In my last column, dear readers, I referred to the total knee replacement I was anticipating. Now, over three weeks out from surgery, I would like to share the lessons I have learned from that experience. I will try to do this with a minimum of griping and complaining, in the knowledge that many of you have been through this experience and worse. Maybe some of the insights I’ve gained will resonate with you.
Lesson No. 1: Patience can be learned. In my February column I stated that patience has never been my strong suit. That’s still true, but I’ve discovered something while recovering from major surgery: with patience as with many other qualities, if you require it, you can acquire it. In these three-plus weeks since my procedure, I’ve learned to take one day at a time, or sometimes, five minutes at a time. Time slows down when you’re robbed of your usual routine, and you need to change your expectations. In the week after surgery, getting taking a shower and getting dressed became a major undertaking. But I had to tell myself “It takes as long as it takes.” Progress happens at its own speed, even when you push yourself. But patience is its own reward when you look back and see how far you’ve come in mastering daily activities.
Lesson No. 2: Measure progress in small increments. This is how we learn to be patient. When we give ourselves credit for tiny victories we get better at noticing growth. Three weeks ago, I couldn’t get off the sofa without my walker. Now I’m moving around the house freely without even a cane. With the help of my husband I’ve been walking outside a little since four days after surgery, at first with a walker and now with a cane and the support of his arm. When I’m tempted to feel frustrated — for example, in physical therapy — I need to remind myself that these changes came about gradually, but because I kept trying. I know that one of these days I’ll be able to bend my knee the ninety degrees that my physical therapist expects.
Lesson No. 3: Set small goals for yourself. Without my usual routine and with reduced independence, the day can seem to stretch endlessly ahead of me. But if I think in terms of smaller blocks of time, the hours seem less intimidating. It helps to have an unwritten “to do” list in the back of my mind: small household chores, phone calls, e-mails and reading goals that can fill the empty spaces that occur in the absence of my pre-surgery daily pattern. There are always constructive, small tasks to employ my time, even if they are as minor as sweeping a floor or cutting up vegetables for dinner. Life, after all, is nothing but small blocks of time building on each other.
Lesson No. 4: Pay attention to your mental health along with your physical health. There’s no getting around it: major surgery is a form of trauma. Both your brain and your body need to recover. It shouldn’t surprise you if you have increased anxiety in the wake of such a major shock to your system. This was true for me and I consulted with my doctor and changed my psychiatric medications a little. It is slowly helping.
Lesson No. 5: Kindness is the best medicine. My family’s and friends’ response to my situation has been a game-changer. Gifts of flowers, cards and food have meant the world to me. Some of them have been from people who’ve recently suffered major losses. Their thoughtfulness in the midst of their own pain is inspirational. It guides me through the moments when I wonder when things will ever get back to normal (or to a new normal?) My day is made when my neighbor across the street gives me a thumbs-up when he sees me walking. Mostly, I can’t imagine recuperating from this surgery without my husbands’ constant, patient support, attention and encouragement. I am so very fortunate to have him beside and behind me.
I suppose we are all in recovery from something. Whether it’s illness, surgery or a substance abuse problem, we all need to find the strength and patience to get through. For some, the situation is temporary; for others, it’s a life-long effort. But either way, recovery is a challenge to our self-love, and to our ability to accept help from others. Both are necessary if we are to begin anew. Starting over means taking one day at a time. That’s the opportunity and the challenge that recovery offers us.