The knee goes. The mammogram looks bad. The headache won’t quit. And the midlife mom who kept all those family trains on track is sidelined.
Mothers should never be sick!
Much of what is written about midlife motherhood is celebratory, and it’s a great time to raise children. Indeed, having kids late is so invigorating it can make you feel like you’ve beat aging. But midlife can also bring health challenges. When you’re a busy mom, medical problems come at a most inopportune time.
For several years, I struggled with hip pain so severe that at times I could barely navigate my own kitchen. I hope the lessons from my experience will help other mothers struggling with health problems. If you have joint or mobility issues, they should prove especially valuable.
Not So Hip
My problems began three years ago when I was packing the camp trunk and searing pain struck my left hip. It subsided, allowing me to fly my older daughter to camp in North Carolina and make other trips that summer. X-rays that fall revealed moderate osteoarthritis in both hips.
Such an old lady diagnosis at 53! Really? Both of my parents had hip issues and replacements, but not in their fifties. None of my friends have joint problems. Then again, many are ten years younger than me. The doctor said I was young for arthritis but not that unusual.
Lesson #1: Raising Kids Later Does Not Exempt You From Midlife’s Health Challenges.
Indeed, stuff can sneak up on a mom during this busy phase. In my case, earlier detection would not have changed much. However with other health issues, it can be critical. If something feels funny in your forties, check it out before it hits hard in your fifties. Don’t just make the pediatrician a priority.
Keep On Truckin’
The doctor who diagnosed my condition said there wasn’t much to do as there isn’t a cure for osteoarthritis. However, staying active is important. So I continued my regular gym routine, adding more stretching. It helped. In May, I walked miles on my younger daughter’s 5th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. During our annual family vacation to Aspen, Colorado in July, I made it farther than ever before on the Sunnyside Trail. Bravo – no more hip pain!
Then that night my left hip exploded in a fireball of inflammation. Two days later, I had to hold on to my 11-year-old daughter’s shoulder to get down another trail.
Lesson #2: Leaning on Your Kids Won’t Break Them.
Major dependencies can be hard on children. Otherwise, though, it doesn’t hurt them to aid an ailing parent. In the past two years my daughters, now 13 and 15, have served as luggage carriers, food servers and cooks. It was hard to ask for help at first. But they’ve been so good about it that I no longer hesitate. (Though I try to say thank you.)
And while I’ve saved the big sobs for my husband, I’ve been open about my condition with my kids. Children know when something is wrong. Hiding reality just confuses them. Anyway, life is not all Disney moments. My daughters will have their challenges. When they do, perhaps they’ll remember how mom dealt with her hips. I’ve taken strength from recalling how my parents dealt with adversity.
By the time we got home from Aspen that summer, I could barely walk. Yet we had just 10 days before our next big trip to Seattle and San Diego. Desperate, I scheduled five appointments with my Chinese acupuncturist, Dongyun Liang.
I’ve done acupuncture for years but no treatment has ever matched this. With each needle, waves of pain and heat surged through my body. It felt like hot lightening bolts were shooting out of my head. However afterwards, my hip was much better. Studies have found acupuncture an effective pain reliever for arthritis. In this case, the acupuncturist thought I also had bursitis, a condition in which the lubricating sac in the hip, or bursa, becomes inflamed. Acupuncture alleviated the pain, allowing me to travel to Seattle.
Lesson #3: Alternative Medicine Can Help.
Acupuncture, Hoshino Therapy, myofascial release, lymphatic drainage – I’ve done them all in the last two years. None of these therapies cured me. But they all helped reduce pain and increase mobility. I would have taken much more ibuprofen without them, or something stronger.
These hands-on practitioners also provided valuable advice. (One tip: airport security confiscates ice packs. Instead, travel with zip locks or vintage ice bags to fill with ice to reduce inflammation.) And I can’t thank them enough for their encouragement.
So acupuncture helped. Yet in Seattle, walking remained difficult. And what do you do when sightseeing? Walk, of course!
After landing at my aunt’s house on Lake Washington, we visited Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. With its colorful flower stalls and jewelry vendors, the destination was a hit with the girls. From there we set off down the road to catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island. Less than halfway there, I realized I wasn’t going to make it.
Ouch! We midlife moms pride ourselves on keeping up with the kids. By that point in the summer I had leaned on one daughter to get down the mountain and stolen another’s bike to finish a trail, pedaling proving easier than walking. We were all game for the boat ride. Yet walking there risked blowing out my hip again. And there wasn’t a taxi in sight.
Then out of the blue a pedicab appeared! I hired the driver on the spot and he pedaled us to the ferry landing. Later we took two pedicabs back to the market.
Lesson #4: Jump and the Bridge May Appear.
