My new knee

29 April 2018

Constant pain had made 61-year-old Professor Sarah Vickerstaff’s life miserable. Here she explains why she decided on knee replacement surgery.



I was only in my forties when I realised something wasn’t right. My hands were getting swollen and painful, so I toddled off to see a doctor. After a series of tests I was told I’d got osteoarthritis – most people don’t get any serious issues with it until they’re in their sixties.

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From that moment, I did everything to battle this irksome condition. Plenty of exercise: swimming, aqua fit, exercise bike and t’ai chi. Lots of fruit and veg, but no meat. Despite this, eventually the arthritis spread to my back and three of the vertebrae became so worn that, in autumn 2012, they had to be fused.

My right knee had also become very painful when I was walking or twisting. But I’d been told this might be because I was overloading it to compensate for the back and, now that was sorted, it would be OK.

Initially, it was. Sadly, it didn’t last. By the New Year, walking even a few hundred yards was agony. It hurt when I went to bed; it hurt when I woke up. Once again, the doctors investigated. More osteoarthritis was their conclusion.

I’m blessed with a sunny disposition, but I was… angry. After the back, it felt so unfair. My colleagues certainly started to notice. I’m a professor of work and employment at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, and spend a lot of time getting in and out of chairs, which made me very cranky.

I saw various specialists, but though no one denied that my knee would need replacing, they don’t like to do that until you’re in your sixties. A total knee replacement will last only 10-15 years, so if you have it done too early, you’ll probably need a second one, which won’t work as well. At 57, I was offered cortisone injections and advice on exercise. It felt as though I was being politely nudged out of the door.

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It’s very hard to admit that you’re disabled, but that was the reality of the situation. I started using a walking stick and would get scared of crowds. If I was in London, I would plan elaborate routes to avoid stairs or situations where I could be swept along by rush-hour commuters. Falls were proving very painful.

Some people might have waited, but I wanted to carry on working full-time and wasn’t ready to give in. So, I kept knocking on doors. ‘What the hell are you going to do about this?’ Eventually, in early 2014, I got my doctor to refer me to a private consultant who said I should have the operation and sent me to a different NHS hospital. Finally, the ball was rolling.

First there was ‘knee school’; I learned they were going to cut out the whole knee joint and cement the new one in place. It sounded brutal, but the physio was a real character. He jumped on a table and showed us his two knee replacements! That gave me a lot of hope.

I finally went into hospital that October. I warned the surgical team about the scar tissue from my back op – it was right where they’d apply the epidural and might make the pain relief less effective – but they said, ‘If it wears off, we’ll give you more’.

Unfortunately, it wore off as I was taken into recovery. The pain was… well, beyond pain. Everything felt glittery and surreal. They pumped me full of morphine – I went into shock.

I woke up to a very worried husband; David had seen the fuss they were making and the wound looked rather swollen and ghastly. But by the second day I was hobbling about with a Zimmer frame and I went home the day after.

If you get a new hip or knee, whether it works and how long it lasts is up to you. I’d come across people who ‘became’ their injury – ‘I’ve got to have a new knee, so that’s me finished’. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

They gave me exercises and I did them. I gradually reintroduced my swimming and regular exercise.

My daughter, Chloe, told me, ‘You’re more like the old you’.

I can now walk far better. I can meet friends without worrying about stairs or crowds. I worked hard, but it was worth it. My daughter, Chloe, told me, ‘You’re more like the old you’.

There is this arbitrary age that allows you to get a knee replacement, but one number will not suit everybody. If it’s seriously affecting your life and your happiness, push for it. Don’t take no for an answer.


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