Monday, December 6, 2010


I come from a long line of bullet biters. My mother and all of her siblings were taught not to give in to pain – to bite the bullet and keep going, no matter what. They were raised to believe that Mother Nature would take care of whatever was ailing them, so there was no need to rush off to a doctor. I had an uncle who once used duct tape on a gash that clearly needed about 150 stitches.

That’s probably why I’m a notorious procrastinator when it comes to seeing a doctor when I’m feeling pain. The past few weeks were a prime example.

I banged my right knee on several different occasions – playing with the dogs, lugging groceries into the house, looking through boxes of junk in the basement. The first time I banged it, I felt the knee move to the left. It was sore for a couple days, but then it seemed fine.

The second time, I felt the knee move again, this time accompanied by a sharp pain shooting up into my inner thigh. Again, I ignored it and continued to do everything as usual, including taking a daily walk.

But after the third time, I started to suspect I probably wouldn’t be spending an evening ballroom dancing any time soon.

Each day, the pain got worse, despite my efforts to get rid of it. I tried heat, ice, an Ace bandage and elevating the leg, but nothing worked. If I twisted my leg even slightly, I emitted a noise that sounded something like a coyote during mating season.

The final straw came one night about a week ago when I went to a store in downtown Concord. There was nowhere to park near the store, so I ended up parking about three blocks away. As I walked toward the store, I felt twinges in my knee, but I bit the bullet and ignored them. When I headed back to my car, however, the Queen Mother of all pains shot all the way up my leg. I plopped down on the nearest bench.

I sat there shivering in the cold until I got brave enough to try walking back to my car again. The pain was even worse. The coyote sound returned as I barely made it to the next bench.

I had visions of my stiff, frozen body being found seated on the bench the next morning, my blue hand extended toward my car, only 50 feet away, my face contorted into a hideous expression of pain for eternity.

When I finally made it home that night, I vowed to call a doctor in the morning. I made an appointment for two days later.

In the meantime, I made the mistake of checking out my symptoms on the Internet. I learned that my knee pain could be caused by anything from severe arthritis to a torn ligament, or even a tumor, all of which required surgery. I immediately panicked.

“I’m going to spend the holidays in the hospital and then at physical therapy!” I whined to my husband. “Maybe I should wait and reschedule my appointment until January.”

“If you do, you’ll be stuck paying the insurance deductible first, because it will be a new year,” he said.

I kept my appointment.

The doctor took x-rays of my knee, then put it through its paces. I immediately deduced that the man was a sadist as he twisted, pushed and shoved my leg around as if it were dough and he were making pretzels. Every time I cried out in pain, he nodded and smiled, as if he’d hit a jackpot.

“Your symptoms are practically textbook for an MCL – medial collateral ligament – tear,” he said. “It’s a ligament on the inner side of the knee that helps keep it stable. We grade the tears on a scale of 1-3, with 3 being the worst. Yours is about a 2.5.”

I rolled my eyes and wondered how I was ever going to make it through the holidays if I couldn’t even drive my car. Surgery on my right knee would all but guarantee I’d either be confined to the house or forced to venture out with my husband, the king of diuretics, who has to visit a restroom every 15 minutes.

“But there’s good news,” the doctor’s voice interrupted my moment of self-pity. “Of all the ligaments you could have torn, this one usually responds well without surgery. You’ll just have to wear a leg brace for six weeks and you should be all set after that, no problem!”

I couldn’t believe my ears. For the first time in years, I’d actually done something right – I’d torn a self-healing ligament. I made a mental note to buy a lottery ticket on the way home.

The doctor handed me some paperwork and then told me to go upstairs to some brace company to get fitted with the brace. He made an appointment for me to return in three weeks so he could check my progress.

I headed upstairs, eager to get the brace and begin the healing process.

“Well,” the woman at the desk said, “First we’ll have to get approval from your insurance, which can take up to 14 days. Then we’ll make an appointment for you to come in and be measured for the brace. After that, it will take about two weeks to make it. Then you’ll have an appointment to come in for the fitting.”

My eyebrows rose. “That’s a whole month! In the meantime, I’m supposed to limp around with a flopping ligament? Surely that can’t be good for it?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but that’s how long these things take.”

Upset, I rushed (well, hobbled) back downstairs to the doctor’s office and told him what was going on.

“Are they kidding?” he asked. “Let me see what I have here in the way of hinged braces.”

He dug up a big, black rubber torture device with metal rods on the sides. It was about as comfortable as tourniquet filled with rocks. The thought of having to wear it for six weeks made me want to throw myself at his feet and beg for mercy.

The brace and I have since become mortal enemies. It not only sticks to my skin and makes it sweaty, raw and itchy, there is an opening behind the knee that’s like a tight, rubberized cut-out circle, that pushes the fat behind my knee right out through it. The back of my knee looks like one of those cans of refrigerator biscuits after you bust it open and the dough pops out. It not only looks ugly, it really hurts.

When I complained and showed the popping-out fat to my husband, his expression clearly told me he wasn’t about to say, “Hey, baby, you really look sexy tonight!”

Instead, he said, “Isn’t there some way you can push it back in?”

I have tried everything, like wearing cotton pantyhose and even taping the back of my knee, but once I slide my leg back into the skin-tight brace, everything I put around my leg either bunches up or falls off, and the fat pops out again. Even worse, the brace doesn’t fit underneath any of my jeans or slacks, so I have to wear baggy sweatpants.

But once again, I will bite the bullet, and in five more weeks my leg should be just fine.

And then I’ll probably slam it in the car door.