Those pedicabs felt like a gift from the gods, a sign that life can line up to help you when times are tough. Since then, I’ve found abandoned smart carts in just the right place in the airport, encountered parking places against the odds and had a pedicab save another outing.
I don’t count on luck. If anything, mobility issues force you to plan ahead. And there is too much tragedy in this world for me to believe in guardian angels. Still, it’s amazing how often serendipity saves the day.
From Seattle, we traveled to San Diego to visit relatives. It was great to see everybody, but getting around was difficult and it was the first year I didn’t swim in the ocean. After packing and cleaning the last day, bolts of pain shot through my legs. Excruciating, this pain was different than what I’d experienced in Aspen. What was going on?
Of course – it must be menopause!
Now, if you want to go crazy, just google any symptom along with “menopause.” You’ll find a gazillion middle-aged women suffering from the same thing as hormonal changes cause many ills besides hot flashes. Reading these stories is comforting until you realize there is no way to confirm that menopause is causing these problems.
My leg pains eventually subsided, probably due to the advanced massage I started a month later (see below.) Or maybe it was the low dose hormones I began then. I’ll never know for sure, and in retrospect all the time spent on menopause forums was not well spent.
Lesson #5: Beware the Menopausal Crazies.
Learn about menopause. But don’t expect the menopause fairy to make her messages clear, especially if you’re also dealing with another health issue. Beware spending time on forums with people as confused and sleep-deprived as you are.
The Marathon Mamas
Back home that fall, I helped the kids get ready for school. In late August I limped to a “Seven Continents Party” to celebrate two friends’ completion of their goal of running a marathon on each of the seven continents.
Over 5,000 miles on foot over eight years – and these were both midlife moms my age.
Isn’t that how it goes? If you have an ulcer, everyone is eating ice cream. If you’re limping around in sneakers, your friends are throwing marathon parties in stilettos. “Why me?” you think.
Yet a reality check usually follows. The mom in heels appears at the grocery store in a wig. A wheelchair rolls by. Recently a young mom in her twenties did my hair. “Wow,” I thought. “What great energy she has! What cute shoes!” Then she told me about her severe colitis.
By the time she finished I was happy just to have bad hips.
Lesson #6: Don’t Compare Your Insides to Other People’s Outsides.
Marla Beck, my fabulous coach at the time of the Seven Continents Party, passed this on. I’ve used it ever since to remind myself that those Facebook smiles are only part of the story. Everybody faces challenges. Nobody has it completely together. Maybe we should stop pretending that we do.
Breakdown Into Breakthrough
That fall I needed something new as acupuncture had alleviated the bursitis but my leg pains persisted. So I decided to try an advanced form of massage called Hoshino Therapy with Bodhi Kocica. Bodhi was great. Then he fell off the roof and injured his knee; like I said everyone has problems. (Good health practitioners are like good babysitters – you can never have enough names.) A friend suggested that I see Yesenia Urrutia, an advanced massage therapist who practices myofascial release therapy among other techniques.
Myofascial release therapy involves applying pressure to release tight areas or “trigger points” in the myofascial tissues, the membranes that wrap around your muscles. Few massage therapists are trained in it but I’ll never go to one again who isn’t.
In addition to massage, Yesenia provided exercises and educated me about muscles, tendons and ligaments. When something hurt, she could pinpoint it. It’s amazing how naming a problem can alleviate fear. Often I’d think I was falling apart only to find that a certain muscle was strained. (The hip joint is huge, affecting the entire leg.)
With Yesenia’s help, I was back at the gym and able to walk around the golf course in December, both unimaginable a few months earlier. My leg pains subsided. Massage also improved my ability to stand for long periods.
What remained difficult was sitting at my desk. Sitting is terrible for your overall health. If you have hip pain it can be a real killer. I’ve always worked out, but as a writer I’ve also spent a lot of time on my butt. Now the problem demanded attention.
After some research, I ordered an electric sit-stand desk. It’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made. With the push of a button, my desk goes up and down. I alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.
Lesson #7: Accept the Changes.
It’s all so inconvenient. Just when your to-do list is overflowing, the doctor tells you to get a new mattress. (Read Peter Cancelli’s helpful blog to survive that shopping nightmare.) Or to do physical therapy. Or to change your diet.
The hard truth is that health crises often force us to do things we should have done a long time ago. In addition to getting the sit-stand desk, I’ve lost 15 pounds since my hip pain began and started swimming again. I’d meant to do all of these things for years.
Good Enough Is Great
My efforts paid off. Traveling with the family last summer was challenging but better than the summer before, partly because I now understood my limits and how to manage my condition. Ibuprofen and ice packs can take you a long way. (With ibuprofen I also took deglycyrrhizinated licorice, or DGL, a supplement that helps protect the stomach lining.)
