Pickleball Points

More than a dozen persons have asked me over the last few months about my thoughts on joint surgery. The questions ranged from “Should I get my knees replaced?” to would I still have my knees replaced again?

I’m not sure why this has suddenly become the question du jour, but I expect it was caused by the twinges of pain experienced as players returned to the courts in preparation for their normal pickleball schedules. With extra weight, and lack of exercise, I expect their joints were crying out.

Yes, I am glad, and I wish I had done it sooner. But I’m not you.

I will tell you that in the process of having two knees and a hip replaced, I spoke with people who I didn’t think needed it. They were just having slight discomfort. I was having jackhammer-like throbbing pain at night, every night, and it would not let me sleep. I consumed tubes and jars of ointments, and ate Tylenol tablets like potato chips.

I spoke with Michael Siegert of Seagrass about his shoulder replacement, and he brought a new consideration to the discussion: How will you brush your teeth if your prominent shoulder is being replaced? Think about it, and be prepared. Surgeons typically hand out cheat-sheets to help you plan.

Joint replacements are more than a notion, and the experience stresses your entire body. But I rationalized that I was trading in my daily pain for another pain — after-surgery pain — and that pain that would decrease perhaps 5 or 10 percent a day until I was pain-free. And I am!

The doctors are using new techniques and equipment that is greatly improved. Pickleballer Mike Smith had a partial knee replacement, and it went well for him. My hip replacement was like a walk in the park compared to knee replacements.

Be prepared to leave the same day as surgery. Yes — same day! I practically had to employ a chokehold on my surgeon to admit me to the hospital overnight, and in the morning, I thought they were going to catapult me out of the hospital bed like my fighter jet was on fire.

The doctor doesn’t want you to get an infection in your new joint — especially in that hospital joint — because there’s no blood flowing through to fight in your behalf. A friend — an absolutely wonderful tennis player — because of infection in his hospital, had to have his new joint removed. He laid in bed for months with a temporary spacer while they treated the infection. Finally, he received a new joint. He never has recovered from that experience.

Think about your own circumstances as you read this chain of events with my own legs, because of several unanticipated consequences. Each new surgery put new and unanticipated pressure on my old legs.

My left knee was the original problem. I was very fit and had played the National Grass Court Championships for the 45-year-olds (when I was 65), and returned with some kind of attack on my immune system. The experience left me and my legs very weak. I could not lift them across a crack in the cement sidewalk and dragged them as I walked with a cane.

Pickleball gradually strengthened my legs.

For a decade, I strapped my left knee immobile with an upscale device and pivoted off that leg or dragged it around while I played tennis or pickleball. I used my right leg to push and pull myself around the court, until one day, playing a pickleball match, the right knee had enough and told me about it with excruciating pain.

Almost a year later — after the protocols prior to surgery, knee-replacement surgery and rehab (before and after) with Bob Cairo — I returned to the court. My body had adapted to the two old, worn knee joints, but suddenly my left knee had this brand-new right knee saying, “Hey, old man — get with the program.”

The new pressures created new, and very serious, pain in my left knee.

Fairway Village’s Bob Zimmer recently had a hip replaced, and afterwards, the other one started to hurt. New pressures, I suspect, on that other joint.

In my case, almost another year later — after the protocols prior to surgery, knee-replacement surgery and rehab recovery with Bob Cairo — I returned to the court. I trained a little and entered a tournament with doubles partner Maurice Heckscher. Less than 40 minutes after arrival: “Pop.”

My right Achilles and a muscle in my right calf could not handle these new “whippersnappers” in the knee replacements. The left leg — strapped immobile for a decade — never recovered enough to handle the additional load created by the right Achilles problems. Off to the ER.

My legs and ankles had become very weak from the surgeries and the long absence from the court, and could not handle the kind of stresses we pickleballers take for granted.

When the surgeon sent me to physical therapy, it was only to strengthen my legs enough to walk to the mailbox. In fact, he told me after each knee replacement that I should never run again. That’s why I like that postage stamp-size pickleball court.

Because of the Achilles, I dragged my right leg around for six more months before the pain in my left hip became too much to handle. Once again, surgery — this time the left hip — and I was once again on recovery road when COVID-19 struck.

This time, I took to the soft sand of the Delaware beaches and got myself to the point I was routinely doing 3 or 4 miles. I continued the strengthening exercises that Bob Cairo had given me.

Finally, I feel my legs and ankles — after four years of surgeries and a series of unanticipated consequences of each surgery — are ready.

So, if you decide the pain is too much and not just discomfort, then begin making plans. I suggest getting at least one other opinion. The docs don’t mind. In fact, it signals to them that you are going to be a good patient. You might be shocked how far away the date is when you get onto the surgeon’s schedule.

My advice once you have a date: Get as fit as you can possibly endure before surgery. Ask your doc if you think you need to see your physical therapist to build those muscles in advance of your surgery. Pay the strictest attention to the docs, and then, afterwards, work harder and longer to strengthen that leg, but don’t rush it. During this rehab, get your body weight down. Pay special attention to keeping both legs equally strong so one doesn’t overwhelm the other.

And like the song “Them Bones” told us — the heel bone is connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone to the knee bone, the knee bone to the titanium implant...

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.