I had the first inkling something was wrong about seven years ago.
My knees and ankles started to hurt walking down the hard ice of the Hooker glacier, and I didn?t want to jump crevasses, preferring to sit on my backside and slide. But this is what happens when you hit middle age, I convinced myself. Everyone?s like this. Don?t be a wimp!
I continued climbing- two seasons in Alaska (2002 and 2003), a hard expedition in India in 2004 and expeditions to China/Tibet in 2005 and 2006. All with the aid of double doses of codeine. I realised the pain wasn?t going to go away, but at least I could cover it up.
Then in the summer of ?06/?07 I was walking out down the Hooker Glacier (I like the Hooker Glacier) on a hot day. My knees had me wincing and I knew something was going on with my right ankle. By the time I got home, the ankle was thick and swollen and I could hardly walk.
Next day, the doctor said, ?Hmmm! Ugly ankle,? and sent me for an X-ray in the room next door. The radiographer clipped the x-ray up on the wall and squawked in astonishment. Doctor, come and look at this! The doctor exclaimed ?How are you managing to walk on this ankle? It looks like you?ve broken or dislocated it in the past and its healed all up the wop!?
Even I could tell there was something very odd about the joint. It was like my whole foot had been shunted to the right, leaving the leg behind on the left. The subsequent MRI scan and visit to a surgeon confirmed the worst. Fortunately this particular surgeon is renowned for his innovation, and enthusiasm for all things complicated, and he rose to the challenge. ?I can fix you by doing (this and this and this) but your climbing days are limited.?
I went away saying I?d think about it.
Then to add insult to injury, a couple of months later I was limping off the front side of Barrier Knob when I felt something go ?ouch? in my right knee. Lydia and I had been over the back side to try a multi-pitch rock climb and failed miserably. The knee was puffed up by the time we got back to Homer Hut. A few weeks later it was no better, so I went back to see the doctor, who rolled his eyes. You again.
?I think you?ve probably got a little tear in the meniscus,? he said. ?By the way, how?s the ankle??
Another MRI, some physiotherapy and I was just resigning myself to some gentle arthroscopic surgery to tidy up the meniscus, when the doctor called me with the results of the scan.
?Not looking so good,? he said. ?What?s left of the meniscus has pulled completely away from the bone and there?s a hole the size of a 50 cent piece in the cartilage so bone?s rubbing on bone, and you have all the signs of advanced osteoarthritis.?
I was gob-smacked!
?But I?m off to Pakistan in a month.?
Lydia and I had been planning the expedition for a year, and off we went, with an extra porter to carry my narcotics. There were times when I was slow, but I could mostly keep the pain under control. But arriving back in Islamabad at the finish of the trip I went cold turkey on the anti- inflammatory?s and that?s when I realised what a bad state my knee was in. I crawled through the airport terminal onto the plane.
A month later I headed to India, for what was to be another heavily medicated expedition. Bruce and I made a successful ascent of an unclimbed peak, but I was taking more and more painkillers and limped the entire length of the Gangotri Glacier.
But hang on! It was my leftknee that was giving me trouble this time! My left knee? I texted Lydia on the sat phone just to be sure.
?Which knee were you massaging (Lydia is a physiotherapist) in Pakistan.?
?Your right knee, you wally!?
Waiting in Delhi to fly home, I had to catch rickshaws while Bruce walked.
Back in New Zealand I went through the whole process again?doctors visit, X-ray, MRI scan?but for the other knee.
?Your left knee is not quite as bad as the right,? the doctor said, ?but close. Advanced osteoarthritis??
At this point things were starting to overwhelm me.
I couldn?t get an appointment with Mr Innovative/ Enthusiastic Surgeon for months, but a friend managed to wangle me a visit with another surgeon in Christchurch. He was about 60 and looked comfortably smug and wealthy. My mother, who had nursed with his father, also a surgeon, came with me for moral support.
?Complete double knee replacements and take up swimming,? he said, staccato.
Despondent, I found another surgeon, but he said the same thing.
By this stage my appointment with Innovative/Enthusiasm had come round and not holding out much hope, I went along. He read my notes, looked at my scans then bounced from one foot to the other flapping his hands.
?Okay,? he said. ?This is what we?ll do. A Hemi-Oxford Compartmental Knee Replacement on the right and a Tibial Osteotomy on the left. We?ll have you back climbing in no time! When shall I book you in??
I was dumbfounded! Here was someone who wasn?t telling me to take up swimming (which by the way I hate). Who could see me continue to climb till I was an old, old lady! Dumbfounded-ness gave way to enormous relief as I considered the prospect of continuing to totter up mountains well into my eighties.
But there was one small hitch. I was due to meet Malcolm in Pakistantwo months hence for another attempt on the mountain I?d failed on the year before. Obviously not enough time to recover from a Hemi-Oxford Compartmental Knee Replacement, so I resigned myself to another six weeks in Pakistan a la Ibuprofen. I managed, but arrived home in more pain than ever before. I booked myself in for my first operation.
That was four months ago, and I now have a Brand New Titanium Hemi- Knee!
The surgeon says I?ve made a remarkable recovery and I?m in the thick of planning to head for Pakistanin June. We have an exciting objective!
The surgeon thinks my left knee has deteriorated to the point of needing a replacement rather than an osteotomy, but I don?t mind! Apart from a few painful post-op days, it?s been a breeze. I?m told I?m twenty years too young for this operation and the replacements will need replacing within my life time?.but I don?t care. The next one will be that much better?technology is on my side.