Gazing up at the mountains this time, I realized that hiking may not be the best sport for a woman with wide hips and arthritis, Yesenia having made it clear how much pressure it puts on the joints. So for the first time we rented bikes. Our rides proved a highlight of the trip. When we did hike, I was thrilled just to go part way up the trail. Given my challenges, I probably enjoyed my limited view more than many who arrived at the summit.
I also remembered something Bodhi had told me: “You don’t have to be 100 percent to have a normal life.” When we’re ill it often feels like the road back to our old lives is so long that we will never get there. But little improvements can go a long way to making you feel like your old self. And you don’t have to be in perfect condition to make a difference to those around you.
Lesson #8: You Don’t Have to Be 100 Percent to Be a Great Parent.
One of my concerns in recent years has been being there for my family, especially when my activities have been limited and even driving has been hard. Perhaps it’s every midlife mom’s secret fear: the years will catch up with you and you won’t be able to care for your kids.
But unless you’re gravely ill, the most important tasks remain doable: listening, providing a warm hug, offering encouragement. Every time I’ve felt frustrated because I can’t take my children on an outing, I’ve recalled the long talks I had with my father while visiting him after his hip surgeries. Those conversations wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been stuck in that hospital bed.
Lately I’ve tried to remember: parenting isn’t just about “doing;” it’s about “being” too.
Who you are as a parent is as important as what you do.
I wish I could now show you photos of me bungee jumping.
However osteoarthritis is a progressive, degenerative condition. After a good summer, my hips became painful again last fall. I skipped parent’s night at the school, stopped walking the dog and drove with ice packs under my butt.
At Macy’s one Saturday with my daughters, I was in such pain that I could barely complete our purchases. Seeing me grimace, the saleslady fetched a chair and then patiently tallied my stack of coupons, adding discounts I’m not sure existed. “I’m here for you,” she smiled.
Ah, dear Macy’s angel. You have only to be in pain to discover how good people can be. It’s enough to make you believe. . . in something.
Lesson #9: Bad Times Bring Out Good People.
Earlier this year, I posted a request for driving help on a local email service called JustAskBoo. One of my daughter’s teachers responded, offering to drive her to school every day at no charge. Talk about miracles.
My family, friends and our nanny have also all bent over backwards to provide support. Topping the list is my husband. When you commit “for better or worse” you don’t imagine this will mean driving to ballet and bar mitzvahs. But for now, few things could mean more. Thank you, Bill!
Doctors generally advise patients in their fifties with hip arthritis to postpone surgery as long as possible. Artificial hips don’t last forever. Replacing a hip early increases the chance that you will need another replacement, or “revision,” later. This second operation is riskier than the first for two reasons: it’s more complex and you’re older. My doctor suggested trying physical therapy before investigating surgery. So in October I started seeing Esperanza Gonzalez at Hope Physical Rehabilitation in Miami.
Esperanza did a special pain treatment that included lymphatic drainage, a form of massage that reduces inflammation and swelling by increasing circulation of the lymph. Her treatments controlled my pain and stabilized my right hip, which had become so weak that I could barely use it to climb stairs. Initially skeptical of lymphatic drainage, I’m a big believer now.
But we hit the wall with the exercises. A simple one to strengthen the medial glute muscles set my hips on fire. The stationary bike at the gym became too painful to use. The game was up. A day before traveling to Chicago for Thanksgiving, I broke down and bought a cane.
The older mom with the cane – YIKES! Yet what a relief. My little fold-up cane took the strain off my right hip and helped me through O’Hare Airport. It also provided a great reality check. With the cane I stopped trying to keep up with other people. Instead of rushing me, they opened doors.
Lesson #10: Be as Good – and as Bad – as You Really Are.
When you’re not well, it’s tempting to act better than you are. You want to be at your best, keep up with the kids and believe you’re getting better. And there’s much to be said for faking it until you make it. But it can also be exhausting and keep you from using helpful resources.
Self-conscious about the cane at first, I eventually realized that no one else cared about it. When I asked my girls if it bothered them, they thought I was crazy. Then again, my father’s cane never bothered me. Instead, I used to laugh at his stories of driving off with it on top of his car.
Hip Replacement Surgery
You know you’re in trouble when you spend most of your time in physical therapy getting pain treatments. Still, I wanted to avoid surgery. My father almost bled to death during a first hip replacement at 60. He died of double pneumonia after a hip revision at 76.
His experiences were unusual. Hip replacement is one of the most successful surgeries in medicine. In her eighties, my mother swims three hours a day with her two artificial hips. Still, no one wants a hip replaced in their fifties. And except for my c-sections I’d never had surgery.
