Before I Forget

Knees, don’t fail me now

‘Girl, you can do it!’—Have them replaced

Showing off bandaged knee with nephew Jared and niece Machiko at a cafe at Camp John Hay

The handy walker, useful for two surgeries spaced two years apart

I remember the year—2014—when my knees started acting funny. My eldest grandchild, then a toddler, and I were singing and acting out the nursery song Hokey Pokey. We reached the part You put your whole self in (we made the motion of jumping in), you put your whole self out. That was when I was stunned into near immobility. I couldn’t jump back on my two legs. I didn’t want to alarm three-year-old Kai so I slowly put one leg out, followed by the other, while breathing through my mouth. I asked for a timeout.

At age 59 then, I had it coming. I was overweight by at least 50 pounds—that put pressure on the knee joints. In my 30s I exercised twice a week by joining a jazz and aerobics classes at the Julie Borromeo Dance Arts Studio in Mandaluyong. I huffed, puffed and sweated it out with the rest of my classmates, but what I failed to do was take glucosamine and calcium supplements for my bones and joints.

Then there were the Cariño genes on my father’s side to blame. Lola Purang and her sister, our grandaunt Apo Loly, were nearly bow-legged from the pain of arthritis, but they were a stoic pair and continued to do house chores and church duties without complaint.

When it looked inevitable that I would have to walk around with a cane, I got one, the one my mother, another proud creature, refused to use to help her right herself when she was outdoors or in unfamiliar territory. I brought the folding cane everywhere I went and put it aside only when I was in our Pasig or Baguio house where I could calculate the space I walked in.

I thought a simple rehab would do the trick apart, from drastically changing my diet (fat chance in hell there) and lifestyle habits (too much sitting before the computer, for one). But the first orthopedic surgeon I saw took one look at how I hobbled with the cane into his clinic and pronounced, “You need to have your knees replaced.”

I felt that I could still explore other remedies, even a palliative one like Salonpas

That turned me off. I never returned to consult that man. It was only 2015—I felt that I could still explore other remedies, even a palliative one like Salonpas which I stuck on both knees on some nights when the discomfort wouldn’t let me sleep. The menthol coolness soothed me, but the feeling was temporary. I read somewhere that soaking my knees under a running hot shower could be another cure. Again the relief was temporary.

While holidaying with cousins in Palawan, we enjoyed a moonlight soak in Maquinit Hot Springs. After an hour or more in the water, we emerged recharged. I felt that I had experienced something like the miraculous waters of Lourdes, because I walked without difficulty. The feeling passed. Still, I was able to gauge how well an airline treated a person with disability (PWD).

My friend Anna Leah Sarabia recommended an acupuncturist, Dr. Dino Ruiz, who worked from a home clinic in Quezon City. I made sure I’d go there early on a Saturday or a weekday to skip the traffic. Not afraid of needles, I submitted to the treatment, including being hooked up to a machine that helped cleanse the body of toxins. At the end of the hour-long session, Dr. Ruiz would give me a towelette so I could wipe off the grease-like substances that came out of my legs. The more of these that were wiped off, the more effective the treatment was supposed to be. This time the relief lasted several days. I could let go of my cane and walk unassisted.

Came a time when standing at any length of time, even just while frying breakfast eggs, was not tolerable anymore. Even before the eggs could sizzle, I would seek a nearby seat to relieve my knees of my upper body weight.

My brother Dennis recommended his fraternity brod Dr. Jose Miguel Lumawig, an orthopedic surgeon, adding that maybe steroids might help me.

Doc Lumawig first ordered X-rays of both knees. Looking at the plates, he said I had stage four osteoarthritis, the end stage of the condition, and I didn’t need an MRI to confirm that. The alternative was total knee replacement. I could temporarily try steroids, which I did, until I reached a final decision. He was sympathetic—“Bakit mo iniinda yung sakit (why do you endure the pain)? You can have a good life.”

