How the power of a promise motivated one man to do something about his health.
Posted in , Feb 22, 2011
Like a rock.
That’s how I was built. Football strong. Football was my sport in college. I played fullback for Tarkio College in Missouri. My wife, Pat, called me Jeff the Jet even after my playing days were over.
Thirty-some years later I was still like a rock—as in, I couldn’t move. That morning last January I sat stiffly in the cab of my pickup, watching my teenage daughter,
Brooke, my youngest, scramble up a rock wall with her friends at our church youth group retreat. I’d always climbed with the kids. Heck, sometimes I even beat them to the top. Not anymore.
I looked ruefully at the ice pack on my swollen right knee. I’d overdone it at the gym. Dr. Rizk, my new orthopedist, suspected a meniscus tear and said I might be able to avoid surgery if I rested and iced it. And that was my good knee.
My left knee I’d torn up at age 19, and despite a couple surgeries, it hadn’t been the same since. I was okay with giving up my dream of playing in the NFL. All I wanted was to be a good, strong, active dad.
I’d managed, with a truckload of Advil, to stay in shape and keep up with my kids so far. I played ball, worked out and hiked with them, and even got in some tennis with Pat.
I owned a family hardware business and loved my work, but all the years of pounding the concrete floor every day helping customers had taken a toll. Lately the pain had been getting worse. Some days I walked with a limp.
I was reaching for my trusty bottle of Advil when Brooke tapped on the truck window. “We miss you out here, Dad,” she said. “There’s nobody to make fun of. Can’t you come out and play?”
“Sorry, sweetie,” I said. “Gotta rest these old knees.”
“Okay, Dad. As long as you’re okay by next summer. We’re going back up that mountain in California, remember? You promised.” Brooke ran off to rejoin her friends.
My promise. Of course I remembered.
Five years ago, when Brooke was 11 and I was 50, we went backpacking for a week in the Sierra Nevada with a bunch of other kids and dads. We camped out, hiked deep into the wilderness, climbed to 10,000 feet, even rappelled down a mountain face.
Me and Brooke, toting backpacks that were almost bigger than she was. It was an unforgettable trip, an amazing father-daughter bonding experience.
“Dad,” Brooke said at the end of the trip, “this was the most fun I’ve ever had, even if there were some things, like the rappelling, that I couldn’t do well. Promise me we’ll come back in five years, when I’m sixteen and all grown up.”
“I promise,” I said.
Promises were sacred in our family. I’d never broken one to Brooke, and I sure didn’t want to start doing it now. Lord, you’ve got to help me here, I prayed. Help me keep my promise to my daughter.
It wasn’t like there was anything else that could fix my knees. I’d tried just about every option, surgical and otherwise.
Now it seems like every jock (pro or weekend warrior) has his knees scoped, but back when I wrecked my left knee at 19, arthroscopic surgery wasn’t the standard. My surgery involved actually cutting my knee open and left me with a huge, nasty scar but little relief.
I tried all different kinds of over-the-counter painkillers after that. I tried icing and rest. Strengthening exercises. Nothing worked. My left knee still clicked and popped, still hurt. “There’s not much we can do for arthritis, and young as you are, that’s what you have,” my doctor informed me.
When I was 30, I heard about a new arthroscopic procedure developed by a sports surgeon in Houston. Should I try it?
Pat and I had three young kids by then. I’d be out of commission for weeks, and the last thing Pat needed was a fourth person to take care of. But she insisted, “If there’s a chance it could help, it’s worth it.”
I had the surgery, and for about half a year my left knee felt pretty good. But then the old clicks and pops returned. So did the pain. There’s no cure, I thought. I’ll just have to deal with it.
I was used to playing hurt from my football days. For the next 20 years I toughed it out. Me and my bottles of Advil. But when I hit 50, the knee really deteriorated. Slowly, inexorably, I had to give up the physical activities that had defined my life.
Tennis went first. Then rock climbing and wilderness hiking. Just throwing a football around the yard with my two older boys required icing afterward.
Now even my good knee was a mess, and here I was sitting on the sidelines—okay, in my truck—while Brooke and her friends rock-climbed. Me, a competitor, reduced to a chaperone.
For a few weeks after the church retreat, I babied that right knee. When the pain didn’t go away, I went to Dr. Rizk again. An MRI confirmed a torn meniscus. “I can definitely fix it with arthroscopy,” he said with the same confidence as my previous doctors.
I was dubious. “I’ve heard stories about guys like me who have this surgery, and end up worse than before,” I told Pat. “They can’t jog, can barely stand in line at a movie.”
“You never complain,” Pat said, “but I know that your knee is killing you. Surely scoping has improved in the last twenty years.”
I had the surgery. Six weeks of daily rehab sessions later, the knee definitely felt stronger. I could do a vigorous workout on the elliptical, no problem.
One afternoon in April I stopped by Dr. Rizk’s for a checkup.
“How’s that right knee?” he asked.
“Better than I thought it would be,” I admitted. “A lot better.”
“I can help you with your left knee too,” Dr. Rizk said. “Have you ever considered a partial knee replacement?”
No way, I thought. That’s where I draw the line. I’d done a fair amount of reading on knee replacement. It was major surgery, requiring months of rehab—months when I’d have limited mobility. Plus, there was no guarantee it would work. It was a lot riskier than arthroscopy, after all.
Then I thought of the promise I had made to Brooke, to climb in the Sierras with her when she turned 16. I thought of that frustrating day in January when I’d had to sit out her church retreat.
Hadn’t I asked the Lord then to help me keep my promise to my daughter? What if this knee replacement was his answer?
At 7:00 a.m. the following Monday, I went into surgery. It was truly an act of faith. Four hours later I awoke to see two burly physical therapists hovering over me.
“Time to get up, Jeff,” one of the guys said. They helped me onto my feet. “Hold on to this walker to steady yourself. Now get moving.”
I gripped the walker tight, leaning on my arms. “It’s okay,” the other therapist said. “You can put weight on that left knee now.”
“Go ahead,” they urged. I eased my weight onto the knee and said a quick prayer. The knee held! They only wanted me to take a few steps down the hall, but I made a lap around the nurses’ station. “Can you walk backward?” they asked. I took one cautious step, then another and another.
Yeah! I felt like the old Jeff again. The therapists were amazed. “Nobody walks backward the first day.” Well, they didn’t know Jeff the Jet, or the power of a promise.
I went home the next day. I felt so good I must have covered miles crutching around the house. Not a click in my left knee, not a pop. Three days after the surgery, I told Pat, “I’m going for a drive.”
Before she could protest, I said, “I’ll be fine. I don’t have to use my left leg to drive.” Besides, I had an errand to do.
I drove to the sporting goods store and clomped in, using my crutches for balance. “Where are your hiking boots?” I asked.
The clerk tried not to stare at my crutches. “What are you planning on doing?” he asked.
“I have a mountain to climb with my daughter,” I said. A promise to keep, strong as a rock.
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