Never would I have imagined that I would have to have a total hip replacement at age 51. Nor would I realize how hard a hip replacement was and what to really expect after having a total hip replacement. I had experienced on-and-off pain for over nine years on my right side but never attributed it to needing a new hip. Instead, I thought everything was related to a tear in my labrum, a thin piece of cartilage that goes around the hip. While I avoided surgery then, it never fully disappeared.
My hip replacement story
It took a year of physical therapy to get rid of the pain and I was back at running again, hiking, biking, skiing, and living my normally active lifestyle. Yet last summer I did a workout that was truly the straw that broke the camel’s back. I did a series of squats and twists with weights and the next day my right IT band was on fire. I thought it was just a sore muscle until it did not go away for weeks and only got worse. That is when I went back to my doctor and they did the X-ray that provided the surprising news. I had nothing left, was bone on bone, and could try PT but eventually would need a full hip replacement. I was truly stunned.
Once the news let out, the questions began. Everyone asked me, “Does it run in your family?“. No. My dad is 80 and still runs and never had a hip replacement. “Did you do something to make this happen to you?”. No, not really. I just lived my life. The questions stressed me out more than the news itself so I simply quit telling people.
I have been active all my life. Growing up, I was a dancer for 15 years, and a competitive swimmer for five years. I was a runner for 30 years. I downhill ski, Nordic ski, bike, and hike. But when I asked my surgeon why it happened to me so young, he simply said “Bad luck“.
I did a month of PT, got a cortisone shot to calm the inflammation down, and fulfilled a ten-year goal of going on a hiking trip to Bhutan while I was in my 50s.
The day before I left for Bhutan, I was hesitant that I could seriously make it. I was in so much pain, it hurt to sit comfortably and sleep. But I went and surprisingly enough, I made it through the harrowingly long 24-hour flight, ten-day trip, and completed the hike.
I returned home in early December, ready for the Nordic ski season and then the reality set in. It was not going to go away and the pain was only intensifying. My quality of life was dwindling and I had to take action. I met with the surgeon and scheduled a total hip replacement for March 1. All I had to do until then was get through the pain.
The next three months were hard. I had to quit skiing, and even walking my dog around the lake hurt. The only exercise I could do was walk in the pool but I continued. My sleep became impacted, I couldn’t sit comfortably to work, drive, eat dinner, or watch a movie with my family. Even a twenty-minute car ride to pick my daughter up from school became impossible. I was miserable.
As the surgery date approached I felt a mix between fear and relief. I knew I couldn’t go on living like I was in so much pain yet I was so afraid of the surgery itself that it was hard. Besides having my tonsils out when I was six, I’d never had surgery before. Yes, I’ve birthed two kids but this kind of massive surgery felt plain old scary. It didn’t help that I looked at the photo showing me exactly what they were going to replace in my surgery. The visual of it made me sick.
The night before the surgery I was so anxious and afraid that I could hardly talk. All I could do was clean the house to keep my mind off it. I was so worried that I would have a panic attack and not be able to sleep. I was scared.
The morning of the surgery I finally was resolved with what had to be done. The hardest thing that day was waiting for them to bring me back to the operating room. I had my IVs in, the anesthesiologist gave me the talk about what to expect, and then the long wait until they brought me back. My husband sat next to me the entire time but it was hard for me to speak.
Then finally they came for me and thankfully I was out as soon as I was inside the operating room. The fear and wait were over.
An hour and a half later I woke up in the recovery area. I felt cheerful with relief that it was over and I had made it. I didn’t feel much pain as I was still waking up.
Later that afternoon, they moved me to a care suite located about ten minutes away from the surgery center. A bonus of being relatively young and healthy (the average age for a hip replacement is in the early 60s) meant I qualified to recover in a more tranquil place than a hospital. I had my own team of nurses and a physical therapist who taught me how to do the basics: Get in and out of bed, up from seated to standing, and most importantly of all, how to use my new hip.