After consulting with my husband and daughters and checking what my then health insurance would cover, my first right knee replacement was scheduled for early March 2020. I checked in at the Medical City on March 2, a date I picked only for the reason that it figured in the title song of Camelot. I wanted the pain to exit like the snows of winter: The winter is forbidden till December /And exits March the second on the dot.

The ortho residents measured how far I could fold the affected knee while I stood straight against the wall. Not much, plus I could hardly balance myself. I was advised to take a full cleansing bath before the 7 a.m. operation the following day and to get a good night’s sleep. Husband Rolly accompanied me up to the door of the operating room.

I could hear hammering and sawing sounds, even the surgeon’s instruction, ‘Hand me the mallet’

The anesthesiologist assured that she’d put me to sleep. What happened was I woke up in the middle of the operation. Although there was a curtain separating me from what was going on below my chest, I could hear hammering and sawing sounds, even the surgeon’s instruction, “Hand me the mallet.” I couldn’t feel a thing, but hear them, the doctors and the construction sounds, I clearly did. Before long, the anesthesiologist noticed that I was conscious and whispered, “Close your eyes. I’ll put you to sleep again.”

I forcibly shut my eyes. My hands were literally tied so I couldn’t cover my ears. When I awoke, I was int the recovery room where I stayed for almost the rest of the day. I tried to wiggle my toes so I could be released to my room already, to little avail. I guessed that I must have been pumped full with anesthesia after I awoke in the midst of an operation, and recovery was longer.

Back in the private room, I recalled feeling thirsty and famished. There were oranges brought by friend Dr. Melen Araos who visited twice, the next time bringing puto Calasiao, a favorite. I think a patient gets stronger faster when she’s able to feed herself with food she favors. Can’t forget the box of mamon brought by concert organizer Joseph Uy. As I marveled at its softness and sweetness, he modestly said it just came from a neighborhood bakery.

This was pre-COVID-19 lockdown so visitors and watchers came and went. I remember the visit of writer Alma Miclat and sculptor Julie Lluch. Thoughtful Alma left a card with P2,000 inside. She didn’t have to, but because she did, my sister Pinky was able to buy a folding walker for me at the nearby Mercury Drug. I needed that for my physical therapy (PT) which began almost immediately after the surgery. Jenny Llaguno popped in before I was wheeled down for my first PT. These visits boosted my spirit, they were kicks in the butt that said, “Girl, you can do it!”

The PT team of Medical City was made up of humorous individuals who meant business. I couldn’t forget Don who took one look at the pair of Havaianas my sister Embeng gifted me pre-op and which I was wearing. He said, “Ma’am, pagkatapos ng PT sessions niyo, titiyakin ko na ninipis na yang tsinelas niyo (after the PT sessions, I will make sure that your slippers get worn out and become thin)!”

After I checked out, I religiously went for my PT until one morning, someone from the rehab center called the house to say that because of the pandemic and lockdown, subsequent, out-patient sessions were cancelled. I was on my own with my new right knee—I learned from Doc Lumawig how to clean it, change the dressing, keep the fresh wound from getting wet while I carefully showered. The stitches eventually dried and were absorbed by the skin.

I was to have had a follow-up consultation with him after 10 days. Even that was cancelled by the pandemic. I did what I remembered of the exercises at home, looking silly before my siblings as I walked to and from the living to the dining room, back and forth until I earned a good sweat.

I thought that I could continue the rehab in Baguio, but even going home to my family there required permits. The Barangay Kapitolyo health office nurse monitored my temperature daily through text. I got a permit to travel from the local police and Pasig city hall. When my daughter Kimi drove down to pick me up, 100 days had gone by and I was two days shy of my 65th birthday.

Baguio was on strict lockdown. Kimi and I reported to the triage area on Naguilian Road before heading home where Kai met me in tears. It was the longest time we were ever separated, she being my kasiping (bed companion).

All was well with the one good knee I had—I rested on it while standing, I stepped first with it when I rose from a sitting or lying position, etc. Doc warned me about the left knee acting up once the right was fixed. Indeed, that happened in 2021-22 when I grew dependent on a cane again. Rolly had taken to parking the car at PWD-designated spots, and I’d alight from it with a lot of groaning. Only he was privy to my complaints about how tedious it was to live every day with discomfort. Doc earlier observed that my tolerance for pain was high. If only he knew!

