I could no longer deny that my body was falling apart when I awoke in a Washington D.C. hotel to go to work at my job with the Foundation for America’s Blood Centers and I couldn’t walk. Couldn’t get out of bed without excruciating pain. After popping a few ibuprofen and finally, and in great discomfort, wall-walking my way to the bathroom, I got back in bed and remained there for several days before flying back to my home in Boulder, Colorado, without so much as five minutes spent at the D.C. offices. A month or so later I realized I had to resign my position as the president of that nonprofit, the same organization whose members had helped save my life eleven years earlier with a plethora of safe and available blood. I had already been dealing with a “frozen” shoulder for a decade and now it appeared my feet and ankles were going as well. My knees, one of which had already undergone arthroscopic surgery, were aching more, sometimes compounded by sharp shooting pains. Hips, still holding their own, though without much range of motion. I was in my 40s at that point, and certain that someday I’d be one of those cool old ladies who runs 10Ks with her younger pals. Um, nope.
The arthroscopic surgeries began to pile up, until there was nothing left to scope. Then the injections of synthetic synovial fluid began. When they no longer worked, I turned to cortisone injections. When their efficacy eroded, I stopped taking walks, still in deep denial about what was happening to my major joints, still convinced I could reverse end-stage osteoarthritis and whatever autoimmune illness I had – one doc said ankylosing spondylitis; another said fibromyalgia – with all the green juice and seated yoga I was doing. Denial knows no bounds, am I right?
My husband, daughter, and I were in Michigan visiting my in-laws over Christmas of 2016 and I could barely pull myself up the stairs from our lower level bedrooms to the main floor. My pain level during that visit finally flipped a switch within me, shifting from denial to acceptance regarding the reality of my deteriorating joints. I returned to Boulder and set up an appointment with my orthopedic doc, a great guy who’d been warning me for years that I likely wouldn’t be leaving this world without at least 4-6 joint replacements. I’ll bet you ten bucks I can fix this without replacements was my standard response. I hope you win that bet was his.
“I owe you ten bucks,” I said when he walked into the examination room.
“Keep it,” he said. “Let’s just get you set up to meet with some joint replacement surgeons and get you some shiny new parts.”
And so my journey of becoming bionic began. Within 19 months, I had undergone four total joint replacements: an ankle, a shoulder, and both knees. The other ankle needs replacing too, as soon as my new shoulder is strong enough to bear my weight on crutches. The other shoulder is beginning to show the telltale signs of end-stage degeneration, and one of my hips is acting up as well, though I suspect I’ll get another five years out of them before active discussions of hip replacements are necessary.
Becoming bionic was not a part of my plan; and trust me when I say that most of my life I’ve been a girl with a plan. Lots of plans in fact. Big plans! But you know the old saying: We plan, God laughs. And so I finally surrendered to the reality of my life. My plans for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and completing an Ironman were definitely off the table now. And I continue to learn from this entire experience of the slow, chronic loss of mobility and my efforts to regain what I can in the way of pain-free movement.
I’m learning to work with what I have versus what I wish I had.
I’m learning to focus on all the richness in my life, even if that richness comes with a wonky walk, neuropathy in my feet, occasional surgeries, lots of physical therapy, and a deep fear of any walking surface that appears slippery: shiny tile floors, icy patches on sidewalks, snow, rain, mud.
I’m learning to seek the inspiration I receive from those who’ve walked before me, especially the inspiration I receive regularly from my sister-in-law, Val, who is in her 23rd year with chronic progressive MS and is completely frozen except for her face, mind, and sense of humor.
I am learning to value the lessons that come with Life’s challenges.
I’m learning acceptance.