It felt like a surreal experience, especially for someone as fit and active as me. Yet within six hours of surgery, I was up walking around with the help of a walker. Despite all the good success stories I heard about hip replacements, I was unprepared for how hard the next month would be. I heard so many stories that I’d leave the hospital only having to take Tylenol or how hip replacements were a piece of cake compared with knee replacements.
Little did I know that the next month would be harder than I ever imagined. It was not simply a walk in the park to recover. I would have to relearn to walk again.
The morning after my surgery, I had one more PT session to learn how to walk with my new cane and was sent home. I swore I wouldn’t use a cane, I was way too proud, but the thought of a fall and dislocating my new hip made me soon change my mind and accept it. I arrived home roughly 24 hours after my surgery. It would have actually been even earlier had I not fainted during PT. I needed an extra bag of fluids before I could safely go home.
My husband helped me to the car and little did I know it would be the last time I truly walked outside for a month. I was going to be housebound in the middle of a long, cold, snowy icy Minnesota winter. How would I manage?
The first week was a blur as my right leg was so swollen I felt it was going to burst. I could not lift my leg into bed without assistance and I couldn’t believe how much I had to rely on my family for my basic needs. I was on a ton of medication which in itself was overwhelming and impacted my appetite. I was constantly thirsty and my entire leg was black and blue. It was brutal.
Taking a shower required all of my energy and I really could not do much of anything. I have never experienced something like this in my life so it was a challenge for me emotionally. But I did have some success! By day four post-surgery, I was walking without a cane and I also was becoming less terrified of going up and down the stairs. I documented my entire story on Instagram as it gave me a way to be creative and get much-needed support. I found my voice again.
The fog of the anesthesia had lifted and reality set in that this was going to be awhile. I wasn’t just going to snap back into my old self. It was going to take time and dedication. The swelling was still insane and I had to ice and elevate my right leg continually throughout the day and night. But I’d made myself a makeshift “office” on the couch with my laptop held up by pillows, and everything I needed nearby.
I was up to walking ten minutes around the house twice per day and by day 8 was walking without a limp! Near the end of the second week, I could almost bend my right knee (it was insanely swollen). I still could not put on my socks though. Nor could I go outside as our three feet of snow piled up along the sidewalks was in a state of on-and-off melting leaving an icy, dangerous mess. One slip and I’d be back in the hospital so I remained inside.
Finally, by week three I was able to sleep a little better and not wake up in the night in pain. My right leg did not feel like I had a metal rod down it (despite the fact that I actually do!), and I could walk better and longer. I was up to almost 20 minutes doing laps around the house twice a day. I was relearning to walk! I still had yet to walk outside since our sidewalks were covered in snow and ice and one fall could dislocate my new hip. It was the first time in my life that I had not left the house except for a doctor’s appointment in three weeks. I was completely stuck inside my house and would have lost my mind if not for my family. It was a very isolating time but I was so tired that it didn’t seem to bother me. Days just weaved into each other and I found comfort in being inside my home. This has always been a big struggle for me as I am a very extroverted person so I am glad I was able to find peace.
Four weeks out, I had still hardly left the house, was not able to drive, and was still completely exhausted from the surgery. My body was working hard to heal! Every time I achieved something new I celebrated. I finally could use both legs to walk up and down the stairs. I also was able to start doing my normal household chores again and start cooking. It felt good to resume more normalcy in my life.
At the end of the week, it was time to leave the house. We had booked a family vacation to Mexico. I was once again blanketed in fear. If I had hardly left the house in a month, how on earth could I board a plane and fly to Mexico? Where on earth did that adventurous self go? Hibernating.
My surgeon approved my travel four weeks post surgery yet with a few minor precautions. I would need to take a blood thinner before flying (shot directly into my stomach), wear compression socks, and also would not be able to swim due to risk of infection. I was ok with that however I did not realize that I would still be healing and recovering. I had only walked 20 minutes around the house, so walking in general was going to be a big deal and I’d have to take it easy. No beach walks without shoes, no hiking and only short walks just like I was doing at home. It was disappointing for me because I prefer active vacations and don’t like to sit around.