Many believe that the wave of the future for arthritis treatment is stem cell therapy. In a last-ditch effort to avoid the knife, I contacted Regenerative Sciences about their Regenexx stem cell procedures. For a while I fantasized about getting my hips injected with my own stem cells at their Cayman Islands clinic while the family romped on the beach. But after getting an MRI and consulting with one of their doctors about the results, I nixed that idea. The MRI showed severe arthritis in both hips. Given that, stem cell therapy looked like an expensive long shot.
I chose Dr. Schneiderbauer partly because she does hip replacements using the “anterior approach,” a technique in which the surgeon makes the incision through the front of the hip instead of the buttocks or side. Unlike those traditional techniques, the anterior approach does not involve cutting muscles, allowing for a faster recovery. More common in Europe, it has been gaining popularity in the United States.
Dr. Schneiderbauer said my case was genetic with the socket of the joint not properly formed. (Someone couldn’t have told me this earlier?) As a result, no amount of physical therapy was going to turn the tide. Total hip replacement, she said, was the best solution and I was a good candidate for the anterior approach. Not everyone is; your anatomy has to allow the doctor room to do the job. She suggested doing two separate surgeries rather than operating on both hips at once. That sounded good. I wanted to avoid a long operation and couldn’t imagine dealing with two new hips at the same time, or a bilateral hip replacement, though some people do.
The surgeon said she would replace my hips with a combination of high-tech metal, plastic and ceramic. None of these parts would involve metal touching metal, the issue that has caused so many hip replacement problems recently. My new hips should last 25-30 years.
You say what? The doctor I’d consulted earlier had said artificial hips only last 10-15 years, and that had been my father’s experience. Had I known how much expectations have changed, I might have considered surgery sooner.
I left Dr. Schneiderbauer’s office with mixed emotions. I liked the surgeon and felt grateful to have found someone skilled in the anterior approach, much less the insurance to pay for the operation. New hips offered the possibility of reclaiming my life. (Apparently, hip surgery even improves your sex life!) I set the first operation date and, decision made, felt lighter.
For a few days, though, I also felt like a failure – all that effort to save my hips, for naught! Then I realized that my long struggle had had a major benefit: choosing surgery was now easy; I had tried everything else. And the more I read about the operation, the better it looked. The menopause forums may be disheartening but hip replacement posters are happy campers. As Arianna Huffington, another midlife mom who had her hip replaced after trying alternative therapies put it, “this was the moment to thank the gods for Western Medicine and modern surgery.”
Lesson #11: Keep Your Medical Options Open.
When faced with a health challenge, set fear aside and consider all treatments. The worst-case scenario may prove your salvation. Many hip replacement patients end up wishing they had done it sooner, including me.
The Bionic Woman
I now stand at my desk with two new hips done seven weeks apart earlier this year. I’ll pass on tips for those undergoing hip replacement surgery in a future post. Suffice to say that the operation is a big deal no matter what approach is used, but both surgeries went well and my recovery is on track. Now I’m doing a lot of physical therapy with Esperanza to strengthen muscles left weak from years of walking like a penguin. Each day brings miracles, even if I have a ways to go to “get my life back.”
Yet is that the right way to put it?
A friend recently observed that I’d lost six months of my life to hip problems. Really it was more like two years. I especially regret not having been able to do more with my daughters during this time. But “lost years?” No. Too much has been found.
The lessons and resources gained from my struggle are providing the foundation for a new, more active life and aiding my recovery. It was wonderful to come out of surgery with a physical therapist as gifted as Esperanza at the ready. I’ve supplemented our work with Yesenia’s massages. Both lymphatic drainage and myofascial tissue release have been helpful for rehabilitation. Hips sore after the operations, the standing desk proved a lifesaver. My girls were great nurses, an experience that benefited us all.
And who knows – maybe I’m the wiser for it all. If nothing else, two years of solving logistical problems has made me resourceful. I was amazed at how quickly I found the right person to drive me to physical therapy after the surgeries. If motherhood makes you smarter, being physically challenged as a parent can make you brilliant.
It is going to take time to recover my stride. But in the end, I hope to be a stronger, smarter woman as a result of my experience, and not just because I’m now part titanium. Most of all, may I remember a final lesson.
Lesson #12: It’s Not Going to Your Kid’s Graduation That matters; It’s Taking Her to Macy’s.
The small things in life are the big things; they’re what you miss most when incapacitated.
Step by step, I am celebrating them all.
Have you dealt with any health challenges as a mom? How has the experience affected you and your family? Please share by commenting below!
Need a book to read while recovering? I turned to Love, Medicine and Miracles. Written by surgeon, it’s inspiring and reminds us that love heals.
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Magic Rainbow illustration © Sarininka/Dreamstime.com
Angry Woman photo © Iakov Filimonov/Dreamstime.com
Other photos © Jennifer Hull