A New Joint

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The year was 1968. Having suffered through two knee injuries due to sports in junior high school, I had surgery in Columbus, Georgia. Dr. Jack Hughston, the founder of the now famous Hughston Orthopedic Clinics located around the Southeast did the honors.

I remember two things about my first visit to Dr. Hughston. He wore a bow tie, which I later discovered was his clothing signature. I also remember peeling myself off the ceiling when he pinched the broken bone under my kneecap between his fingers. “I think I found part of your problem” he said matter of factly.

My surgery lasted several hours. I was in the hospital a week. I had a morphine drip for five days. I was a weekly visitor with Dr. Hughston for months, a trip of just over 110 miles one way. He told me I would one day suffer from arthritis, which proved to be a correct diagnosis.

1968 was also the first year a total knee replacement was ever performed. While that was not a surgery available to me at the time, it demonstrates how far we have come in medical procedures related to full joint replacements.

This past year, almost 800,000 people had a total knee replacement in the United States. Today, my younger brother, Ernest, became one of the people in that statistic.

I journeyed to Athens, Georgia where he was having his knee replacement done. I had seen his knee deteriorate over the past few months to the point where the pain dictated that something must be done. I wanted to be there to support him, but a little bit of me wanted to see firsthand what a knee replacement is like since it may be on my own calendar in the future.

He was rolled into the hospital room after the surgery. A person with a high pain threshold, Ernest nevertheless admitted that the pain level was at least a 7 (maybe 8) on a scale of one to ten. A pain pill later, it was quickly down to a five.

Within the first hour after his return to his room, Ernest ate a ham sandwich, had one of his beloved Diet Cokes, went to the bathroom, stood up, walked down the hall with a walker, and went up and down two steps. Twice.

After that, he went home to spend the night in his own bed, less than 8 hours after his knee replacement surgery started. He goes to physical therapy in the morning.

While I was delighted at his quick progress, I could not help but think back to the struggles I had 54 years ago when my knee was opened up. I was blessed to be on the cutting edge of medical technology then. Yet, the surgeon that performed Ernest’s knee replacement has done over 20,000 total knee replacements in his career. Practice makes perfect, I guess.

Thanks to 24-hour news and relentless social media coverage, we have a lot to complain about these days. Today, I got to witness something to rejoice about. Nearly a lifetime after my own knee surgery, with its extended hospital stays and heavy drug usage, I saw my brother walk down the hall just a couple of hours after having his entire knee replaced.

Some things we take for granted. 800,000 knee replacements a year may make it seem routine. Not for me. A half century ago I pushed the morphine pump as often as it would let me. I wore a cast and brace before and after the surgery for the better part of a year.

I am thankful for the technology in the 1960’s that allowed me to enjoy a reasonable recovery with my knee. At the same time, I am stunned by what I witnessed today with Ernest’s knee replacement surgery.

A totally new knee joint and home in time for supper. How times have changed.