If you’ve seen me in the last four years, you know I walk with a limp. I used to be able to hide it, in fact, I remember one time, while doing a walk/run workout combo around Vanderbilt with a close friend, she said, “Are you limping?” And I wasn’t. Or, I didn’t think I was. It was that subtle. I really didn’t know I was, but she saw it. That was 11 years ago.
The Old Me
You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was always an active, fit girl. I danced and sang in stage shows at theme parks every summer for three years during college. This was like doing high-impact aerobics, in character shoes (dance heels), in the summer heat, multiple times a day. In my late twenties, I began running. I ran 5K’s, I lifted weights, I was a “gym rat.” All of my friends were people I met at the gym. The gym owner and instructors knew me by name. When I had my leg surgery for melanoma, I was at the gym, lifting weights, with stitches still in my calf. People were asking what happened, and when I told them, they couldn’t believe I was at the gym working out.
When I moved to Tennessee, I continued my love of exercise. I was in a duathlon with Bryan, where we ran a 5K, biked I think 10 miles or so, and finished with another 5K. Yep, I did that. Twice, if my memory serves me correctly. We ran the Nashville half-marathon together. Okay, not so much together. I trained for a whole year and it took me almost six hours (in a storm) to get to the finish line. Bryan didn’t train a single day, left me in his dust, passed me on one section, and finished before it ever started storming. I took boot camp aerobics, ran sprint laps at the track, and searched for aerobics classes and instructors who could work me out to the point of feeling like I might puke. I kid you not, I actually wanted this level of intensity in my workouts and was fit enough to do it. I got certified to teach Zumba, a high-impact, dance aerobics class. I taught three classes a week. I frequently wore my heart rate monitor around my waist to know how many calories I was burning, and in many of those classes I burned well over 800 calories in an hour!
Bryan and I loved being active together. We would get on our bikes and spend hours riding the country roads. We joined a climbing gym and learned to rock climb. We learned to snow ski together and fell in love with it. We traveled to almost a dozen places to ski, ice skate, snowshoe hike and other active winter sports. Fitness and being active was a huge part of our lives… it was.
In 2009, when we ran the half marathon, that subtle limp caught up to me. I had been having what I called hip flexor issues throughout my workouts. I just thought I needed to stretch them more, and it felt so good. I was so flexible, I could bend in half, pull a leg up behind my back, touch my chest to my thighs and grab all the way under my feet. But around mile three in the half marathon, I started feeling the hip pain on my left side like never before. I limped and sort of shuffle walked from mile three until the end of the race.
The next few years, I continued on, with occasional hip pain, but nothing debilitating. The limp started to become more pronounced, yet still subtle. I knew something wasn’t right, but I was living in denial. I remember when we were at the beach with some friends, I was walking ahead from the sandy shore to our beach house and my friend said, “Are you injured? You’re limping.” I dismissed her concerns, saying, “Oh, no. It’s just a sore hip. I’m okay.” I hated when people noticed it. I hid it so well, so I thought. The thing is, people would ask “What’s wrong, why are you limping?” And I didn’t really know the answer. I never dreamt it would be something so life-altering.
When we moved here to our new house, four years ago, the limp was pronounced. I couldn’t take aerobics, let alone teach it any more, and my hip hurt all the time now. I couldn’t hide it, so I kind of became a recluse. I didn’t want anyone to see or know how much I couldn’t do. Two close friends and our neighbors knew how much I struggled, but I kept trying to ignore the problem. I even tried to keep exercising. We hiked at the park, and I limped through it. We walked the dogs for miles, and I limped through it. We ran at the park, and I limped through it. Until one day, we had been on our feet a long time, being active, and we were out in the field by our house. I couldn’t walk another step. I was in horrific pain. I cried, and Bryan actually got the car and drove across our land to pick me up and take me home. This is about the length of a football field, and I couldn’t walk it.
I reluctantly made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor to see what was going on. I have to tell you, having had two cancers in my younger days, I feared this was either bone cancer or a melanoma recurrence that had spread to my bones, So, that was part of my reluctance to get some answers, I guess. The surgeon took x-rays and told me my hips were both “skiffy.” It was short for something called slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE). I think my reaction was, “Huh? What is that and how did I get it? And what do you mean both hips? My right feels fine.”
