Peter Shelton

Out of Joint

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Ski evolution by pshelton on January 17, 2011

Here’s an essay I did for SKI’s January 2011 back page.

I had hip replacement surgery one month before my first grandchild was born.

The decision to do it, to go for the new hip, had not come easily. Back and forth I went over the previous winters: I’m too young. I can still ski. (I was 59 at the time.) I can barely walk back to the car after a morning on the slopes, but I can still do it, damn it!

Then on the other side: I’m bone-on-bone. I’ve seen the pictures. Yoga isn’t doing the trick. I’m eating ibuprofen by the handful, day and night. That can’t be good. That isn’t good.

I can still sleep. Pretty well. Most nights. Except when I can’t because there are no more positions to try, no way it seems to silence the ache.

But what if the new hip turns out to mean an end to skiing? It could happen. Isn’t skiing, even skiing in pain, better than not skiing? I hadn’t missed a season since 1957. True, I hadn’t taught skiing for years, but I’d continued to write about it, dream about it, find grace in it.

One surgeon rolled his eyes when I said it was important to me to be able to keep doing this thing that was so much a part of life. I found another surgeon.

But I’d never had any kind of surgery before. What if I didn’t wake up? It’s happened. Yes, I knew hip replacement is one of the most common elective surgeries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of us used-and-abused Baby Boomers do it every year. The new parts are made of titanium alloys and third-generation, cross-braided polyethylene and the hardest, smoothest ceramics known to man. (Sounds like the recipe for a new ski.) The on-line testimonials were legion.

I researched all of the options. Each surgeon has a preferred “approach,” cutting you open from the front, the back, or the side. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.

Failure rates overall were low. But there were any number of ways a new joint could fail. The one recurring bugaboo was dislocation. Artificial hips don’t have the range of motion your original equipment affords. You’re going to have to be careful, my surgeon said, for the rest of your life. “You don’t ski in the backcountry alone do you?” No. “Good. Because no one should die of a hip dislocation. But if it happens, I promise you, you won’t be able to move.”

The pain was turning me into an old man before my time. My daughter Cloe, who’s a doctor, said she could see it in my eyes. She mentioned the d-word, depression. “Dad,” she said earnestly, “pain is bad.”

But what about the trauma? They have to dislocate your hip to get at the joint. Then the saws and chisels come out. What about the glutes and quads and all the little muscles that allow you to balance in motion through a crystalline, slippery, four-dimensional medium?

Then Cloe told us she was pregnant. The same Cloe whom Ellen and I taught to ski at age three by shooting her back and forth between us as we ping-ponged down the beginner meadows at Telluride. Cloe bubbling with pleasure in our backwards-snowplow arms. Cloe was going to have a baby, and that was the kicker. I wanted to ski with my grandson. And for that to happen, I was going to have to trust in modern orthopedic miracles.

Alexander was born in September 2008, a month into my rehab. I could walk. Carefully. In the hospital Cloe put Alex in my arms and I rocked him in place, whispering sweet powder nothings to his perfect innocence.

At four months out, in early December, I decided to test the new hip on the slopes. After the first run I knew. On the second chairlift ride, I relaxed as I hadn’t in years. I conjured a ski day with little Alex just a few winters hence. My lift-mates must have wondered about the closed eyes, the long involuntary smile of relief and celebration.

8 Responses

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  2. mary ann dismant said, on January 29, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this experience with us,

    Mary Ann Dismant
    Ouray, CO

  3. Karen said, on January 31, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Wow! Clearly, the decision did not come lightly and I am certainly happy it worked out for you. I guess it is a very hard decision; it is about the pain you know vs. the things you don’t know. Thank you for sharing…

    • pshelton said, on January 31, 2011 at 7:34 pm

      Right you are, Karen. The second one was much easier because the unknown had been made known.

  4. Jeff said, on February 14, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Peter, a friend gave me your Ski magazine article, knowing I am three weeks out from a new hip, and nervous. At 51, I’m not mentally ready. Your article was perfect for my state of mind. I timed my surgery to only miss part of ski season and part of cycling season. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • pshelton said, on February 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm

      Jeff, FYI, I’ve now had both hips done, and I couldn’t be happier. Skiing and mountain biking.

  5. jeff vorpahl said, on February 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Peter – I’m in the same position you were – 57, avid skiier, needing a hip replacement (can ski, can’t walk). Dd you pursue the resurfacing option. I was told I would not be able to ski for 9 – 12 months. Just interested in your opinions.


    • pshelton said, on February 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm

      Jeff, I looked into resurfacing; it seemed promising at first. But my surgeon had some convincing arguments against. He thought the failure rate was higher than for the total hip; he didn’t like the metal-on-metal joint for the potentially harmful ions in the blood (the inevitable debris of wear); and he thought that, at age 59, I was on the cusp – near the point where a successful total hip would last me the rest of my active days. We’ll see. He likes resurfacing for younger active people who will need a revision no matter what in 10-15 years; the resurfacing saves the femoral neck, so there is more bone to work with the second time around.
      My parts are inert – ceramic and plastic – so I don’t need to worry about some weird blood cancer down the road. And they seem to be working great. I’m super grateful. (I have had them both replaced.) And I think I’ll go skiing this afternoon, as a matter of fact. Good luck with yours. It’s a great surgery. One that really improves quality of life. And I didn’t have to wait nearly 9 months; more like 4 or 5. Cheers, -P

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