I recently returned to the U.S. after again working for several months in Tanzania, East Africa. Shortly before leaving for my African work, my orthopedic surgeon told me that both of my knees are totally deteriorated (thanks OA), and needed to be replaced. I asked if he thought I should cancel my trip, because as much as I love my work as a writer and nature photographer, I'm fully aware that medical help of any kind is very limited in the African bush! My doctor insisted that I continue with my plans, but gave me the series of Synvisc injections before I left. These shots produce synthetic "synovial fluid" to help provide a cushion in the joint and alleviate a great deal of pain.
He admitted, at the time, that he was unsure whether the shots would last a week or six months, but he also reminded me to TRY not to allow my OA to totally determine my lifestyle. This comment really hit home for me, because it has become my "Mantra" since my diagnosis about 14 years ago. (I will have to admit, though, that sometimes, in the midst of an attack of debilitating pain, it's easier to "shut down" and focus on my limitations and NOT what I really can do!) I grabbed my camera bag and passport and flew back to Tanzania early in October, 2009.
I was pleasantly surprised how well the shots worked for me, and was lucky enough to get almost five months of pain relief with them. While in Africa, I was able to spend one whole day in the mountains with a natural healer. Although I STILL have OA, he taught me a lot about my herbal world, and the things I personally need to live a healthier and more fulfilling life. We tried a regimen of Royal Jelly (yes, the stuff from bees) for quite awhile, and I found it wonderful; however, it was quite expensive, and had no long-term effects. When I quit using it, the pain and inflammation returned! It was also recommended that I use a locally produced "drink" made from the Aloe plant. I'm not picky, but I somehow was unable to drink this green gooey potion daily!
On some of those incredibly painful days, I found that stretching out in the sun and letting my legs "bake" for brief periods, appeared to be the most pain relieving. All of my friends and adopted family in Africa seemed to have their own natural cures for my joint issues (some seemed a little funny - some downright scary). One special native friend was able to get me some enteric coated pain pills, so I could endure the lengthy flights back to America!
Early March, I left my world of lions and returned to America to face the fact that my knee challenge had definitely NOT gone away. The pain, as well as trying to walk, had become major issues for me. My internist tried me on a wide regimen of pain killers, pain patches, creams, and ointments although I normally try to avoid these due to side effects for me. After two weeks of sleeping constantly and nausea due to the pain patch I'd been put on, I finally decided that I'd rather be in pain, so I am not using anything right now. I'm not "bragging," I just couldn't handle being so completely wiped out all of the time. My pain over the last few months has "spread" from a problem in the knees (right one, mainly) to excruciating pain in the hip and lower back.
When my left hip was totally replaced several years ago, I was excited to realize that everything was ideal - it seemed like straight out of a "cookbook" for surgeons. My right total hip replacement two years later, though, has been somewhat of a nightmare with many challenges. With my right knee totally destroyed, my walking pattern has now changed and is putting unique pressures on my right hip and lower back. Oh, I guess I should mention that I also have an artificial ankle on the right side and have had three foot surgeries to fuse joints and remove nine others. On May 6, I will again be having surgery - this time for a total knee replacement on the right side. My surgeon said that this is somewhat of an emergency measure since my knee problem is also endangering the condition of my artificial right hip and lower back. He feels that with the knee replaced and good physical therapy, my right hip and lower back should also benefit!
I'm definitely NOT thrilled to be having more joint replacement surgery, but I do accept the need for it. I also am incredibly grateful for the medical help we have readily available in America - it's something many of us just accept. In Africa, I live with people from many different countries, and have learned that our medical advantages are VERY unique. Few countries even perform joint replacement surgeries that are available in the U.S.! My surgery in May, will be my 10th joint replacement and/or reconstructive surgery from the waist down since my diagnosis of OA almost 15 years ago. It hasn't been fun, but I AM grateful!
My life with OA can be a challenge. When everything is replaced and working correctly, I seldom even limp, but I do accept that without all of this help I probably would have been unable to walk many years ago. I will be 67 soon, and I realize that I've been given not only a gift, but a unique opportunity. I spend much of my time in the African bush not only photographing baboons, elephants, hyraxes, giraffes, and a myriad of animals and wildflowers, but I also have the joy of working with the natives who have become my adopted family. I helped this year with a large Girl Guides troop in my village, worked with Masaii ladies in a new dairy, helped teenage cerebral palsied and Down Syndrome students - even played with many different children from orphanages and photographed new foundations and work-sites. A bonus is that I share these experiences with my friends and family in America.
I've learned to cook African-style (without a stove or oven)! I love what I do and the wonderful caring people I meet from all over the world. The first time I lived in Africa for a few months, I think I focused a lot on what was "missing;" ie. I don't have a car and must use taxis to get anywhere, electricity and water aren't always available, clothes are always washed by hand and dried on the line, and I even found that you don't write out a list and then go to the "store" as things are often not available, so you go to the store THEN make out a list! I even spent almost two months last winter hunting for new shoelaces (and was thrilled when I returned to the US to receive a bag with a wide variety of colors and sizes, from a close friend).
For me, to survive OA, be productive, and be happy, I've learned to change my attitude (MOST of the time). Luckily, I will soon be recovering from another joint replacement, and be able to return to my adventures in Africa.
Published On: April 05, 2010