Decade N° 5: A Not-so-Average Blog on Middle Age
Tips and advice for a surgery brought on by style.
By Carrie McConkey
Bunion. I hate the word. I’d always associated a bunion with a wart — an unwanted growth. And no one wants an unwanted growth. But somewhere along my life’s journey I developed hallux valgus — a bunion — on my left foot. Not a growth, but a pronounced protrusion that occurs when the bones in the front of the foot have shifted out of place. Although I thought it was hereditary (my Mom had them in both feet), I most likely brought it upon myself from wearing my trademark pointed-toe pumps. A lot.
My most memorable heel wearing days were in college, when I traipsed around Carson-Newman University’s campus all dressed up in heels with a black, flat-brimmed hat. I was channeling Christie Brinkley in Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl video. Although I did make quite an impression in my Freshman English class, I was setting my feet up for challenges in the decades to come.
I was lucky not to have felt any pain or discomfort due to the bunion, just the embarrassment of a misshapen foot on the beach or in sandals. But when that same foot suffered a stress fracture in 2017, the risks of the condition became clear. Dr. Chris Testerman, Foot and Ankle Surgeon at the Knoxville Orthopaedic Clinic, gave me forewarning that the bunion was preventing my foot from functioning properly, and other complications may arise. She sternly advised me to revisit my choice of footwear, and recommended Lapiplasty — commonly known as a Bunionectomy.
I put off the surgery, but I knew I was rolling the dice. In 2020, when I turned 50, my conscience nudged me to move forward. And why not? This was the year of feeling old anyway; let’s throw in something to remember it by (besides Coronavirus).
Since this was my first elective procedure (my only other surgery having been a very unplanned appendectomy on Thanksgiving Day 2018), I thought it would be a small bump in the road. I physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared as much as I knew how, and thought that life would go on as usual with the exception of one foot being out of service. Instead, let’s just say it was a character-building experience. So, for the sake of my young female friends who haven’t yet damaged their feet from wearing shoes that are more pretty than practical (and my older mates, for whom it may be too late), these observations made pre-surgery and in the days following are for you.
Smart Moves Ahead of Time (Thank You, Me)
Several weeks before the procedure I began researching ways I could get around in a splint. I discovered a marvelous video on YouTube by “SJ”, a sports-loving Australian who ruptured his Achilles tendon in a pickup basketball game. In an entertaining 16-minute video shot in his son’s bedroom (complete with a racecar track covering a large part of the floor, which SJ nearly trips over), the energetic athlete reviewed nearly every choice available in mobility aids, including axillary (traditional) and elbow crutches, a scooter, and the iWalk knee crutch. After watching SJ’s video more than once, I decided upon crutches.
In the days before my surgery I focused my fitness on upper body strength for the crutches, and stability for my feet and ankles. Ironically, the same workouts — Barre, Core, and Barbell — that I had “settled” on due to my age turned out to be far more valuable for surgery prep than the rigorous plyometrics and kickboxing I’d been addicted to years before. The lower impact workouts focused on flexibility and balance, which came in handy after I returned home and began twisting, reaching, and hopping around the house like a carnival acrobat.
Practice Makes Perfect
I bought my aluminum crutches a week before the surgery, and started practicing. Not only did I have ample time to adjust the crutches to my height (and strangely long arm length), I was able to practice navigating around the tight corners of our 50s-era ranch house (and thank goodness for it being one level). Most importantly, I learned in which nooks and corners were handiest to tuck my crutches once I’d reached my destination, so they wouldn’t go clattering to the floor every time I sat down.
Cleaning Things Up
I didn’t have time to do a full-fledged cleaning of the house, but I hit the major spots and the areas which usually are neglected (i.e., mopping). I worried at the time that I was preparing too much, but later I was grateful. Not only did it make things more pleasant when I had to steady myself by grabbing rarely-touched places that tend to get grungy between cleanings, it also lessened the blow as I watched the house slowly become dirty again, knowing that another good cleaning would have to wait.
If I Had to Do it Over Again (Not Saying That I Want to)
While my conscientious workout routines were helpful, there was one aspect of training that never crossed my mind. After days of using the crutches with my left leg bent at the knee to support the heavy splint, my thighs and hip flexors were on fire. Increased quadricep exercises would have been super helpful — along with wearing ankle weights around the house.
