I have a condition that most people would dismiss as a minor irritation: a painful bunion. It’s a non life-threatening problem that’s no big deal, right? Just buy bigger shoes. Even the word bunion makes people laugh for some reason. No one takes this foot condition very seriously.
Two years ago while driving, I got a foot cramp. I’m talking about a searing pain that made my toes curl. I pulled the car over, yanked off my shoe, and massaged the pain away. That bunion was messing with the nerves in my foot. I consulted a podiatrist. We discussed treatment options and agreed that surgery was the best long-term fix. I talked with two friends who’d had the procedure, and both had good outcomes. Undergoing surgery meant I’d have to put my life on hold for 6-8 weeks since I couldn’t walk or drive while healing. I thought carefully about whether or not to undergo the knife--especially after watching videos of the procedure. The decision to have surgery came easily after several more episodes of cramps.
On November 1, 2017, my doctor performed a lapidus bunionectomy. The surgeon shaved my bunion, and then cut my big toe in half, realigned it, and then secured it in place with a plate and screws. The surgery went well, and I went home to heal. I bought a knee scooter to get around. I got out of housework because I needed to elevate my leg. To fill the hours, I read books, worked on my latest novel, and binge watched Netflix and Amazon Prime series (I loved Suits). I visited with family, friends and neighbors. All in all it wasn’t a bad life.
Eight weeks after surgery, my doctor cleared me to start walking again. Oh, joy! I was eager to reclaim my normal life. I resumed my household chores, picked up my granddaughters from school. My walking partner and I eased back into our morning routine. I arranged play dates with my friends. My hubby and I traveled to Sedona for some hiking. We enjoyed a family vacation in Costa Rica, and a reunion with cousins in Vegas. Hip hip hurray! I had my life back! Or so I thought.
Unfortunately, the foot cramps were replaced by a throbbing that was only relieved by icing, elevation, and Advil. Four months after surgery, my doctor sent me to physical therapy. He told me, “It can take up to a year for everything to heal.” Code words for: expect some pain. I did my exercises faithfully, and pushed through the discomfort. Deep down I worried that I had traded one problem for another.
On the one-year anniversary of my surgery, I called the doctor. “Look,” I said, feeling quite sorry for myself, “if suffering chronic pain is my lot in life, so be it. There are worse conditions to have. But I want to make sure that nothing serious is wrong.”
The doctor ordered x-rays. The results stunned both of us. Not only had my toe bone not healed, but three screws had broken. No wonder I was having pain; my foot was a mess. A myriad of emotions strangled me: anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, incredulity.
Once I calmed down, my husband and I met with the doctor to discuss the next steps. We learned my condition is called a “non-union.” Fifteen percent of patients have bones that don’t heal as fast as normal. Unfortunately, it’s a catch-22. You don’t know about the problem until you have a severed/fractured bone that doesn’t heal.
I was given two treatment options: surgically remove the screws and stay off my foot hoping the bone heals, or repeat the surgery. A second doctor supported these recommendations. Knowing I needed surgery to retrieve the screws anyway, I opted for a revision, hoping for a more stable outcome.
On December 10, 2018, I had a four-hour redo that included a bone graft. One screw from the previous surgery remained in my foot because it was too deeply embedded in the bone to remove. I returned home to convalesce. Recovery this time felt different. I was anxious and worried, and if I’m honest a little depressed. The hours ticked by more slowly. I had less strength, felt weaker than last time. I was bored with TV. I didn’t sleep well. Would I heal? Would the bone graft take? Would I ever hike again?
The temporary cast came off after two weeks. I had no infection, and my foot appeared to be healing. So far, so good. Another cast was put on my right foot up to the knee. Four weeks later, that cast was removed. X-rays showed my bone was fusing, but slowly. Good progress, but not enough to start walking. I traded my cast for a removable boot, and was told not to walk for a month. I began using a medical device to stimulate bone growth every day for twenty minutes. I meditated. I listened to music. I gazed outside at nature. I played online backgammon. I edited my novel, I had several books going. I taught myself to make iMovies. I did whatever I could to pass the hours.
Another appointment, more x-rays. Unwelcome news. Progress, but still not enough healing. No walking for another month. My wonderful hubby, family, friends, and neighbors rallied around me. They pulled me out of my funk by texting me, sending cards, bringing me lunch, dragging me to the movies, delivering flowers, sharing gossip, and making me laugh.
Today I got good news. X-rays revealed solid healing. After three and a half months of sitting on my keister, I can walk again. For two weeks it will be in a boot, then I get to wear a tennis shoe. My foot doesn’t feel normal yet. It’s stiff and numb in places, but that’s expected after protecting it for so long. Hiking and morning walks are off the table for now, but I’m grateful to move around the house without a scooter. Slow, but steady progress with careful monitoring on the horizon.
This experience humbled me. For those of you who suffer with bunions, I offer some tongue-in-cheek advice: don’t put your life on hold, keep buying bigger shoes, and learn other ways to cope with those awful cramps. But if surgery is right for you, have the doctor triple check those x-rays before you start hiking again. Don’t pretend what happened to me could never happen to you.