My 56 year old knees have taken a bit of a beating. Decades of decent distance running, college lacrosse, and about 1200 ski days have taken their toll. I can’t really complain. I’ve got more value out of them than the vast majority of people get from theirs.
Right now the knees are holding up after a solid biking season (2150+ miles so far) and cope pretty well with my gym circuit classes and hiking. But with ski season looming, I’ve decided to take some action while there’s a possibility of success. The action?
Bring on the stem cells!!
First, some background.
Things took their first turn for the worse in April 2015. We’d had an epic snowy East Coast ski season, and in early April Sugarbush was skiing like a dream. Sunday afternoon I lapped the Castlerock chair, hitting 1500+ vertical feet of Springy east coast (aka solid) bumps from top to bottom. It was great skiing, but I vividly remember thinking ‘my knees are going to pay for this one day’ as I headed back to the chair for the umpteenth lap of the day.
Little did I know how prescient that thought was. I was still running a fair bit in hilly Pittsburgh, and 3 weeks later was running to the gym when my right knee gave out striding down the steep Negley Hill in Shadyside. I’d had some pain while running on the inside of my right knee for a good while, but, pain is for the weak, right? This, unfortunately, was real, nasty pain. I’ve pretty much not run seriously again since that day.
After moving to Seattle in June, with a still swollen knee, I had an MRI. It revealed moderate cartilage loss in the medial compartment (inside part) of my right knee. And bone spurs. Classic osteoarthritis (overuse) symptoms. A cortisone shot settled things down, but I left with a warning that I had a knee replacement in my future.
After that I skied with a knee brace. It helps.
Fast forward 3.5 years, and the right knee wasn’t a lot different. Not great, but still surviving my pretty mad annual gym, bike, hike, ski schedule. I’d had some weird lingering pain and stiffness on the outside of my left knee, but nothing that slowed me down. Pain is for the weak, remember.
One early 2018 January weekend, we were having a tame Sunday ski day at Snoqualmie Pass. I hopped a little turn over an innocuous bump, and on landing my left knee gave way. Not good. I got down the hill slowly, in a lot of pain, and headed to the hospital. A few days on crutches, another MRI, and the diagnosis was torn meniscus on one side of my knee, and a macerated (technical term for ‘really fucked’) meniscus on the other. My next two months were a slow recovery, but by early March I was skiing at 95% again in Lech. While not perfect, the knee is pretty good now.
Still, the writing is really on the wall. And the writing says, “Your Knees Are Fucked!!”.
Unless I slow down, two new knees will be needed over the next few years.
And I don’t fancy the slowing down thing at all.
Enter stem cell therapy. Several clinics in Seattle are advertised daily on the KIRO radio morning shows and in the Seatle Times. So with the help of the Google machine, I did some research and decided it was worth checking out. It held hope of delaying more serious intervention.
The first clinic I visited, near work, felt like someone was trying to sell me a timeshare. They brought up Google Scholar to show me all the academic papers on the subject. I told him to put me in Google Scholar. The dude nearly fell off his chair when my 4500+ citations popped up, and I told him I knew intimately how meaningless such numbers were.
Next, I went to Bellevue. This was a real doc, so I was more hopeful. He looked at my imagery reports and said the left knee had a very good chance of responding to treatment. The right – who knows. I was down with that. I then tried to organize the detailed ultrasound and MRI examination with his colleague, but nothing happened for 3 weeks. I wasted lots of time on emails and phone calls. Finally, I received a letter saying the doc had given up stem cell procedures and there was now no clinic. Great for building confidence, eh?
Next, I hobbled to Lower Queen Ann. A real doc, involved in a stem cell clinical trial. This must surely be the one.
It turned out she specialized in cosmetic surgery. I showed her the knee reports from my MRI/X-rays, and she hardly read them. She started telling me about how wonderful things will be after I have the procedure. I asked if she was going to get the imagery from the hospital to check in detail the state of my knees, and she wasn’t really interested. I politely said I’d think about it and left. Forever.
Finally, I headed to Dr. Mark Wagner’s office, again near work. Dr. Wagner had been written up in Ski Magazine and advertised daily on Dave Ross’ morning show on KIRO radio. I like Dave Ross, so there’s one for the power of advertising.
Dr. Wagner’s office got my knee imagery from the hospital before I arrived, and took a new X-ray of my right knee to get recent views. He said similar to the other guy. Left knee was a good candidate and right might respond as there wasn’t total cartilege loss yet. You get a bulk discount for two, so why the hell not I thought?
This was February, and I was desperately trying to recover and get through ski season, so I told him I’d see how it goes and almost certainly be back. Very soon if my recovery failed! But I got through ski season, then bike and hiking season. Ski season is now on the horizon. It’s now or never.
So today I will wander down to Zum Fitness for Liz’s crazy fun noon spin/torture class. Have a shower, and stroll to Dr. Wanger’s office, where, in return for $10K, he will somehow drill into my hip to extract stem cells, do some chemical magic with them, and inject them back into my knees. Then, with luck, some true biological stem cell-y wonders will happen.
To this end, I’m going to report on this blog about the procedure, recovery and hopefully, improvements in my knees over the next few months. I found it so hard to get some real information I could trust, maybe this might help someone out there who has similarly mangled knees.
I’ll be ecstatic if one or even both knees respond positively to stem cell therapy. Regardless though, I’m just one data point. Just because it works (or doesn’t) for me, doesn’t mean it won’t (or will) for you. Clinical trials are needed to test the widespread effectiveness.
So, my fingers and toes are firmly crossed.
But if it doesn’t work, I know I’ll never listen to Dave Ross again! 🙂
And if you want to know how the procedure went, read on …