Operating Room in the Mountains: My Story of Recovering the Knee Replacement

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GearJunkie’s Hunt & Fish editor Nicole Qualtieri had four surgeries in 13 months. Here she will be in total knee replacement healing in a year.

It’s been a year. Two, really. Between a global pandemic, cultural conflict, and personal physical challenges, I would take note of the past, oh, 2 years because of its bad behavior.

Or I think when it comes to physical things I would call it a time of rebuilding. So the crux of the story of my knee situation is this: I had really bad arthritis in both knee joints. Badly clinging to the walls on the worst days and complete insomnia from severe knee pain on the worst nights.

Because of this, I was a candidate for knee replacements when I was only 35.

I wrote the whole story as soon as I had mine first knee replacement in January 2020. I did the second knee the following May. And since then, people have been asking me pretty consistently on social media where I am right now.

So let’s fill in the details.

The entire knee replacement after surgery feels like it

The day after surgery # 2, May 2020

When I decided to do my knees separately, it was for a good reason. I live in a two-story walk-in apartment and it was winter in Montana. Two knees down felt like an impossible hurdle; I wanted a good leg to stand on me while I was healed.

Some people choose to have bilateral same-day knee replacements, but that includes hospitalization. And since I did each knee individually, I was able to do outpatient surgeries with my orthopedic clinic in Bozeman, Montana. I went to surgery in the morning and was back in my own bed that night.

Each operation presented different challenges. During the first operation, I experienced much of what I would call deep and harrowing bone pain.

The second, my stomach just finished with the insane amount of medication I was taking. Basically, I puked a lot for a month. Less pain, more vomiting. Cool in both directions.

With both operations, I had a lot of insomnia for 2 to 3 months. It’s just hard to sleep when you’re healing. I remember crying to my physical therapist and asking when I could go back to sleep. At some point it will come. But man. It sucked. It sucked a lot.

I can’t talk to what others are going through, but I went through that. And looking back, it was more difficult than I think I made it believable. Every operation was a severe physical trauma; My bones were sawed off and hammered in. Two main joints have been removed and replaced.

However, it is important to understand that intentional trauma can be the healing type. On the healing part.

Total knee replacement physiotherapy blues

Apologies to my great physical therapist for the subhead. But the physical therapy blues are real.

In addition to PT a few days a week, I spent the first 3 weeks of healing on a continuous motion machine that slowly rotated my joint on my back for 8 to 10 hours a day. It wasn’t excruciating, but neither would I say it was a joyous ride.

From then on, life was about angles. For the first month at least, there was only talk about stretching the knee.

My left knee stretched more easily than the right. The right knee has more flexion than the left. And there were many threats of what would happen if my knees didn’t straighten to zero degrees.

Well, they both eventually did. But it didn’t feel good for a while.

My first knee replacement at the age of 35: How I got here

My first knee replacement at the age of 35: How I got here

Knee replacement is an issue that usually comes up later in life. But GearJunkie’s Nicole Qualtieri is standing in front of two prosthetic knees at the age of 35. Here is her story. Continue reading…

From then on, it was about strength and real recovery. From small leg raises to squats, from sitting to standing, from walking to cycling, everything hurt and everything slowly but surely got better. It was a cumulative effort of one day at a time.

A few days were big steps back. Another time, I would overdo it and really get punished by my body the next day. I just wanted to feel normal. I chose it on the good days. But I also paid for it a lot.

And by the end of summer, they were all pretty good days.

Back to life back to reality

Gun possession, WeatherbyChecking the zero on my Weatherby .308 before the 2020 season; Photo credit: Nicole Qualtieri

I hiked more than 3 miles of one steady and one steep incline with my hunting bow in hand last September. It was my first time feeling capable of doing anything outside, and whether or not I was really hunting didn’t really matter.

I was out there feeling good. And I overlooked a view where elk and deer lived all year round. Pain still lived in my healing knees. And my newest knee still needed a lot of babysitting.

I still spent the fall hunting season within the limits of my own creativity and didn’t want to overdo it or injure myself in the process. But I was also able to build strength and go on longer, easier, and less painful hikes than before both operations.

One thing I also understood is that I have lived in both a conscious and an unconscious state of protection when it comes to what I know my knees can and can’t handle.

By the time the deterioration was fully on, even a mile or a half could put me in a situation where it would take a while to get out. I walked a few miles more than 45 minutes after my knees locked themselves in the woods.

So I didn’t push myself to the limit. I hiked to a ridge line for the first time on a beautiful late autumn day in November. I have encountered deer. I heard thickhorns ramming into the rock walls of the range. And I found a moose sign and trudged through the snow, gaining over 1,000 feet in height. This was my favorite hunt last fall.

Although I didn’t turn a label on this Hunt, I’ve regained some of the freedom that I had lost. And I threw a lot of physical pain into the process. Luckily I filled my pronghorn label and managed to get out of season with meat in my freezer.

Bring my total knee replacement restoration to the present

runs after the restoreFirst run since the operation. I’m using a running for recovery program and I’m slowly going back to a few miles of light jogging with my pit crew.

It’s the end of April. And one month from now, it will be a full year since my last operation. So, 11 months later, here I am.

I feel great.

I ride my horse 4 to 5 days a week and walk or hike my puppies every day. Most days I do yoga or stretching combined with strengthening exercises. And I recently started a return program that was approved by a physical therapist.

My only limitation to running is that it runs less and more of what I would call a “gentle jog,” and it doesn’t happen on sidewalks or concrete. I am sworn on soft ground. Fortunately, Montana has a lot of this from our trail and park systems.

And that’s really the strongest thing I’ve felt since 2017 when my knees hit the last wall of their usefulness.

No regrets, just fun ahead

The good news is that I really don’t regret it. Western medicine can be as life-giving as any other. There are two in my body Main joints engineered for movement and built from materials worn by NASA.

My legs are really bionic. It’s fun, strange, and life changing.

It was also an incredibly difficult drive to this point. Some things will likely always feel weird. There are clicks and movements that I can feel the difference with. But the pain is gone.

The pain is gone!

I can run down my stairs, I can hike up a mountain, I can ride my horse with my legs in a correct and efficient position. I can go jogging. And I can ride a bike, take a yoga class, or wade in the river. I’ll be snowboarding again next winter.

I am at the beginning of the next phase of my life as an athlete.

A note to people in similar circumstances

complete restoration of the knee replacementBack on my mule after two successful operations, November 2020

I have had more than a few messages lately from people in need with their knee problems. And since there isn’t a lot of information about younger people in need of knee replacements, I think my story resonated with many.

For me, bilateral replacements were the right choice. My knees really were at the end of their life cycle. And I’ve been given a new opportunity to live a life without extreme pain. This is not a dramatization. Extreme pain on a regular basis.

Doctors are reluctant to perform this operation on young people. I know. You were for me.

So here is my advice: Be your own lawyerbut give credibility to the documents. Get more than one opinion.

For me, the two areas of surgery I had before surgery showed my doctor what was really going on in my knees. It was a big step.

The other big step was talking my quality of life. As a nature woman, my life revolves around movement. And then not because I couldn’t. If you’ve experienced extreme changes in the way you function, this is an important topic to talk about. Use it.

Knee prostheses are a last resort. If you can reduce the need for a TKR, there are other options. But if you can’t, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. It is a long road to recovery, but at some point life will return.

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