It is well documented that I love climbing and other sports, and in 2007 after months of suffering excruciating pain in my right hip, I was diagnosed with Osteoarthritis. Doctors told to come back in 15 years for a hip replacement.
As the pain got progressively worse I wondered how long I could take Cocodamol, Paracetamol, Ibuprofen and Tramadol to keep me going. I even suffered Anaphylaxia after a prescribed drug didn’t agree with me. At the time I was working on a Duke of Edinburgh Expedition in the Lake District, and have never felt so vulnerable or close to death. I was helpless from the time it took to get to Penrith hospital until they administered Adrenalin which brought my heart rate up from 44 to 98 within seconds, and my body into uncontrollable convulsions.
The summer of 2010 saw me struggling to walk more than a mile without popping pills and using walking poles. My Doctor referred me to a specialist and on August 2nd I was told the results of my x-rays and MRI scan and that I had significant wear on the right hip and he would be happy to do a Total Hip Replacement. Close to tears and bewildered by this news I agreed that was the way forward. The operation would be sometime in December 2010. Perfect this would fit in with the calendar in that December and January were slow months for Monsterclimbs.
As it began to dawn on me that this could be the end of my climbing career, I began to search for information as to how successful a hip replacement operation would be. I was still very flexible in the pelvis, it was just very painful and I had difficulty walking. Would I be better off?
I began to have second thoughts. I was gripped with this premonition of becoming an observer. I also had my Mountain Instructor Award to complete. I was running out of time – to make a decision for this year at least.
The Hip Replacement Operation
My pre op assessment went without a hitch in September, but I still hadn’t seen a consultant as regards my fears and queries, and after several phone calls I eventually arranged to have a consultation with the surgeon on 24th November; with the operation due to take place December 8th.
I didn’t see the surgeon, Mr Knudsen for my consultation, I saw a member of his team, who I won’t name and shame but his manner was such that I named him Dr Deeath. No, he couldn’t give me any reassurances as to whether my condition would improve post op, he was only human and made mistakes. I could end up with one leg shorter than the other; I could be allergic to the prosthetic which would be unfortunate and terribly messy. I could die on the operating table! Yes, my physical fitness could help but wasn’t a forgone conclusion.
I left feeling pretty depressed, but I was doomed either way. My movement was becoming more and more restricted and was beginning to affect my climbing. I surfed the internet for information, and eventually found an article on Wayne Sleep, a ballet dancer who had undergone a hip replacement operation and was back on stage dancing Swan Lake 3 months post op. Was that possible?
I then found an American site that referred to athletes undergoing Total Hip Replacement. It stated that your physical fitness, flexibility, muscle strength etc enabled you to return to your pre op fitness IF you followed a strict and progressive training programme.
I went into hospital on Wednesday 8th December 2010. My surgery began at 13.30. My anaesthetist Dr Twigg was an angel; gentle, reassuring and immensely skilled. I woke up at 16.30, numb from the waist down, my legs wedged apart and my lower limbs being electronically stimulated, and attached to a morphine drip.
Recovery and Physiotherapy
My recovery was such that by Friday morning they issued me with crutches, sent me up and down a flight of stairs and within 48 hours of coming round from my operation I was on my way home with a few aids to help my recovery; crutches, toilet seat, stool, shoe horn, foam wedge, sock assister and the gripper.
The pain initially was intense, with very little mobility. I had to use both crutches at all times and sleep on my back for 6 weeks. I had to assist my operated leg in and out of bed. I’m not one to sit down and do nothing and was looking forward to my physiotherapy programme and my planned recovery.
My first appointment was on Christmas Eve and was quite reassuring. I was given a series of exercises to encourage mobility and flexibility and to do as much walking as possible, with no more than 50% weight on the operated leg. I did my exercises religiously 3 or 4 times a day and began walking into Tewkesbury where I live and then further afield, building up my strength and stamina.
However, when I returned on 11th January 2011 I was in for a big disappointment. I had already surpassed the physiotherapist’s expectations and she had nothing more to offer me.
I decided I could manage my own recovery. That afternoon 5 weeks after surgery I went climbing for the first time. I began by bouldering gently, traversing mostly, just a foot or so from a padded floor, and only doing moves I felt comfortable with. I listened to my body. Although I was still officially on crutches, I found myself ‘forgetting’ to use them or just using one.
Climbing after the Hip Replacement Operation
By the 6 week post op consultation I had abandoned my crutches, though I did use walking poles on walks over 4 miles. I continued to boulder, becoming more confident leaving the floor, but always down climbing and no jumping off. I led my first climb on the 31st January, though I did find the harness a little uncomfortable. By early February I was bouldering at 6b+ and by late February leading 6a. I was still wary of taking a leader fall. I continued to boulder and sport lead climb and felt my body respond and the flexibility and strength return.
On 7th March 2011, I led my first trad routes. It was like leading for the first time. The gear felt heavy, as did my body. I was so frightened of falling off before I got the first piece of gear in. Dislocating my hip was my greatest concern. I led Exchange, VS 4b and The Druid VS 4c. I was scared stiff and didn’t enjoy it. Was this the end of my trad leading life? I continued leading VS trying to build up my mental strength and suddenly I was leading E1 and then E2, and hoping to lead E3 by the summer.
I continue to improve and have begun doing yoga again, which is helping to reawaken muscles and improve joint flexibility, but my new hip sticks out further and my leg is slightly longer. But then again I have my life back.
It is now over 2 and a half years since I had the operation and all was going well until in July 2011 I snapped my right achilles playing tennis. The injury was much worse to recover from than the THR as I was completely immobile for 4 weeks in a plaster cast and then a further 3 weeks before I could even think about weight bearing on my injured foot.
It has been suggested that the snapping of the Achilles is directly linked to the THR because everything could be just slightly out. BUT I disagree. I believe that as my hip got progressively worse, I did less and less aerobic activities, just restricted myself to walking, climbing and yoga. Once I had the THR and all my pain disappeared I thought I was invincible and began bounding about everywhere. Playing tennis after an 8 year break would probably have resulted in a rupture of the Achilles regardless of the THR. What I should have done with hindsight is built up my aerobic fitness gradually, and progressed to playing tennis over a period of time. I have probably lost my chance now to play tennis agressively again, but have rediscovered cycling as a way to keep aerobically fit. The advantage is that not only am I working the Achilles and my still quite tight calf muscle but am exercising without weight bearing on my joints – a very good way of keeping my new hip maybe that little bit longer.
I had my 18 month post op consultation in August 2012 and the surgeon was very pleased with my progress. To be honest most of the time I forget I’ve even got a prosthetic hip.The downside of the visit was he ‘noticed’ I have dysplasia – where the hips are at a sloping angle. It was probably the reason my hip wore out so quickly and he was surprised it hadn’t dislocated at some point, the angle was so shallow. He also said the left hip was deteriorating and would need replacing in the not too distant future.
The Achilles – 2 years on has healed well, the cycling is helping – I can now do 20 miles in just over an hour – but the calf muscle is still an inch smaller than the left, and is faintly ridiculous and I can only raise myself an inch or so off the ground but it doesn’t seem to have affected my climbing which in the end is what it’s all about.
Me leading Hell’s Kitchen HVS 5a at Fairhead, Northern Ireland – May 2013. Check out the bridging – the right leg harbours the prosthetic.