Learning to Walk Again
After my knee revision surgery last January, my intensive physical therapy (PT) continued with home sessions. Besides needing time to heal, the only thing holding me back was strength and I was determined to regain it as quickly as possible. Every day included several repetitions of exercises and then starting to practice regular daily activities.
I gained ground through slow progress and practice. First, I was standing up from the bed. Then I had a seat assist device replace the cushion of my chair. As I leaned forward a spring would raise the seat up, making it easier to stand up the rest of the way. When I mastered this, I began learning to stand from lower chairs.
As my knee gained strength, we also discovered that I had gained a great deal of motion in my knee. Before my surgeries, it was pretty much locked in extension with only about 10 degrees of motion. Now I had more than 60 degrees of motion from extension to flexion! While this was a great and unexpected improvement (much more than even the surgeon anticipated), my muscles were not prepared. They hadn’t been asked to bend or straighten the knee like this for 20 years! Part of my PT focused on addressing my atrophied quadriceps muscles with exercises and electrical stimulation.
While being able to work from home, my primary activity was my recovery and gaining strength. The fastest progress happened during the first couple of months. My doctor was pleased enough with my recovery mid-March that he said I could stop using the leg brace a month earlier than previously planned. It felt terrific not to carry the weight of a clunky brace, but I also felt unprotected and anxious about my knee for awhile.
I practiced standing on my own, gaining strength and balance. The next phase was to begin taking steps without the walker, first while having my arms held on both sides then one. By this point I had graduated to outpatient physical therapy several times a week. I still continued my exercises at home, but life there had slowly returned to more normal. My PT continued to emphasize not only exercises, but activities to practice independent daily living skills as well.
By my count, this was fourth time I have learned to walk. Every time there have been different challenges, but through persistence I prevailed. Usually orthopedic recovery involves moving from a walker to a cane, however because of my joint deformities I cannot use a cane and probably don’t have the arm strength. In fact, the walker I’ve used has two arm platforms for me to bear my weight through my forearms because I don’t have the wrist strength and motion to use a regular walker.
My husband, mother and PT supported my walking practice by holding my arms on both sides, then just one until I began taking steps with a spotter watching from a short distance away. Increasingly, I focused on growing my stamina by standing and taking steps. At first I could only manage a few seconds, then a few steps. I needed to get better at balance and managing all the tiny muscles it takes to stay steady and not topple over—things things most people take for granted and never think about.
I was able to return back to work full-time in late April. It had been a long journey and frankly, I was still not half recovered. During the summer I continued my home exercises and several outpatient PT sessions per week.
At first I could only manage work, PT and rest. My energy level was so low and I had to concentrate on the essentials. It took me a couple months before I could start being more social and get out more. Thankfully my close friends and family understood my limitations and shared support and encouragement during my recovery.
In September, 10 months after two surgeries and lots of rehabilitation, I was able to take my first trip since the knee infection. While I still needed help, my knee was strong enough to endure a weekend away. It felt like a huge milestone! Then in October I had my first travel by plane and in November my first solo trip. These travels were a true test of my recovery and signaled that my knee and leg were strong enough for my independent needs.
When I last saw my surgeon he explained that it may be more than a year before I am fully healed and recovered. While I’ve made it most of the way, the last small percentage of recovery may be the toughest. I keep working while remembering all the great strides I’ve made—from bad knee to no knee and now a new, wonderfully functional joint.