Patient gets weak in knees at thought of arthroscopic surgery


Due to a knee with all the consistency of yogurt, I was recently forced to undergo arthroscopic surgery.

The operation was performed at the Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center by Dr. Carl Johnson, a terrific surgeon who has done nearly 2,000 arthroscopies and could probably do one in his sleep, although he assured me he wouldn't doze off.

As best as can be recalled, these are the events that transpired:

10:30 a.m.: Like a good soldier, I arrive at pre-op right on time and am led to a series of individual examining cubicles. Nurse Peggy McDaniel delivers the bad news: I have to strip and wear one of those goofy hospital gowns. The ones that are open in the, ahem, back.

But apparently even this isn't enough humiliation -- I'm also required to put on a hair net and these little furry socks. Next they'll tell me I have to wear Groucho glasses, too.

10:40: Peggy returns and is polite enough not to break out laughing at the sight of me. Then she points out that I have the little socks on wrong. Given what is about to take place, this is not exactly a major concern of mine at this moment.

10:55: Peggy checks my temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs.

"His pulse rate's a little high. He's a little nervous," Peggy tells another nurse.

Damn straight, sister. A man is about to go spearfishing in my knee. Anyone in this situation who isn't nervous belongs in the psych ward.

11:00: Dr. Carol Baker, the anesthesiologist, stops by. She explains that I have two options.

The first is general anesthesia, in which you're put to sleep, but which could result in post-op nausea. The second option is a spinal, in which a thin needle is jabbed into your spine to numb you from the waist down.

Gee, they both sound so appealing . . .

Fearing the third option is "Or we could drop a large anvil on your head from three stories up," I go with the spinal.

11:20: Dr. Johnson stops by to say hello. He seems relaxed and confident. This is good. You wouldn't want to see your surgeon turn to a colleague and say: "I'm blanking out here. Once you remove the inflamed synovial lining, what else do you do again?"

11:35: It's time to go to the operating room. Drs. Johnson and Baker accompany me. I feel like the Death Row inmate making that last walk to the Chair between the warden and chaplain. All we're missing is someone warbling "Nearer My God to Thee" on the harmonica.

11:35: In the OR, Dr. Baker instructs me to climb on the operating table and lie on my side. This is it, I tell myself. She's gonna ram a needle the size of a harpoon into my . . .

At that instant, I feel a brief stick and then a warm numbness flooding over me. I'll tell you, if you're ever going to have a needle jabbed into your spine, I recommend this woman highly.

11:45: The operation officially begins. No whistle blows, no bell sounds. Instead, Dr. Johnson stands poised over my knee with his instruments, like a guy with tongs getting ready to toss a salad, then simply goes to work.

11:50: Arthroscopy is surgery inside a joint, the point where two bones meet. The orthopedic surgeon makes a small incision in the patient's skin and inserts a pencil-shaped arthroscope, a miniature lens and lighting system that magnifies and illuminates the joint. Using a miniature TV camera and screen, he can perform any procedures necessary.

Dr. Johnson invites me to watch on the monitor. Hey, now! We get some Cokes and Doritos going here, it could be like an HBO movie!

12:15 p.m.: Dr. Johnson says: "Look, there's the lateral meniscus!" in the same tone you'd use to announce: "Whale off the starboard bow!" Soon he's chuckling and sucking up the loose cartilage with what looks like a miniature vacuum cleaner.

Clearly, this is a man who loves his work. He's having such a good time, I'm half tempted to say: "Doc, knock yourself out and do the other knee, too."

12:30: In a moment of genuine exhilaration, Dr. Johnson cries out: "There're only two things in life better than this!"

Well, you don't want to be rude, so I say: "Doc, what two things are we talking about here?"

"Hunting and country music," is the answer.

Me, I'm more of a baseball and rock and roll guy. But since the man is now deep inside my knee with what look like two large knitting needles, I decide not to argue either point.

12:50: Uh, oh. There must be peyote in that IV line. Because I could swear I just saw Dr. Johnson banging at my knee with a hammer and chisel. Wait a minute, he is banging at my knee with a hammer and chisel.

"We're trimming bone spurs," another doctor says.

Boy, there's a giant leap forward in modern medical technology: A hammer and chisel. Next they'll be bringing back leeches.

1:00: The operation is over. A dressing is applied to the knee and it's wrapped in a thick, protective covering. I am wheeled into the recovery room and placed in the charge of a very pleasant nurse, Sheri Hess. All around me, patients are emerging from various forms of anesthesia.

I think: "You wanna wake these people in a hurry? Just whisper in their ear how much parking costs at the Outpatient garage. Believe me, you'll see eyes flying open all over the place."

But the spinal hasn't worn off yet, so I keep my mouth shut.

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