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 —
Opinion

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.

This whole experience taught me three things:

Empathy

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.

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.

  1. pat Burgess  

    I am 74, and have had 7 major surgeries in the last 8 years, and at least 6 BCC removals from my face between 2003 and 2011.

    I recovered from them all, some with more residual pain than others. I even spent 12 months on a new slow release medication called Palexia. from September 2105-October 2016 – after the third food operation on the same foot.

    The last operation in June 2016 has not been a success story. It was a reconstruction of a shoulder reconstruction done in 2009, and I have still not recovered the use of my arm without a lot of pain. I was a little better in November, but an overenthusiastic Physio (who treated me like a footballer) set me back many weeks, and I have been unable to get back to where I had been.

    this is a problem to me as we are about to get on the train for WA, and it is difficult for me to do many things, and even still painful to dress myself.

    I don’t think my brain has suffered too much, but what do I know. I still have old phone numbers set in my brain, and can tell you what happened when, many years ago, but I do sometimes wonder what I went into the other room for.

  2. linus  

    When’ I couldn’t walk for long three months after similar surgery I thought I was being silly, then I met up with a large group of people who had all experienced similar extended problems. I wish doctors and physios admitted more often to the pain. A knee replacement nearly killed my mother, particularly as she had it the thursday of Easter. She blew up like a ballon and all they gave her were directics and mind blowing pain meds. I eventually got it sorted with new staff came on on the Sunday. My physios admitted that 1 in 5 knee replacement cause considerable pain. I believe my husband is that 1. It was a success . But the his other joints are stuffing up.

  3. Kay Feain  

    Due to Endometriosis I have had well over 30 operations including 7 bowel resections and now suffer chronic small bowel obstructions.
    The medical staff who best understand are those who empathise due to experience or natural empathy are the best medics.
    On some occasions the pain post surgery was nowhere near as severe as pre surgery but in later years since no further surgery is an option the pain is almost unbearable.
    I had an allergic reaction to a hospital strength antibiotic which gave me a minor stroke which is my legacy.

  4. I’m presently on the waiting list at the Monash. I need 2 hip replacements and 2 knee reconstructions/replacement. I’m due to see an orthopaedic surgeon at the Monash in March.
    both hips and knees are bone on bone so taking strong medication to ease the pain.
    I’m actually terrified at what they will do and how long before I gain proper use of them, and how quick they do them after each op

  5. Greg Ryan  

    On the 5th of October this year, l had a double replacement. The reason for this was due to having all four knee cartlidges removed by age 14.The reason for this was due to weak knees which resulted in the cartlidge tearing. I,ve just turned 60, so from age 14 to the present i,ve been bone on bone.The operation has resulted in a complete life changing experience.some of the previous comments regarding pain are correct, but with proper medication the pain in some ways can be managed in some ways.I was never out of complete pain as the intense exercises that must be done to enable a better life style must continue well after the operation.

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