Scootin’ Things Around
I’m going to admit it: one of the reasons I chose crutches over a scooter was because I thought I’d look more badass. I’m not sure how the badass part worked out… after all, crutches are typically used by young, vibrant teens who tore their ACL kicking the winning soccer goal, not middle-aged women who wore ill-fitting shoes. My arms did seem to benefit, but cooking with crutches was another matter. In other words, it was impossible. There was no way to prepare food or carry items. I took to leaning my knee on a stool, bending over awkardly to pull it, and myself, around the room when I needed to make my way to another part of the kitchen. In hindsight, a scooter with crutches attached would have been perfect — a steady, dependable home base, along with more nimble transportation — like an RV towing a car.
Speaking of food, I was talking with my sister Paige and she asked if I’d prepped any meals in anticipation of the surgery. Huh? Oh, yeah — meal prep — that concept honed by organized mothers, and so FOREIGN to moi. I still can’t wrap my head around all of the ways I could have made my access to food easier. If it weren’t for my husband taking pity on me, I may not have lived to tell about it.
Pre-surgery, I pictured myself with my foot perched on a cute, fringed pillow. Nope. The back of one’s knee can start feeling strained and stretched pretty fast without support. I ended up using two pillows in the bed — a standard-sized bed pillow to rest my calf and foot upon, and a second, travel size pillow to bolster my knee. What I would have loved is one of the full body pillows that could have supported my entire leg.
There is no such thing as a foot hat — I made the word up. But that’s what I needed when my tootsies got cold as they peeked out of the splint. Even the biggest sock wouldn’t fit, so I ended up digging a beanie out of our winter hat and glove drawer. It was too big, so I used a hair clip to keep it on. (I know. Super stylish.) Had I bought a youth size, I’m sure it would have been perfect.
I’d been “working remotely” since the surgery, trading my home office chair for, well, the bed. Being able to spread out and keep my foot up was a godsend, but the paraphernalia that ended up strewn across my sleeping space was maddening. I purchased a bedside caddy which handily housed most of the clutter but was still slim enough that I didn’t stumble over it with my crutches during a middle-of-the-night bathroom run.
Surgery Supplies That I Might Even Miss
I reluctantly ordered a shower stool, wincing at the elderliness of it all and settling on one that was at least happy-looking in white and aqua blue. Putting it together was worse… how can a person with a Master’s degree not know how to screw legs together? But that little gem ended up being the key to my daily existence (read: hygiene, which I NE-VER forego). The chair was all over the bathroom — in the shower supporting my plastic bag-clad leg stretched out behind me, in front of the sink to rest my knee while brushing my teeth, and as a seat while applying lotion or inserting my contact lenses. I grew to love and respect that practical seat and will probably sew a cushion for it once this is all over, retiring it to a place of honor somewhere in the house.
The Crutch Touch
My YouTube friend SJ tipped me off to Crutcheze Crutch Pads, which consist of soft foam pads and stretchy slinky knit covers for the underarm and hand grips. I took the foam out of the underarm pieces and just used the knit cover, which offered a smooth solution to the grippy rubber that kept getting hung up on my clothes. I didn’t initially use the hand grips, and eventually forgot about them, although I wish I had slipped them on as my palms ended up getting a bit sore.
A Place for Everything (Almost)
While shopping for the Crutcheze pads, Amazon conveniently showed me what other folks had purchased for their similar foot-compromised experiences. The Crutch Bag carried rave reviews, and ended up being one of my favorite purchases. The pouches designed for a water bottle, phone, and smaller items were a lifesaver. And, for those who know me best, they contained a lip balm at all times.
My dear Therapist, who proffered a surprising wealth of surgery advice, had warned me that bedcovers may be heavy and could pull on my splint — and he was right. Husband John came to the rescue at 2:00 am, retrieving a small, square cardboard box from the garage. He cut off the top, then one of the sides, leaving a little house of sorts to prop on top of my pillow to protect my foot. Although it ended up being quite a tower of pillows, cardboard, and bedding, John and I were both able to go back to sleep.
A New Beginning
Ten days after surgery, my post-operative appointment brought simultaneous exhilaration at being freed from the splint, and fear seeing what it had concealed… Frankenfoot, complete with angry-looking black stitches, blue-bruised toes, and swelling that reminded me of the crime scene corpses on my favorite TV show, Forensic Files.
Reading my eyes, Dr. Testerman advised me not to treat my foot like an alien, but to love it, protect it, and nurture it back to health. I’ve been taking her advice, and by spring I know I’ll have a slim, pretty, structurally healthy foot again. And although I can’t guarantee that my feet won’t be spotted in my pretty pumps, those moments will be carefully chosen, with a spare pair of running shoes nearby.