It’s time to find out what the hell is going on with my left knee. I can no longer straighten my leg. I limp. A recent x-ray confirmed the depressing news that I have severe osteoarthritis.
And so I find myself on a sunny Wednesday morning at Kaiser Permanente, my lower extremities clad in a pair of baggy blue paper shorts extending nearly to my shins.
An efficient and handsome doctor’s assistant, whose name badge identifies him as “Hector*,” takes my blood pressure. Then he takes it again.
“Let’s try the left arm,” he suggests. I don’t ask what the readings are, and he doesn’t tell me.
Shortly afterwards, the door bangs open and a skinny, great-grandfatherly guy – my orthopedic surgeon – shuffles in. Bald as an egg, he bears a striking resemblance to Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart), only a good ten years older.
“I’m Doctor Melrose*,” he says, and extends a gnarled hand so purpled by varicose veins that at first I think he’s had it tattooed. I shake it gingerly, not wanting to hurt him.
He perches on a low stool, clipboard balanced on his thighs. The questions commence.
– How long has my knee been bothering me? (Years.)
– Do I exercise regularly? (Yes.)
– What did I do for a living? (Nothing.)
– What did I do in my spare time? (A bad novel in progress, a little volunteer work.)
Our conversation is interrupted by a knock at the door. It cracks open enough to reveal a pleasant-faced woman with a helmet of smooth brown hair. She peers around the corner. “Oops, sorry,” she apologizes, and beats a hasty retreat.
Without looking up, the doctor gestures for her to come in. Intent on his notes and unaware that she’s left, he continues to beckon the now closed door.
Finally, he raises his head. “Now where the dang did she go?” He gets up and totters out the door. “Back in a jiffy,” he promises.
I sit on the examining room table, contemplating my visibly swollen left knee and wondering if I could make it through a short run that afternoon. Soon enough, the good doctor returns, the brown-helmeted woman in tow. Like a naughty child, she is relegated to the corner, where she stands silently for the duration of my appointment.
“OK, let’s check out that knee,” he announces. “Walk in circles.” I obey. “Now jump in place.” Done. “Stand on your tiptoes.” Sure, why not? “Squat, please,” Ummm, no thanks.
After poking, prodding and rotating both of my knees, Dr. Melrose moves to the computer to pull up my x-rays. “Dang thing,” he curses under his breath. He punches away gamely at the keyboard for a minute or two. “Aha!” he says proudly. “Got ‘em!”
I stare at the ghostly, gray-and-white images of my knee bones on the wall-mounted screen while he points out various imperfections. To my untrained eye, both knees look perfectly fine.
“Here’s thing,” he begins, settling back onto the short stool. “You got osteoarthritis in your left knee, and it ain’t ever gonna get better. All we can do is keep it from getting worse over the next thirty or forty years.”
“Yes, but I’m a runner …”
“What’s that? Could you speak up?” he shouts, cupping his left ear.
I clear my throat and start over, more loudly this time. “I really enjoy running, and hiking, too.”
“No, no, no.” He shakes his head. “No more high impact exercise. Biking, walking and swimming? Yes. Running? No.”
“My husband and I do a lot of hiking,” I venture.
“Hiking? Best to just hike uphill. With poles.”
He continues to natter on while I try to figure out how, exactly, I can manage one-way, uphill hikes. A helicopter? Chair lifts? Piggyback rides from Frank? I imagine my blood pressure by now has risen to pre-stroke levels.
There is a little more back and forth after that, but really, what more is there to say?
Once seat-belted inside my car, warm tears begin to leak from my eyes. To some, giving up running would be no big deal. And on the Richter scale of my incredibly privileged life, it barely qualifies as a tremor.
But to me, running outdoors isn’t a sport; it’s a joyous, transcendent state of being. When I run, I feel free and strong and fast. The fresh air on my face, the easy rhythm of my arms swinging by my sides, the accelerated throbbing of my heart, the steady, labored breathing … together, they produce an intense exhilaration, a Zen-like sense of invincibility: Nothing is beyond my grasp. I can run forever, write a bestseller, save the world.
My cheeks are still damp by the time I arrive home. Ten minutes later, my phone rings.
“Dr. Montrose here,” a familiar voice barks into my ear. “Just following up … your blood pressure’s a little high, so I’m going to let your doctor know. Say, what do you eat?”
“Ah, let’s see, toast or cereal with fruit…” I begin.
“OK, so you’re a healthy eater,” he interrupts. “Now, my doctor has put me on a plant-based diet. Best thing I ever did, real easy to stick to. You might want to consider a plant-based diet …” We chat for another minute or two.
Fifteen minutes after we hang up, an email from Kaiser Permanente pops up, informing me I have a new message from my doctor. I log on. The message is from Dr. Montrose:
I enjoyed meeting you today, and just wanted to remind you not to forget about the blood pressure. Probably just nerves –but –best to keep an eye on it. I recommend that you concentrate on the exercise bike and I think your knee will thank you for that. Let me know about the novel. I’m a wanna be writer too — nothing published but always torturing my kids with stories. Let me know how it goes with your knee.
I stare at the message on my screen, and smile in spite of myself. It could be a hell of a lot worse, I remind myself. You could be facing total leg amputation … confined to a wheelchair … subjected to expensive surgery gone awry, living out your remaining days in a vegetative state.
That afternoon, Frank and I go for a ten-mile bike ride. During the last few miles, I notice how the setting sun creates a papaya-colored halo around an enormous, multi-lobed cumulous cloud floating just above the horizon. The air is spicy with the smell of rain-drenched earth and eucalyptus trees. An orange cat with a bushy tail crouches on the white railing of a front porch, soaking up the last of the sun’s rays. My cheeks are chilled, my thighs warm.
But my knee doesn’t hurt. Well, not much.
And who knows? Perhaps next year – or the year after – an amazing cure will be discovered. There may yet be miles to run in my future.
*No, silly – of course I didn’t use real names.