A doctor finally realises what it's like to be a patient

On the January 12, I went in to have an arthroscopy on my right knee — a minor procedure — or so I thought. These last years I had been very active; skiing, cycling, swimming and hiking with occasional recurrent knee pain; it didn’t stop me, so I continued as usual.

Then on New Year’s Day, we decided to take a 5km hike rather than cycle in a gale-force wind. Little did I know what an effect that hike would have. Within 24 hours my knee blew up like a balloon, twice the size of my other knee. An exercise of any note — even walking — became tough.

I saw an orthopaedic surgeon who already had the results of a previous MRI of the knee, and he indicated the only short-term solution was an arthroscopy to remove bits of cartilage and smooth out a torn area of the meniscus. It seemed pretty straight forward. The expectation was that I would be able to start doing light exercise after several days and then get back to swimming after two weeks.

All seemed fine for the first two days and then I began to experience something: severe pain. This pain was not in the knee joint but my thigh. Along with the pain, severe bruising of the leg became apparent. The surgery involved blowing up a tourniquet placed on the thigh to reduce blood in the knee joint during the surgery.

The pain was like no pain that I had experienced; relenting and most severe at night which made for many sleepless nights, even with the significant use of painkillers. Over the ensuing days, the bruising spread in and around the knee and even into the calf. The surgeon recommended another MRI but thankfully no joint damage was apparent. What I was experiencing was a type of crush syndrome from the compression of my thigh muscles during surgery. What I thought would be a minor nuisance, took on a life of its own.

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This whole experience taught me three things:


The situation made me think back to patients that I had seen over the years in private practice and the experiences that they related to me. It’s very easy for health professionals to discount what patients are telling them. I was now living the experiences that many of my patients had related to me. Unless you live through something, you may not appreciate how real it is. I could now empathise with others who were having similar experiences.

Appreciating the Pain-Pleasure Principle

Because of the prescribed medication alcohol was contraindicated and so I abstained from even a glass of wine. Essentially, my whole lifestyle was affected. I was aware of the Pain-Pleasure Principle. The pleasure of having a glass of wine was no unimportant compared to the pain of other complications that alcohol could induce. The avoidance of pain entirely controlled my day-to-day activity. This unexpected adversity was a great learning moment for me.

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Every Medical Procedure Has A Risk

Whether surgery or drugs, every medical intervention is fraught with danger. We are all as different on the inside as we are on the outside. What may be a blessing for one person, may be a curse for someone else.

I can remember many years ago my father went in for what should have been routine surgery. During the administration of his anaesthetic, his heart developed an arrhythmia and the surgeon cancelled the procedure. It took some time to revive him, but ultimately he was okay.

There is no such thing as simple surgery. Anytime you cut into the body or submit to general anaesthesia; you are entering a risk zone. There is some research indicating that a general anaesthetic destroys some brain cells and increases the likelihood of dementia. Interestingly, I have no memory before a tonsillectomy at age seven.

While a surgical procedure may be vital, be aware of the risks. In most cases get a second opinion and give yourself greater certainty that you are pursuing the right decision.

Have you had surgery? What happened?

This piece was originally published on Starts at 60 as ‘If you think surgery is simple — think again’. It was one of our most popular contributions by the Starts at 60 community in 2016.