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Osteoarthritis. It’s the most common type of arthritis, afflicting some 21 million people in the United States. “It’s more accurately referred to as degenerative arthrosis,” says Dr. Edward Sladek, a Lansing orthopedic surgeon.

“It’s a disease of the joint in which the lining over the end of the bone is destroyed. Most of the time, patients don’t remember what they did to cause it.

“Maybe you jumped and landed hard when you were a kid. Your knees might have hurt for an hour or so, then they were fine and you forgot all about what happened. But some of the worst things you can do to your knees include things you do every day, such as deep knee bends, using a stair-climber, and putting barbells on your shoulders and squatting,” he warns.

Sandra Izdebski, 55, of Lansing could tell you a thing or two about degenerative arthrosis. Both of her knees were riddled with the disease. “It’s painful,” she says. “It’s a very deep, aching pain that would hurt with every step I took.”

Though she retired in February 2007 from Sparrow’s Outpatient Surgery where she was a nurse, she recalls having to hobble around on a cane to do her job. “It got to the point where you really didn’t walk any further than you had to, and people could tell by looking at me how debilitating the pain was. The other nurses in the department were picking up my slack,” she says gratefully. “If I was supposed to do something that required me to walk a ways, they’d just do it for me.”

Going downhill

“We’ve led active lives,” Sandy says of her family’s lifestyle. “Biking, the DALMAC — which is a bicycle ride from Lansing to the Mackinac Bridge — we belonged to gyms, we used to ski — both downhill and cross-country. I guess my knees just degenerated over time.”

She was about 52 when her knees first started bothering her. “My husband and I were walking together several times a week — about three to four miles at a time. I first noticed that it was getting harder for me to keep up with him and go the distance.” Sandy figured she’d simply strained something and that the pain would eventually ease. After about a year, however, her condition gradually worsened.

“I got down to walking about a mile, and eventually I just couldn’t go out at all.”

How do you spell relief?

Finally, around spring 2005, Sandy went to see her family doctor. Relief came in the form of cortisone injections. “It could take a few days to kick in, and it would last up to several weeks, but then the pain would always come back. My doctor thought I either had arthritis or a torn cartilage.”

Sandy was referred to Dr. Sladek. An MRI revealed a cornucopia of problems, prompting a knee scope. “He found a very, very, very bad left knee,” Sandy admits. “He cleaned it up as best he could and said I might still get a number of years out of it.” That was in December 2005.

“It did feel better after the cleanup, but it quickly went downhill again,” she says. “Dr. Sladek was surprised at how quickly it deteriorated. Towards the end, it keeps you awake at night. You can’t sleep because there’s no way to get comfortable.”

Sandy didn’t hesitate when Dr. Sladek recommended a total knee replacement. “When you can’t sleep at night and can’t do what you need to do, where do you go from there? I wanted my life back. I wanted to be pain-free.”

In July 2006, after returning from a two-week Alaskan cruise, Sandy’s left knee was replaced.

Quick recovery

“After the surgery, I got up and was getting around with the walker that same night. I’d had a nerve block along with general anesthesia for the pain, and that lasted about a day-and-a-half to two days. After that, I was on pain pills. The hardest part of the recovery process is the rehab — getting yourself to do the exercises to strengthen the muscles.”

Sandy did physical therapy three times a day in the comfort of her home. “At first, it was impossible to do the exercises,” she laughs. “I was supposed to lift my leg up about 18 to 20 inches, but when I tried, nothing happened. You’re sitting there trying and trying, and your leg’s just lying there. Pretty soon, you can actually lift it a little, then more and more.”

The following October, after her right knee began troubling her, Sandy had it replaced as well.

“It’s still getting better all the time. I read that it can take up to a year to find out the full extent of what you can do. For me, it’s the little things — like when I go to step over something — I say to myself, ‘I didn’t think I could do that a couple of weeks ago.’ It amazes me.”

At long last pain-free

“I finally have my life back,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m off right now for three months, but I’ll be going back to work at Sparrow on a per-diem basis for a couple of days a week. Today, I was running around, taking care of a bunch of errands. I’ll be going to Curves this afternoon, and tomorrow I’m going to water aerobics. It’s great.”

Sandy’s husband, Michael, couldn’t be happier. “We can do things again,” he says. “Before she had the surgery, she was pretty limited. Anything that involved any walking, stair-climbing or distances, she couldn’t do. It’s nice to do things together again.” Sandy agrees. “We walked for two-and-a-half to three miles yesterday. I can’t walk quite as fast as he does.”

Well, not yet, anyway.

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