Just What I Kneeded

What happens after a life-altering knee injury?

First, do no harm

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Whether they fully acknowledge it or not, physicians have an incredible amount of power. They can literally save lives. But they can also cause harm, too. I’ve never liked going to the doctor. That’s actually putting it mildly; I’m pretty sure that I have white coat syndrome. My blood pressure sky rockets when I have to go to the doctor. Sometimes, it’s so bad that I can actually feel it rise.

When I first broke my leg, I went to the emergency room at a hospital in Cincinnati. X-rays were taken but were of little use because of the blood that was in my knee. As it was nearly 4 o’clock in the morning by then, I was sent home in an immobilizer and with a referral to the head of the orthopedics department. I couldn’t get in to see him the next day, so I made an appointment with my primary care physician to get an order for an MRI. I saw the OS for the first time three days after the accident, and I only saw him for about 90 seconds. Literally. He came in, saw the fracture, pointed to it, told me to stay off my leg completely for 8 weeks, and swept out of the room. I just sat there, completely dumbfounded because I had no clue that I’d broken my leg. In fact, I’d convinced myself that it wasn’t broken because they couldn’t see anything on the original x-ray, and I’d been walking on it for two days at that point. I had no clue what to do. Ok, great. I’m supposed to stay off my leg for 8 weeks. Do I wear the immobilizer? Can I get a prescription for some pain medicine? Do I need to elevate and ice?

Fast forward three months, and I’m at a follow-up appointment with the OS. I had, by this time, been in physical therapy for over 4 weeks. I’d been off crutches for more than 3 weeks. The fracture site felt fine, but I had intense pain any time that I was bearing weight on a bent knee. Going up and down stairs was quite painful. I was trying to tell this guy about my continued pain and the feeling I had that something just wasn’t right because the pain wasn’t in the place where I broke my bone. He wouldn’t hear it. He just looked at me and said, “You just broke your leg. If it still hurts in a year, get back to me.”

I felt a lot of things in the seconds after he said that to me. But mostly, I felt foolish. He made me feel like I’d wasted his time with my complaint. In that moment, I told myself to stop being a baby about things and just work through the pain. And that’s just what I did. I worked with my physical therapist for another 6 weeks, all the while increasing my pain, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to complain.

In the 9 months that followed, I tried everything I could to help the pain. I stopped exercising altogether. When that didn’t work, I started PT again. I iced religiously and slept with a pillow under my leg. Nothing helped. But I’m stubborn, so I waited until exactly one year after my initial injury to go back to the doctor. I chose not to go back to the original OS because, by that point, I had decided that he was a wack job. I often took his name in vain when I was trying to do my therapy exercises. Mostly, I was still angry that he made me feel foolish.

By the time that I saw the new OS, my knee had developed scar tissue and fissures in the articular cartilage. I had a hypertrophied infrapatellar fat pad that had grown up behind my patella and into the intracondylar notch. I underwent an arthroscopic surgery that included chondroplasty of the lateral tibial plateau and patella and an extensive synovectomy. I had Grade III chondrosis on the apex and medial facet of my patella and just generally “more arthritis that we’d expect in someone this age.” Was this caused by the fact that I waited so long to seek a second opinion? Was the scar tissue just sitting in there, wearing down the cartilage on the back of my patella for the whole year that I waited? I don’t know the answer to that. I can’t help but think that played a part.

Am I mad at the doctor who wouldn’t listen when I said that there was something wrong in my knee? Not really; not anymore. It’s true that he made me feel stupid, but it’s also true that I was too stubborn for my own good. I should have been a better advocate for myself and sought a second opinion much earlier. But that’s the power the first doctor had, the power to make me feel as though I had done something wrong. If he had listened to me, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time. I would have started down this path earlier and, by now, I would have been well on my way to recovery. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. I can’t spend time looking back when I need to move forward. I just hope that the next time that physician listens to his patient.

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Author: Laura

I have a fern I named Frankenstein. I like leprechauns, practicing kung fu moves on my dining room furniture, and pretending that one day I will move to Fiji. I dislike my neighbors' kids, anything that is chartreuse, and Ben Roethlisberger.

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