I was not entirely sure what to expect in terms of recovery. My surgeon warned me that the first two weeks would be a write-off, and I should expect to feel tired and unable to concentrate on anything for very long. After this, he predicted I would gradually have more energy and vim.
The hospitals’s pre-op education session was excellent for generic information and tips, but every specific question about recovery was answered with a catch-all reference to the rules with an acknowledgment that everyone is different and will be advised by their surgeon on what they can and cannot do.
The recovery information was definitely pitched at the most cautious level for the lowest common denominator. We were left with the impression that we were all facing the same 12-week endurance test.
And yet, looking round the room, I was struck by how different we all were in terms of size, age, general health and underlying fitness. Amongst others, there was a very young, healthy-looking chap in his early 40s, there was a wheezing octogenarian facing a third joint replacement operation, there was an older, very obese man in a wheelchair who was not able to walk. Although we were all facing the same operation – total hip replacement – it was simply counter-intuitive to believe that we would each experience an identical 12-week recovery given the variety of our start points.
Confession time. I am a devoted Strictly Come Dancing fan. When it was announced that judge Craig Revel Horwood would be having his hip replaced in late October, I became more interested in watching the progress of his hip action than the dancing. Who could fail to be impressed by the incredible speed and success of his recovery? Each week I was on Craig-Watch noting each bit of progress:
Week 1 – he stayed in his glittery, high-backed judge’s chair and looked a bit peaky. He was dressed, upright and coherent which I took as a good sign.
Week 2 – he joined the judge’s upstairs for “Len’s lens” using elbow crutches and sitting on a cushion with his operated leg out straight. He didn’t say much, but was clearly mobile and with it.
Week 3 – he was down to a diamanté-encrusted stick and still sitting on a cushion. He took part fully in the chat and seemed to have all his acerbic faculties back in place.
Week 4 – he was walking aid-free and was generally more animated and mobile throughout the show.
Week 5 – dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, he whirled and twirled his way across the dance floor as part of the opening sequence before taking his seat. Astonishing.
Craig Revel Horwood set the hip replacement recovery bar very high and seemed to make a mockery of the doom-laden warnings. It was my fondest wish to breeze through my post-op experience in exactly the same style. Well, maybe minus the orange tan and definitely less jazz-handsy.
I know it’s obvious, but the reality of recovery is completely individual. It’s probably not much use comparing yourself to others as their situation may be very different to yours. When I was still in hospital, many of my fellow Ward 5 inhabitants had had surgery many days and in some cases weeks before me, and yet many were quite bed-bound and seemed, to my ill-informed eye, slow to recover. There may be all manner of reasons, complications and individual experiences of pain that affect individual progress.
I do count myself as one of the lucky ones, having been set free on day 3 post-op, complication-free, and with a little bag of paracetamol and codeine tablets to take every six hours as needed.
I was thrilled to be home. My first experiences were very humbling, and it came as a massive shock to me (and my family) just how much help I needed at first. As soon as I got home, I managed to climb the stairs and then required a two-hour nap to recover from my exertions.
I quickly settled into a routine for the first week, but continued to be surprised by just how tired and debilitated I felt. Getting up every hour or so and promenading around a bit on my crutches was satisfying, but exhausting. I did feel quite vulnerable particularly if no one was home with me. I took to carrying my phone with me and making sure that friends with keys to my house were on standby in case of emergency. I was particularly concerned about falling or dropping my crutches and being stranded. I certainly didn’t feel sociable and found it too tiring to sit and chat with others for longer than 20 minutes or so.
And despite feeling so tired, the long, deep, restorative sleep I craved stubbornly eluded me. I slept in two or three-hour bursts with uncomfortable, achy stretches in between. My leg was still a bit swollen for the first week, and the golden rule of sleeping on your back didn’t help. After a few hours of remaining fixed in this position, my leg would begin to ache – around my knee and the outside of my thigh – badly enough to wake me and then to keep me awake.
