On August 3, I had surgery to remove an osteochondroma, which is a small bone mass that occurs in 3% of the population and usually shows up near joints like knees and elbows. Mine was just below the knee on the proximal tibia and was shaped like a hook, as you can see in this X-ray image.
In 2004 or so, back when I was in middle school, I first noticed one day when I bent my right knee and found that I couldn’t straighten it out, as if there were some sort of tendon holding it locked past some angle. Naturally, my parents and I were freaked out; I remember my dad canceled his business trip the next day out of worry that this was something serious. It turns out that, by the next morning, I had figured out how to unlock my knee by bending it as far as it would go, rotating my whole leg inwards, and then straightening it out in this contorted position, thereby bypassing whatever was locked like a perfectly oiled key. From that point on I went about my days like normal, except my knee locked up dozens of times a day, and dozens of times a day I manually unlocked it with this key-like combination of leg thrusts. As a budding engineer I imagined this to be some kind of mechanical defect in the joint, and in some ways it was even exciting to be discovering how to make a flawed machine work, like knowing the best place to slap the side of the old TV to make the static go away, or the right intensity of air to blow through the N64 cartridge to make it play. A few weeks later I had an MRI, and after reviewing the results, the doctor passed it off as a meniscus tear typical for young athletes and ordered an arthroscopic surgery, three scopes into my right knee. I recall having a pretty bad reaction to the general anesthesia and spending a few miserable days in bed, but upon return to middle school, it was actually pretty fun to be temporarily handicapped, to receive the undeserved concern and attention of your classmates and teachers for just as long as it was graciously offered. In retrospect, that first surgery was completely useless on account of a misdiagnosis, but probably because of inflammation of the entire area, the problem seemed to have been solved. My right knee was no longer locking, and I had enjoyed a few months of indulgent importance.
In 2007 or so, probably somewhere on the football field during marching band practice, my left leg locked for the first time. A few days later, a second doctor noticed something odd on the standard X-ray; on the bottom corner of the image, away from the actual knee region where the previous doctor had focused his inspection, this doctor noticed a strange hook shape right where the tibia narrows from the knee to the long, slender section of the bone (just as I showed above). As he demonstrated, this hook was snatching a specific set of ligaments as they passed over the ridge during bending. Now that I was focused on the right place, I could literally feel it happening under my fingers, like a buckle snapping shut. Suddenly, it became clear that the previous surgery had been pointless, that the source of the locking was still present on both knees, and that the only solution was to actually go in and shave off the hook. I remember feeling nowhere near as curious or fascinated about my predicament; rather I felt the first tinges of a deep melancholy, the kind that I suspect permeates old age, as the unfortunate surprises of our genes all come out into the limelight. It was an early warning sign of the facts we cannot change, the consequences with no one to blame.
My second knee surgery went much more smoothly, given it was less invasive to the knee joint itself, and within a week or so I was hobbling across the football field during early morning marching band practice, shouting comments at my snare line as they trotted across the yard lines, trying to maintain a straight file with a gap where I was supposed to be. About a week later I was back in that gap, surprised by how fast my body recovered from its disability. Having conquered one osteochondroma and lain dormant the other, I was back to being limitless.
Only a year later, I felt a pain in my abdomen and a strange lump in that high school boy’s treasure trove of euphemisms. (The official diagnosis was an inguinal hernia; I called it a third nut.) Whether it was because I was carrying a thirty-pound snare drum for hours a day, or because I was a bit too trigger-happy with my first 24 Hour Fitness gym membership, I was back to despair over this body that was holding me back from my responsibilities as a leader in my drumline, from enjoying my youth without fear of complications. My third surgery was the worst, involving cuts into my abdomen, and left me bedridden for many more existential days.
Almost ten years later, on the eve of my 25th birthday, I was hanging out with friends in Inner Richmond when I felt something shift in my right knee, and a familiar locking sensation. I knew perfectly well how to unlock it, but to my surprise, my remaining osteochondroma was back with a vengeance, locking dozens, maybe hundreds of times a day, basically every time I bent my knee past 90 degrees. I suspect it had something to do with my recent uptick in ski trips this past season. That was about five months ago. I visited a new doctor here in the city, my first time navigating the health care system on my own, and knowing the drill, he and I both went straight to surgery options. We set the date for early August.
The surgery itself felt more nostalgic than anything, that particular luminosity of hospital waiting rooms, the massive exposed sensation of the surgery gown, the speed at which everything seems to move as you enter the operating room and see all the hands move like clockwork to get you into position. As she put a cold fluid through my IV, the anesthesiologist asked me what kind of music I like listening to. I said indie music, folk acoustic. She asked if the Lumineers was fine. I said sure. As “Flowers in Your Hair” started playing, she told me I was about to feel something hot and spicy move through my system. It felt more like a dull, heavy pain begin to seep through my arm. Somebody placed the oxygen mask over my mouth. I don’t remember hearing the end of that short song. About two hours later I woke and, just as I recalled from my past surgeries, could not feel the passage of time, the way you’d feel after sleeping the same amount of time. I had goldfish and animal crackers, just like I remembered. This time, instead of my parents being there, I waited for my friends to come pick me up. I felt good enough to head straight to dinner, and then head over to the East Bay to spend a few days with Boanne and her mom taking care of me. A weekend of Netflix and Wii games, and then I was feeling good enough to return to work at Stanford. I used one crutch on Monday, and none for the rest of the week. A few swabs of rubbing alcohol over the bandaged stitches twice a day, a slight limp wherever I went.
Yesterday I went to the doctor one last time for a post-operative check-up, and the doctor saw that everything was healing properly. The only complication I seem to have is a slight numbness in the nerve that he had to move aside during surgery; apparently it can decide to go to sleep for weeks or months before waking up again. It’s a small price to pay for being rid of a lifelong annoyance. Although, ironically, it’s really hard to break free of the habit of unlocking my knee every time I think I have locked my knee, even though it theoretically will never happen again. I suppose I will have phantom osteochondroma for quite some time.
Four surgeries down; many more to come. If I’ve come to belief anything bone-deep, it’s the following. We should never take our able bodies for granted. We should never take the accessibility designs of our built environment for granted and treat those with disabilities with the utmost compassion. And we should be with who we elect to manage our health care, in more ways than one.