Twenty-five years ago, I had surgery on both my feet to remove arthritis that attacks the joints in your big toes. Its Latin name means “stiff toe” and it’s genetic. Two of my aunts had the same problem. DNA being what it is, I inherited it. I seem to have inherited everything.
The problem hit me in my late 30s. I was taking dance classes and all my joints swelled up. It turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis, so I figured my feet were part of the same issue. My RA has always been mild and intermittent. It’s the spinal osteo-arthritis — the result of the spine surgery I had when I was 19 — that hit me hard and continued to get worse.
When the swelling in my joints went down, my feet didn’t get better. Finally I went to an orthopedic guy and it took him about five seconds to diagnose the problem. Hallux rigidus. Not rare. Sometime inherited, sometimes from overuse of the joint. I didn’t have time to deal with it and decided to let it wait.
Fifteen years later, walking had become difficult. You’d be surprised at how important your big toe is to walking comfortably. I could go the surgical route (which the doctor was very much in favor of because there was big money in joint-replacement surgery) and have the joints in my big toes replaced. The only toe joints they had then (there have been huge improvements since) were plastic. Sturdy plastic, but under the right circumstances, breakable. Garry and I were both taking riding lessons. I had a vision of me jumping off the horse and crushing one or or both of my plastic toe joints.
I said “No thanks, I’ll live with it.”
Ten years further down the road, it was hard to walk. I had to do something. I had a new doctor. He gave me cortisone shots. The first shots worked very well. I got a good four or five months of relief. The second injection got me about half that amount of time. The third one, the doctor said it would be the last. It wasn’t working and I was going to have to give in and go for the surgery. There was good news, though. Instead of replacing the toe joints, they would remove the arthritis. Literally cut it away from the bone.
“Will the arthritis grow back? How long will this last?” I asked.
“Twenty years. Probably longer,” he said. The best thing about this treatment was I would have my own joints. No plastic.
“Well,” I thought, “In 25 years, I’ll be too old to care.” Who knew?
Usually surgery was done on one foot at a time so you could get around on crutches, but I was working and didn’t have time for two surgeries or the healing each would require. We lived in a triple-decker condominium in Boston, so I would have to go up and down the stairs on my butt.
Which is what I did. My computer room was on the second floor with the kitchen, dining area and living room on the first floor and our huge bedroom (bath and walk-in closet included) on the top floor. Both my feet healed in about three weeks. Ah, youth!
Recently, I noticed my toes were swollen. I thought it was from the heart surgery. This morning, when I woke up and both feet were throbbing, I realized I had outlived the surgery of 25 years ago. The arthritis had come back. That’s why my toes are swollen.
It turns out your body is like your house. There’s no such thing as fixing something “permanently.” Sooner or later, it has to be done again.
It turns out, you never get too old to care.