Joint Replacement Advice from a Three-Surgery Survivor

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Over the last few years, my friend Carolyn Yetter has had both hips and one knee replaced. I asked her what advice she would give to people preparing for similar surgery. She shared her experiences with getting a second opinion, working with hospital staff members, and rearranging her home to make recovery easier.

Q: What do you wish you had known beforehand?

Answer: How much it was going to hurt for the first three days. There was so much talk about pain management; it shocked me that there was so much post-surgery pain. People talked about the great 'happy juice,' but I was never happy for the first three days.

Q: What questions did you ask the surgeon?

A: I was afraid of being awake during each surgery but unable to speak. The anesthesiologists treated it with respect. So each time they described what I would get and how I would be monitored. Tell the anesthesiologist and doctors anything you take, even over-the-counter drugs and natural medicines. Some react badly with hospital medications. 

Q: How did you prepare for surgery?

A: For 3 or 4 weeks before surgery, work on your upper body strength. You will use your arm muscles in ways you never thought possible: just to get out of bed, to raise yourself in bed with the suspended triangle, and to turn yourself over. Believe me, if the nurses and aides have to pull you up or reposition you without your help, it hurts a LOT more.

Q: What changes did you make to your house?

A: After each hip surgery, we slept in a small downstairs bedroom for a time. I had a hard time sleeping, so I would get up in the middle of the night and watch dreadful TV. I laundered all the clothes I would need for several weeks and kept them handy, because the washing machine is in the basement.

Q: Did you miss anything?

A: "Pets were the real problem.

Our first dog during the first hip surgery seemed to understand something was wrong and didn't jump on me or get under my feet. The knee surgery came last, and that dog was oblivious to it - I constantly had to watch out that he didn't jump on my knee or get tangled in my feet, but he was great company.

Q: Did you buy anything to help your recovery?

A: I used a walker at home each time (which I hated because it made me feel crippled and old as I clumped around, but it really does protect against falls.) I used a raised toilet chair with arms each time and a seat to put into the bathtub. After the knee surgery, it was uncomfortable to rest my raised foot on a dining room chair. 

Q: How were the surgeries?

A: Do all you can to comfort yourself in any way you need. There will be a friend or family member with you during the surgery. I hate to be cold, so make sure they know to remind the doctor, nurse and everyone that I want to be warm in the recovery room. Warmed blankets are such a treat!"

Q: Any suggestions for surviving the hospital stay?

A: There are two types of nurses: aides, who do all the dirty work and heavy lifting, and RNs, who dispense drugs. Cultivate the aides, be courteous and thank them, address them by name. The aides are overworked, and they usually have more patients than they can handle. Help them learn that answering a call to your room won't be a nasty experience for them. Don't take your pain and crankiness out on them."

Q: Did you have any problems at the hospital?

A: For my second hip surgery, I had dreadful aides. They put pillows on the floor to raise my leg when I sat up, then put them on the bed. I never trusted that they washed their hands, because I never saw them do it. A 250-pound male aide stepped on my foot and then got belligerent when I wouldn't let him get near me again. One woman actually yelled at me that my hip would never heal because I was being a bad patient.

Q: How did you manage pain after surgery?

A: Ice -- lots and lots of ice for all three surgeries. Knowing that it would hurt a lot for 3 days, I didn't have unrealistic expectations the second and third time. In the hospital, I wasn't shy about asking for the pain meds at 3 1/2 hours, instead of 4 because it always took them 15-20 minutes to bring it. 

Q: How long before you could take the stairs?

A: The second day, at the hospital. We practiced in physical therapy -- on 3 stairs. When I came home on the third day, I had 14 stairs to climb -- it was slow, but no problem.

Q: How was physical therapy?

A: Physical therapy governs how well you walk after all the pain you've already invested in the surgery. I decided not to waste it. Physical therapists for knees are much more demanding than those for hips. The knees require much more motion. I put up with them and hated them silently because I knew my future walking was at stake. You can bear anything for 3 days. Take pain med before you do therapy."

Q: How did your husband help?

A: After each surgery, Tom was an amazing caregiver -- thoughtful and patient. I just tried not to be too demanding and later used the walker to help myself whenever I could. He scheduled his vacations around the surgery so he could be home the first two weeks each time. Also, this is something no one mentions: You will need help in the bathroom. It's impossible to lean even slightly to the side to reach behind, because of the incision.

Q: How long before you felt completely back to normal?

A: Knees take a really, really long time to heal -- it can still be painful and swollen four months later. I know it took almost a year for each hip to completely heal and to retrain muscles that had been compensating for them.

Q: How did you work with your doctor?

A: Always get a second opinion, even if you respect your surgeon as I did. (I got three second opinions, one before each surgery.) It's worth every penny. If nothing else, it will help you think of more questions; and it eased my mind that I was doing the right thing each time. My surgeon always said it was good for him because it confirmed his diagnosis and lessened the chance he had missed anything.

Plan ahead and prepare for pain to get to the pay off

Over the last few years, my friend Carolyn Yetter has had both hips and one knee replaced. I asked her what advice she would give to people preparing for joint replacement surgery. She shared her experiences with preparing for surgery, getting along with hospital staff, and planning for recovery.