s adventures on the ISS here, including his impressive London marathon run in orbit: @Astro_TimPeake