Yet emotionally I think the trip was a good thing. After a month of isolation inside my house, I’d become a bit secluded in my own little world. I actually felt a little bit afraid to get back out there again. It sounds strange but the mind can play tricks on you. Getting into the car and heading to the airport was a step in the right direction.
Despite not being able to do the things I enjoy on our trip, it ended up being a wonderful time. I was still healing but felt more confident in my abilities. I was resolved to keep at it. Oh, and I could finally put my right sock on! After five weeks, I could finally bend down and do it myself.
Week 6 and on
I returned home determined to get my body back in shape. My right thigh and supporting muscles around my hip had lost a lot of strength. I tried to increase my daily walking but felt frustrated with the pain now moving to my left hip. My recovery felt stalled. It still hurt and felt stiff. All I wanted to do was to be able to walk around the lake again, something I have done daily for years. I felt discouraged. Where was the relief I was promised? Why wasn’t I doing better yet?
Worse, my surgeon had told me that I would be fine to go on a hiking trip by the end of April. It was booked and planned a year ago. however, how could I go hiking in the mountains if I couldn’t even walk three miles around the lake? I was deflated.
The day before I left for Italy, I called my 80-year-old dad to try to adjust his expectations. I told him where I was at with my walking. That I was still in pain, still irritable, and could only make it 45 minutes without fatigue. Was he sure that he wanted to still go?
What a silly question that was. If there is one thing that is certain it is that my dad is one stubborn man. He never gives up, never quits, and doesn’t take no for an answer. “If there is a will, there is a way” is his mantra. Of course, I was going to go and of course, I would hike.
Once again, I boarded the plane thinking I was perhaps a little bit crazy with this plan. Yet, it was also something I deeply wanted to do. My dad and I have traveled together for decades, visiting 14 countries on six continents, mostly on foot. The pandemic had stalled our travels. I had to go. If he could do it so could I.
The first hike on my new hip
The flight went much better than the one to Mexico. I had realized how far I’d come in just two short months. I wasn’t as stiff, the swelling was gone, and best of all it was the first time in nine years that I could sit comfortably with no pain. I couldn’t believe I had lived like that for so long.
I met my dad at the Venice airport and we headed north to the Dolomites. It was a place my dad had skied at but had never hiked and had always wanted to.
When we arrived in Cortina the rough jagged peaks of the Dolomites poked through the clouds. They were stunning and impressive, and I felt that familiar tug in my heart that I normally do when I see the mountains. They were calling me.
It was the first week of May and the peaks were still blanketed in snow. We were about a month too early as the official hiking season does not start until June 1. Yet we were able to find some hikes, the first trail covered in snow and the second one much more manageable with my new hip.
As I set off on the first hike to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, I felt nervous and took it slow. There was still snow on the trail which made it slippery. I had to pay attention to each and every step. Hikers passed me by which usually would have bugged me since I tend to move fast. Even my dad had to stop and wait for me when the snow became heavier and my out-of-shape body labored at the exertion.
Slow and steady, I went up the snow-covered trail and made it to the top. The views were stunning and I felt elated like I always do after a good time spent hiking in nature with my dad. I thought about all the mountains I’ve climbed over the years with my dad and how amazing it was that I was right there next time him climbing again with my new hip. While it wasn’t perfect yet, I knew it would get better every week. I’d gotten a new lease on my adventurous life again thanks to my new hip and I am sure grateful.
June 1 marks three months post-surgery and my new joint should be secure. The threat of dislocation dwindles and by six months I should feel brand new. It may take me time to regain my strength and get back to earlier fitness levels. Eventually, I will need my left hip done. But I know I can do it and how incredible I will feel once I have a set of brand-new hips. Until then, as my dad always says “Keep moving”, and I will.