I am hugely grateful to my lovely family who have looked after me superbly well and with great patience. I have tried to become a patient patient and to express my sincere gratitude for the many kindnesses Mike, Harry and Annabel do me on a daily basis. However, I have once or twice, felt really ratty and frustrated with my limitations. It is hard to wait for your body to catch up with what you want to be doing.
I am now at two weeks post-op, and, although I don’t feel back to normal, things have improved significantly. I am able to walk around easily and can manage on one crutch. Stairs do not hold the fearsome power to exhaust, and I no longer need a nap after climbing them. The District Nurse came to remove my dressing and to check my incision. She was very impressed with the “very small, very neat” incision and its healing. I celebrated by having a shower which felt marvellous. I am able to concentrate better and can visit with friends and family. Sleeping is still uncomfortable and patchy, but I am stringing along slightly longer bursts of sleep.
These were my week one and two recovery life-savers which I commend to you:
1. Ice packs – ah, the bliss of an ice pack on your operated leg is lovely. A friend recommended frozen peas as more malleable and less leaky than ice cubes. I have stuck with ice, but can confirm this requires at least two zip-lock bags, following an unfortunate but comical incident involving a leak, a hair dryer and an electric under blanket.
2. Pillows galore – have lots of pillows to help you sleep. I have two large bolster cushions and two normal pillows to keep me more upright. Mimicking a hospital bed makes the forced stay on your back slightly easier to sustain. I also have a firm pillow on its side for between my ankles to prevent me turning or crossing my legs. I will be so glad when I’m allowed to move around again in my sleep!
3. Have a table by the bedside with: drinks, painkillers, mobile/iPad charger, snacks and blood thinning injections all to hand.
4. Have a sturdy bin by the foot of the bed to hold crutches, the helping hand/grabber and shoehorn. Ideal for preventing your aids from falling to the ground. Have another bin by the toilet to make sure your crutches are always handy.
5. Set your phone alarms to remind you when to take tablets and injections. I found this important in the first week when I was napping a bit and could not remember when I last took a paracetamol. I became more sophisticated by assigning an apt song for each alarm. The time for painkillers is heralded by a rousing chorus of “Paradise” by Coldplay, and the loathsome, painful injection time is preceded by “Do The Bad Thing” from the Arctic Monkeys. I have not discovered a secret to pass on to help with the injections. My stomach is horribly bruised. Even after two weeks I have no idea why some injections are hideously painful and bruising and why some are only very painful and slightly bruising. My technique must be rubbish, but so far nobody else is interested in trying to do better.
6. Keep your mobile with you at all times, particularly if you are on your own. This is important if you have a fall and for peace of mind if you feel a bit unsteady.
7. Use travel mugs with a lid for hot drinks. The lid keeps the drink hot for longer and makes transport less leaky. I credit this tip to my friend from Ward 5 who is very inventive and creative. She has designed a tool belt for her Zimmer frame from which she can hang the handles of three travel mugs and assorted other items with ease!
8. If you build a rapport with fellow patients in hospital, exchange numbers so you can text once at home. I found it a great help to keep in touch with others going through the early stages of recovery at the same time as me. There is no pressure to reply, but we are able to check in, to swap ridiculous stories and to blow off steam.
9. If you have an iPad or a laptop, load it up with iPlayer downloads or, if you have it, Sky Go programmes. For me, this has been an absolute lifesaver, particularly given my intermittent sleep patterns. Whoever invented this technology deserves a medal and eternal thanks from house-bound, immobile insomniacs like me. Before my operation, I thought I had been rather clever in timing my recovery to coincide with The Ashes. The England performances have been so dire that had I been watching as planned, I might have relapsed. Anyway, Sky Go very thoughtfully provides countless films and box sets as an alternative to Ashes depression. I have enjoyed The Thick of It (absolute genius), Rescue Me, The Sopranos and The Wire so far. Thank you, Sky Go!