By this time, our private health insurance had expired, Kimi and Kai had moved to the States, Rolly and I were complete empty nesters. In November last year, my second grandchild was born to our youngest daughter Ida. As the months flew by and we watched the baby’s development in Facetime and FB Messenger, it became clear that Ida would need help in minding little Poppy, if she were to resume work as a teacher. But how could I fly to the rescue, cuddle Poppy, wash or bathe her if my left knee wasn’t in good shape?

I gratefully sang to myself a verse from The Sound of Music: ‘Somewhere in my youth or childhood /I must have done something good’

Ida decided to be fulltime mom while her child was an infant. She and husband Jordan sent what was to be one fourth of what Rolly and I would spend for my second knee operation. Kimi sent another fourth, while I gratefully sang to myself a verse from The Sound of Music: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood /I must have done something good.”

Philhealth and my senior citizen card took care of discounts, while the savings Rolly and I accumulated over two years from editing and writing gigs, his SSS and GSIS pensions saw us through.

This time, I told the residents to relay to the anesthesiologist my previous experience. Please sedate me well, I begged. Once again, Rolly escorted me up to the entrance only of the operating room and rubbed my arm up and down to assure me all would be well. The attending nurse said, “Ang sweet ni Sir!”

Another nurse told me before the anesthesiologist took over, “Breathe in and out deeply. Don’t forget to pray.” I was still conscious enough to hoist my body a little to transfer from the gurney to the operating table. I looked at the clock: 7 a.m. sharp. Then I shut my eyes and passed out. At exactly noon (I still checked the wall clock), I saw a resident raise the left leg, heavily bandaged and supported by compression stocking, to a 90-degree position. I didn’t feel a thing.

I knew what I had to do in the recovery room: Remain conscious, wiggle my left toes, try to move it until sensation returned. Only then was I wheeled back to my room. Like my 2020 operation, Doc Lumawig described the procedure coolly, “It was uneventful.” No complications, not even my elevated blood pressure and sugar presented problems.

What the doctor, therapists and I weren’t able to do in 2020 because of the worldwide pandemic, we are doing this year through monthly checkups to find out how the knees, replaced with a chrome and cobalt alloy, are doing. I am still in the midst of sustained, twice-a-week PT that now involves use of gym equipment for knee curls, knee extension and leg press, stationary biking, treadmill, doing squats against the wall and holding them to a count of 10, balancing on a rapper board, exposure to a super inductive system, a healing enhancement machine that feels like I’m being electrocuted.

If one is an elderly without health insurance other than Philhealth, one pays through the nose at every consult, PT session, even gas and cab fare when meeting appointments. Friend Gigi Dueñas de Beaupre, when she learned of what I went through to get on both my feet again, told of how her spouse Thierry’s cancer treatment in the French West Indies—everything, including the cab that fetched him and brought him back home—was paid for by the government. Yes, they shelled out a few thousand Euros, but it was nothing, she said, compared to what her Filipino compatriots with the same ailment need to spend.

Reading poetry on her feet

My desire to walk and stand normally was reinforced by visits of friends. In August, my fourth book of poems Moon Hanging Low Over My Window was released by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Alma suggested we hold an informal launch and potluck lunch in our Pasig home on Aug. 29, National Heroes Day, a Monday, two days after I was discharged from Medical City.

Book signing with (clockwise) Alma Miclat, Menchu Aquino Sarmiento, Pablo Tariman, Julie Lluch, Geraldine Maayo and the author

I signed their books with a flourish of my fountain pen, we ate, traded stories, I read aloud a couple of poems. When it became too warm in the veranda, we moved to the living room and sang a capella, except for a baritone who had to do Some Enchanted Evening with minus-one accompaniment.

That evening I realized that somehow I was once more living fairly pain-free and with joy.

On her first trip outside the house with next year’s golden jubilarians of St. Paul College Quezon City

About author

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She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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