St. Patrick’s Day. It is a beautiful holiday, not given nearly the attention or credit it deserves. Wear the green or risk a pinch. Listen to some blarney. Keep an eye out for leprechauns. Watch a young Sean Connery in Walt Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People.” What could be more fun than that?
Not much, except maybe having a birthday on St. Patrick’s Day and adding a birthday celebration to all of the above. Such is my good fortune. My mother always made a big deal of it, and taught me to do the same. So my family and I have had great fun with that over the years.
Well, St. Patty’s Day is not really the topic of this month’s column, but my birthday is. Or at least, the fact that I just had a birthday and turned 62. And that brings me to my real topic: Getting older. And frankly, that really is not fun.
This is on my mind these days as I contemplate a potential, or rather likely, hip replacement surgery fairly soon, and as I contend with a nagging back issue. It all started innocently enough. About five years ago, I had just attended a spin class and decided to jump on a treadmill for awhile. I hadn’t done that for quite some time. After a few minutes, I started noticing a small pain in my groin, but I pushed on for another 10-15 minutes.
The next day, my groin and hip were extremely sore. Having a good friend who doubles as an orthopedic surgeon, I paid him a visit. He informed me my hips were wearing out and would likely need hip replacement surgery. Ideally, he said, they would like to get me 10-15 years down the road. At that time, he figured it would be the right hip. (As it turns out, it has only been 5 years, and it is my left hip causing me grief, though I can feel the beginning of similar symptoms in my right hip.)
At any rate, at that time the groin and hip pain eventually went away, but I started noticing other things, primarily that I was steadily losing range of motion in my hips. I first noticed it when I could not straddle a snowmobile comfortably. (Now, I don’t even try.)
The second issue began the fall of 2010. I began to feel what seemed like a small muscle strain in my lower left back. I had had muscle strains before, and figured it would soon clear up. It did not. Finally, nearly a year later, I visited my family doctor, another friend. He took an x-ray and, when he pulled it up on the computer, immediately exclaimed, “Oh, no!” Just what you like to hear from your doctor.
Clear as day was a definite curve to the right side of the lumbar section of my spine. While that was disconcerting, I pointed out that was not where my pain was. He pointed out that back issues often manifest pain elsewhere. Still, it felt like a muscle strain that would not go away. So, to shorten the story, visits were made to a chiropractor, back doctor and two physical therapists. Bottom line: I have rather severe degeneration of the lumbar area of my spine, particularly L3 an L4, and that is likely causing most of that pain. And that is the pain that is most aggravating.
The reason this is on my mind these days is that, in the last six months, these symptoms have markedly worsened, and my life activities have taken a real hit. In particular, the two major sport activities I love and enjoy, biking and skiing. So long as I can bike and ski, I can deal with the rest. I think.
Anyway, this winter, I found I cannot ski, or at least not as I always have and as I most enjoy. My hip hurts whenever it is jarred (which, of course, occurs often while skiing), and I simply cannot maneuver my left hip to ski as I love to ski. And groomers get boring after a couple of hours. Thankfully, the impact on snowboarding is much less. So, I can still snowboard and have a good day. But of the two, I am a much better skier, and it is by far my first love.
As for biking, that season is just coming on so that remains to be seen. However, I have been out a few times and have some initial indications. First, I have a hard time getting on a bike because I cannot stretch my hips far enough apart. Go ahead. Tie a rope around your thighs so that you can only spread them about six inches, and then try to get on your bike. It ain’t easy, either from a rolling start (the dang seat gets in the way), or standing still (you can tilt the bike only so far before you cannot step far enough over it). I have taken to looking for curbs, steps, a rock, anything to gain some elevation to help me get my leg over the bike.
Once on, the old (pun intended) legs still work just fine, except for a bit of groin pain. Interestingly and thankfully, my lower left back is not much of a problem while riding. Still, I am hopeful, so long as I able to climb on the bike.
But aside from those particular activities, the hip and, particularly, the back are generally creating some real angst. Standing up means taking a little extra time to loosen the lower back and hip before walking, and then concentrating on walking as normally as possible. Walking long distances means I pay for it later (sore groin, stiff hip, sore and stiff back).
And then there are the other things. You see, my mother blessed me, albeit unwittingly and certainly unwillingly, with a healthy dose of arthritis. So, there is the pain in my left knee, my right index finger, my right shoulder, stiffness generally, degenerating eyesight, the beginnings of a cataract, ventral hernia . . . my gosh, I am a freaking hypochondriac.
Actually, not a hypochondriac. Just a regular guy feeling the aggravations of aging. And having been an active person, these aggravations are frustrating and, to be honest, even depressing. So why am I sharing all this? Indeed, even as I write this, I am still asking myself that question.
But I think it is this: While this feels singular to me, I don’t believe it is. There are a whole lot of baby-boomers out there, and probably a good portion of them are having similar experiences, or other aging issues, to a greater or lesser degree. After all, we all age, and eventually things begin to take us down. Ironically, it is a part of being alive.
I take some comfort in knowing I am not alone in this, though I wish it on no one. And maybe there are those of you who will also find comfort and strength in reading this, and knowing others experience the pain, frustration and anxiety of getting old. Maybe this helps us face the steady tromp of time and its effects with a little more confidence and courage.
But back to the present. So after all the doctor visits, two MRIs, several x-rays, back and hip injections and probing questions for the doctors, here is the consensus: Get the hip replaced. It will feel and work much better, and it may help the back. There may be more to deal with there, but if so, the hip surgery may help buy some time.
Of course, if those issues resolve, it will only pave the way for me to focus on the other issues delineated above which, for the time being, have faded in the background. So, who knows? Maybe these particular pains are blessings in disguise.
Anyway, despite all this, life is great. It really is. I can be thankful these issues have come about at age 62, not 42 or even 22. And I certainly acknowledge there are great numbers of others who deal with far more serious issues, and have done so throughout their lives. I truly am blessed. I have a special spouse, children who are good people and great friends, grandchildren who never cease to amaze and, more importantly, entertain, good friends and community, a comfortable lifestyle and a good bike. Actually, several of them.
So, as long as I can continue to mount one of them and turn the pedals over, I will be on the road, counting my blessings, and enjoying this beautiful world and exhilarating sport. Join me.