“Yes we’ll do the arthroscopy to fix the labrum, but I’ll also need to do another surgery where we cut your pelvis into pieces and screw it back together.” Not what I was expecting to hear. I walked out of that office in a fog, terrified and wanting to speed up my other consults so I could hear a different opinion (and the opinion I was looking for was more like “that guy didn’t know what he was talking about. You just need the arthroscopy.”).
Weeks went by with me convincing myself that surgeon was just trying to make money with a gigantic, unnecessary surgery that he happens to excel at. If you’re a kid with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? Then the rest of the consults came up. Arthroscopy surgeon comes in the room and looks at my X-ray. Tells me THE EXACT SAME THING. I consult with a guy who just does total hip replacements. He says…you know….the same thing…cool cool cool.
I’m 35 and a professional musical theatre actor in New York City. My job involves dancing at a professional level. Even the non-dancing shows can be incredibly physically demanding (“and while you sing that big last note, you’ll cross over to this four foot tall box, crawl on top of it in your 5″ heels and then jump off and the boys will catch you–cool? And then you’ll go into that scene transition where you run over and pick up that 50 pound thing and bring it off stage. In heels. Great, thanks Laura.”). When I’m not doing shows, my day job in events involves walking tons and picking up heavy things. And for fun, my boyfriend and I rock climb, ice climb, kayak, hike, and do gym stuff. To say my identity is tied up in what my body can do is an understatement.
And then these nice world-class surgeons tell me they’d like to take my hips apart and put them together in a different shape in one of the most invasive and intense orthopedic surgeries of all time. Or we could not do that, and my hips will continue to degrade and I’ll need a total hip replacement real soon. And then a replacement for that replacement eventually and likely a third replacement after that. Oh, also if you get a hip replacement, don’t stretch too hard or you might dislocate it.
I’ve been dancing and doing hard, cool physical things my whole life. I thought I had normal hips (didn’t we all?). Somewhere around college, I started to experience deep “mystery pain” in my left hip when I would dance in a show. The show would close, I’d let it rest for a few weeks, and the pain would be gone. And the cycle repeated for 12 years, with the pain getting worse. I’d eat Advil like candy, limp to and from the theatre, and power through. The more I stretched in the splits, the less flexible I’d become. Cute, right? I stopped taking dance class for fear of making the weird pain come back (pro-tip: not a great strategy for a professional dancer person). I worked with tons of physical therapists over the years. All of them were fantastic. Some mentioned the possible labral tear. No one had any idea what was actually going on. No one mentioned dysplasia.
In January 2019, I was at the gym doing normal gym stuff. I did some light stretching at the end, being cautious as I knew I was stiff. After that, I couldn’t walk up stairs. I spent three weeks limping up to my third floor walk-up, stepping up with my right and dragging my left leg behind me like Igor from Frankenstein. I worked hard to convince my (rightly horrified) boyfriend that I was totally fine. I started PT. Twice a week, I’d get manual work, acupuncture, chiropractic work, and sports massage. Five weeks later after nothing helped, I got an MRI. It was a relief to find out that labrum was absolutely shredded in multiple places and had grown itself a cute paralabral cyst to boot. Vindication! I wasn’t crazy!
I made a bunch of appointments with the top orthopedic arthroscopy surgeons in NYC. I researched the heck out of the surgery and walked into that first appointment ready to get an arthroscopy on the calendar.
Which takes us back to the beginning of this essay.
And then I pivoted. First I grieved, and then I pivoted. This diagnosis is a giver. Hip dysplasia showed me–by dragging me kicking and screaming–that plans can change and I can still be ok. The recovery is hard and I can still be ok. We humans are FAR more capable than we give ourselves credit for.
I landed on Dr. Sink at Hospital for Special Surgery. In the darkness of 4 am on September 4th, 2019, I chugged that special pre-surgery Ensure and headed to the hospital. Dr. Ranawat knocked out the arthroscopy, they tossed me on a different table, and Dr. Sink did the periacetabular osteotomy.
I left the hospital after four nights and five days. Recovery was hard, void of weird complications, and entirely survivable. Being a worst-case scenario kinda gal, I was pleasantly surprised at how chill the process was, compared to the absolute nightmare I assumed it would be. Watching my body put itself back together was nothing short of a miracle, and I recognized how rare this opportunity was to see it repair itself like a boss. I also cried a lot. Because it was still hard. Balance, you know?
PT brought new party tricks every session, as well as new challenges. I figured out quickly that being frustrated that I couldn’t do simple things would just make me miserable. It wasn’t easy to get out of that pattern, but I did.
I used my crutches for the last time 13 weeks after surgery. Reading this now, that seems like a long time. Weirdly, it didn’t feel long at all during the recovery.
I’m about 8 months post-op. I’m basically pain-free, still building strength, and enjoying experiencing what a stable hip feels like for the first time in my life. It’s strong, sturdy, and amazing. You mean the rest of my friends have felt this their whole lives?! The other day, I went on a 7 mile hike and gained 2,000 feet of elevation. My left hip felt amazing.
The right hip has started to act up and is in the process of failing. This one is actually more dysplastic than the one we took care of, but was relatively asymptomatic (center-edge angle of 10 degrees, whereas left hip was 13 degrees). She got FOMO and started causing a scene. Not nearly as bad as ol’ left hip was, but she’s making herself known.
I was ready to “get on with my life” after this surgery. Now it’s clear I need to pivot again and change my expectations. RPAO and arthroscopy is scheduled for August 19th, 2020–same dream team of surgeons. In actuality, I will indeed be “getting on with my life.” There’s no stopping and starting life. For decades, I skated by thinking I could muscle everything into place in my life. Then ol’ dysplasia came a knockin’ with her heavy-handed lessons about working with what’s actually happening instead of what I wished was happening.
I’ve had one of those Instagrammy quotes on my phone’s lock screen. I probably read it before this whole thing began and didn’t give it two seconds of thought.
Now I get it.
“Amongst the rubble, I discovered the parts of me that are indestructible.”
I’m emerging from this with more mental fortitude, bravery, compassion, and physical strength than before. And now all of a sudden, the rest of life’s challenges look a little less daunting. I’m into it.