SCFE is a hip condition that typically happens to teenagers and pre-teens who are still growing, Experts aren’t sure why, but the ball at the head of the femur (thighbone) slips off the neck of the bone in a backwards direction. This causes pain, stiffness, and instability in the affected hip. The condition usually develops gradually over time and is more common in boys than girls. Sometimes it happens after an injury or trauma to the area. The doctor asked if I had some injury as a child. He could tell from the x-rays that my hip bone had not grown correctly, and because of the weird way it had been working with me and all of my activities through the years, it wore down. My femur and my hip were sitting right on top of one another. Does that song from childhood pop into your head? “The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone…” Well, yes, it is supposed to be, but there is a thick pad of cushioning between them. I didn’t have any padding left on my left hip and my right hip was looking weak, too. The surgeon said that this causes the bones to become arthritic well before they should. He said the only answer was a hip replacement on the left and another on the right.
“Excuse me, but I’m a forty-something, not a 60 something. What are you talking about?” I left his office and cried. This news was right around the same time we learned about our medical obstacles with conceiving a child, and that I had four fibroids on my uterus (a whole other painful story), It was an awful summer. No one could believe what this guy had told me. Not even me. So, I saw two more specialists. I didn’t tell the new doctors what the first one had seen. I let them all do their own work-up’s and determine what was wrong with me. Each one came back with my x-rays asking if I had an injury to my hip(s) as a child. Each one said I had SCFE. And each doctor said a hip replacement was the only answer.
Treatment for SCFE involves surgery to stop the head of the femur from slipping any further in young people. To achieve the best outcome, it is important to be diagnosed as quickly as possible. Without early detection and proper treatment, SCFE can lead to potentially serious complications, including painful arthritis in the hip joint. And, there you have it. That’s exactly why I’m staring down two bionic hips in my forties.
While living in denial, I tried so many different things looking for relief. I’ve been to chiropractors and massage therapists, I’ve tried acupuncture, steroid injections, Celebrex, therapeutic ultrasound, TENS unit therapy, a year of physical therapy, pool workouts, supplements and more. I’m pretty much at the end of my rope. You never realize how much you rely on your hips working like they should, until they don’t any more.
It was a real low when the doctor gave me a cane. He said I could choose a walker or a cane. I chose the cane, but truth be told, I only used it once, to walk out of his office. I was embarrassed to stand in line for my handicapped parking tag, and I’m always a little embarrassed to use it. It’s hard to fathom the things I can no longer do. I need the help of my husband to put on socks and hosiery and some of my shoes and boots. He has to shave the lower half of my left leg, because I can’t bend on that side whatsoever. I use little stairs he built to get in and out of our bed. I do everything from my right side and hip, even though it isn’t 100%, it’s just not as damaged as my right hip. I use my toes to pick things up sometimes. I can bend my left leg and hip backwards, toward my rear, so I often contort myself to get a sock or shoe on my left foot when Bryan isn’t around to help me. I just can’t bend in a forward motion, like a squatting position. If I get down on the floor, I look very awkward trying to get up, because I can’t just do what a normal person would. I can’t cross my left leg over my right. Sitting in low chairs and booths is so hard to get up from. My limp is so pronounced now that I often catch people looking at me. I can feel them wondering what happened to me.
I have a new appreciation for those with disabilities. I need the rails in the handicapped bathroom, and when people use them in public places just because they are bigger and I have to use a regular stall, it is really hard to get up and down. I can’t squat. Imagine if you were confined to a wheelchair and needed the room to turn around and the rails to get in and out of your chair? And when you are shopping at the grocery or some huge box store, just getting around those huge stores to get what you need is exhausting and painful. You really do need that spot by the door. People glare when they see you using a handicapped space when you’re not in a wheelchair. And you know what? The stores give you those spots by the door, but you have to walk (what feels like) a mile to return the cart, after struggling to get through the store, because they don’t put any cart corrals by the handicapped spots. I’ve also learned not to make assumptions about the driving ability of people with handicapped tags in their car window. My driving isn’t impacted by my hip pain.
I don’t like to give my limitations much attention. I try not to talk about my hip too much, because it’s just easier some days to try to ignore it and drag the left leg along. But the thing is, it’s getting harder to ignore. Saying all of this out loud (in writing) is a huge step for me. I have said for several years now that I would get my hip(s) fixed when I could no longer walk. Well, I struggle to walk and I live in pain. Sitting, standing, walking, sleeping, waking, driving, dining out, going to the bathroom, getting dressed – it all hurts. I know I am at the point where I have to get the surgery. But I am just so afraid.
Everyone keeps telling me, “Think of how much better you will feel once you have this done,” and “My friend’s Mom had a hip replacement and she runs and plays tennis every day now.” I get it, but I can’t seem to get past all the what if’s and fears. I would say I am in a better place with the thought of it now than I was a year ago. And I hope to get strong enough mentally this year to get my first hip replaced and get on with getting better. Until then, I’ll be trying to get my head out of the sand I have had it buried in all these years.