Lasting Pain, Enduring Hope

I wear a knee brace almost every day now. I hate  wearing it but I hate the pain more so every morning before work I strap it on. It makes my pants bulge and my ankle swell but it takes some of the pressure off of the arthritic medial compartment of my knee joint. Most of the protective cartilage on that side of the knee has eroded away and my treatment options are limited. The hope is that in addition to relieving the pain and allowing me to walk and exercise the brace will slow the progression of the arthritis and delay knee replacement surgery for several years.

It has been a difficult mental adjustment. It seems like only yesterday that my legs were the strongest part of my body. It would be better to say they were the only strong part of my body, for when I first joined a gym at age 19 I couldn’t bench press much more than 100 pounds but I could leg press the entire weight stack. I wasn’t strong but I was quick and light on my feet. I played in softball and basketball leagues and loved it.

I did not know it but sports playing days were numbered. The decline began when I tore an anterior cruciate ligament playing flag football in medical school. I was a slow learner, as 6 surgeries over the next 14 years did not teach me that I should avoid flag football. I tore my other cruciate ligament playing flag football with friends on New Year's Day 1999. At the age of 38 I should have known better.

When I tore that knee ligament I also tore my medial meniscus, the shock absorbing cartilage inside the joint. In 1999 the treatment was surgical removal of the damaged area. Doctors now know that removing a meniscus leads to arthritis later in life. I was smart enough to know that I could develop arthritis in the future but I never expected the future to arrive so fast. Arthritis has arrived and my life has changed dramatically. In the summer of 2014 Lisa and I would take nightly walks down to the beach, walking a 3-4 mile loop. It was the highlight of every day. This last summer I never even tried it. It was not worth the pain.

The arthritis has brought with it something else I did not expect. It has brought a sense of mortality and an awareness of age. I am almost 54 years old and have been married for 33 years. I am dealing with the reality that my life is halfway over and that another 33 years are by no means guaranteed. I have found myself wondering what I will be able to do when I get older, whether I will be physically able to do all of the things that I want to do, even most of the things I will need to do. The clock is ticking.

I see my older patients differently now. I recently met a new patient who at the age of 75 cannot walk across the room without experiencing severe pain in her arthritic knee. Her heart, lungs and mind are healthy but they are trapped in a body that cannot walk around the block. Cooped up at home, she is isolated, lonely and battling depression. After hearing her story I had my staff call an orthopedist to get her in for a visit as soon as possible. I did not want her to have even one more day of pain.

My pain has impacted my faith as well. It serves to remind me of the futility of pursuing earthly success. No amount of effort can change my ultimate physical reality. No matter how hard I try I have to accept the truth that we all get old, we all break down and eventually, we all die. My only hope for enduring health and happiness lies in the next life, not in this one. I have always known this but living with pain is an effective reminder of the truth expressed by the Apostle Paul- “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

Paul's words are encouraging. The sufferings of this life are real and can seem overwhelming. Paul tells us that the joy and glory that await God's children is exponentially greater than the pains we endure now. My pain causes me to consider and embrace the eternity that awaits. This pain enhanced understanding of life brings hope instead of despair, for this is what looking forward to eternal life brings. 

-          Bart

Thanks for reading, and for sharing with others. Comments are welcome.