A Delightful Medical Experience

The most recent silence in this space is not the product of either over-work or laziness. Rather, I have been preparing for and undergoing arthroscopy on my left knee. In the interest of not wasting experiences, I'll tell you about it. Then tomorrow I'll tell you about a much more pleasant experience, the new Hou Hsiao-Hsien Flight of the Red Balloon.

Since so many of you have been so solicitous of my health and since I hate having to answer the same questions over and over, allow me to take the liberty of an e-mail to everyone that will bring you up to speed on my knee operation and its aftermath thus far.

It would give me no end of pleasure to say that this operation, arthroscopy for a torn meniscus in my left knee, was the result of hard-fought wars on the playing fields of Central Park and Long Island. However, as my orthopedist (who is one of the Jets’ team physicians) rather drily noted, “Eighty percent of adults over the age of 50 have similar tears. It comes from being over 50.” Needless to say, I’m just thrilled to be able to brag that . . . I’m over 50. Thanks, Doc.

So Monday early morning – and I mean early, 6:35 a.m. – I checked into Manhattan Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital for surgery that was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. That is not an elaborate typographical error; Manhattan ENT was merged into the Lenox Hill complex several years ago and they now do other kinds of surgery as well as the original list. I was kind of disappointed, ‘cause I thought maybe doctors had discovered some new, elaborate path connecting your sinuses to your knees, but that turns out not to be the case.

The staff at the hospital are uniformly pleasant and friendly and I have to say that for all the time I was there – and we didn’t leave until 2:30 in the afternoon – I have no complaints whatsoever or, rather, none that have to do with the people. I could do without some of their taste in daytime TV and piped-in music, but what can you do.

I had no idea what to expect as far as the actual procedure was concerned. I assumed they wouldn’t just give me a local and tell me not to wiggle around while they drilled holes in my knee. That assumption was correct. But they wouldn’t give me a general anesthetic because I have a history of sleep apnea and apparently there is concern that the apnea might have a bad effect on the anaesthesia or vice versa. So they gave me a spinal.

And that was a treat. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s friend, a newspaper editor who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Asked how he felt, he told Twain, “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d have just as soon walked.” If it weren’t for my intense sense of medical curiosity (heretofore non-existent), I would have passed up the spinal.

The first time the anaesthesiologist tried to administer it, I became nauseous and started having violent dry heaves. That was the moment at which another surgeon, my doctor’s partner and an old high school classmate of mine, walked in to say hello. He took one look at me, said, “He’s turning white, I’ll come back later,” and left.

Everyone waits while the idiot in the surgical gown tries to calm down enough to be sedated. (Where are the Ramones when you really need them? Well, I guess I didn’t really want to be sedated.) Second try and I’m telling myself that this is absurd, a simple and non-threatening procedure. They swab my back with some germicidal liquid that is obviously kept in the freezer before being applied to a human body, and a mild topical solution that numbs the skin. We’ve gotten that far already and I didn’t realize what would come next: the nice man in the mask sticks a needle into my spinal column and pushes down the plunger.

I don’t know if you have ever had a spinal anaesthetic. If you have then you know what it feels like and that’s good because I’m not sure I can articulate the sensation in words. Essentially, it goes beyond any conventional pain into some other region, some metaphysical arena where you feel something like the earth rocking on its axis. And when the needle is withdrawn, you have that feeling again. Goody.

I hadn’t slept the night before, so now I was over-tired, overwrought and rapidly losing all feeling below my waist. I think I wanted to cry but didn’t have the energy. Other than hearing R.E.M. doing “Losing My Religion” on the radio in the O.R. I don’t remember much else. The actual procedure must have taken about 40 minutes. When they wheeled me into the recovery room, I was exhausted and giddy. I had no feeling in my legs, my butt or my male organ – I couldn’t even tell if my legs were straight or bent, even though I was looking right at them.

The feeling comes back in the most peculiar pattern – waist first then feet and up the legs, then finally midsection. My ass was numb almost until we left the hospital. We took a car service home and I was in agony all the way because there wasn’t any good place to extend my left leg.

Since then, for the past day and a half, I’ve been basically living in the living room and my office, with the convertible sofa open. This morning – Wednesday – was the first day that I went downstairs for a shower and took off the dressing on my left leg. Other than two small incisions, stitched up now, and the fact that they shaved my knee, the leg doesn’t look any different than it did when we left the house Monday morning.

As for the aftermath, I’ve gone from needing a cane to walk even with difficulty and pain, to being able to get around pretty much normally, albeit very slowly and awkwardly and with some pain in the knee still (mostly muscular and that will pass, too).

I expect I will be back to my normal routine after the weekend, with PT added to it. The Tribeca Film Festival starts soon and the pre-fest screenings are already underway, so I’ll probably be running down there frequently. Hey, I wrote and filed a story Tuesday morning even though I still was dopey from the procedure and the painkillers. Work is work.