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Knee Adventures: Joe Namath and Me

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Knee Adventures: Joe Namath and Me

Picture of Sue Luttner

An earlier draft of this essay on my lifetime of dislocating patellae ran as a Newsweek My Turn column in 2007.

I prefer the edit below, and this forum allows me to include an astonishing x-ray of my bent knees from above.  Even in blue jeans my knees are not nearly as photogenic as my son's, so I used his for the title art.

On My Knees
Coming of Age Unstable
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

I am orthopedic history, walking.

My tale begins with a tragic hopscotch injury in the fifth grade. I’d sailed over the 5 and 6 squares and was coming down on the 7-8 pair, one foot over each, but as I hit asphalt, on long, skinny legs near the end of a growth spurt, both knee caps popped around to the outside and I fell down, screaming like a little girl.

My patellae pop back into place as soon as I straighten my legs, which I must have done instinctively that first time. A few blocks away, our family doctor told my mom to apply ice and keep me horizontal until the swelling went down, and he warned me to be careful.

Cocky quarterback Joe Namath was a cultural icon at the time, always in the news for another night-club sighting, MVP award, or knee surgery. While Joe triumphed on the field and in the headlines, though, I was sidelined. Both knees kept dislocating, and I learned to avoid running, dancing, high heels, stairs, and careless stepping off of curbs. I hated being a spectacle, so I tried to stifle the yelps and learned to straighten that leg on the way down.

Advantages emerged. After I was knocked from behind during somebody else’s tussle in the girls’ locker room, I didn’t have to take PE anymore. Add the pencil-thin thighs and a shared identity with a football hero, and I counted the knees a fair trade-off.

Now I realize I should have been exercising those legs—walking, bicycling, lifting weights, giving my quadriceps every chance to bulk up, especially during those key developmental years. Instead, I was wearing sensible shoes and reading.

Broadway Joe, meanwhile, was playing with titanium implants on Astroturf, and western science was gearing up to abolish hunger and conquer space. Surely I was a good candidate for the miracles of modern medicine.

Just before my 17thbirthday, then, an orthopedic surgeon performed one of many variations on the “Hauser procedure:” He shaved off a slice of each femur, with tendons attached, and grafted them back on, a bit to the inside. Then he encased my legs safely in a pair of ankle-to-thigh plaster casts, and I spent the summer on the couch with Ursula Le Guinn and Ray Bradbury.

When the casts came off, my legs felt naked, vulnerable, flimsy. I took a few terrified steps across the examining room, afraid to let go of the table. Annoyed, the doctor sent me home with a note excusing me from PE for another year, by which time I would be out of high school.

Surgeons have since abandoned the Hauser procedure, which doesn’t resolve instability and leaves a tendency to hyperextension. My knees continued to dislocate, but my college student-health center, thank the merciful heavens, knew about physical therapy. I became a regular in the basement gym, sharing the Jacuzzi with the football players and racking down the weights for my turn on each machine.

Thirty-five years, two teetering pregnancies and a few minor surgeries later, both knees are still unreliable—and the right one has serious range limitations—but I’m still walking to the drug store and even hiking, as long as I spend hours each week focusing on my quads in the gym.

Which brings us to the era of knee replacements. These days surgery centers advertise new knees in the daily newspaper, promising 3-D computer optics to guide the surgeon's knife and prosthetics designed "just for women." One friend's husband is not only running and skiing again but rock climbing with his new knees.

Rock climbing? My goals are less lofty. I started believing that when things got bad enough, I could get a knee replacement. I kept that comforting thought right next to the chronic ache behind my right knee.

Then this past January I stepped on a patch of ice, and my right patella was out in a flash, tearing a medial ligament as it went and knocking me on my butt. My doctor sent me to an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford, a specialist in reconstructing damaged joints, who surprised me. A knee replacement, he said, wouldn’t address the problem, which is my inborn joint geometry and my stretched tissues.

Joy: No knee surgery, even on my beleaguered right knee. Despair: Doomed for the rest of my life to watch every step, and to make time for the gym every other day. Oh, but wait, the gym is a benefit, like the flats that freed me young from the yoke of fashion and the afternoons I spent in high school recording times for the also-rans on the track team. I clocked runners who knew they were never going to win but tried their hardest race after race, always eager to know if they’d bested their own records. I marveled at the time; now I understand.

I also know now that my knees are more than a fair trade-off: They’re a blessing. They taught me to listen to my body, and to keep a protective eye out for the other stragglers. They taught me to wire plastic flowers to my crutches and enjoy watching other people dance. They remain my inoculation against the lure of easy answers and common knowledge.

As for Joe Namath, I read in the paper the other day he was seen striding across the field on plastic knees. I rejoice that both of us are still walking.