This all feels too familiar. Mid-May with a greenhouse full of transplants wanting to go in the ground and a bad knee. (I know, we shouldn’t call our hurting parts bad parts, or broken either. But it’s hard not to think of it that way some times.)


Greens transplanted into our garden pre-knee pain.

That’s just how my brave, unstoppable mother overdid it on a sore knee several decades back, touching off a string of events that has unquestionably changed her life. In a few months, she will have her second knee replacement after years of toughing it out with an increasingly thin cartilage layer and a painful leg bone angle at the joint.

Yesterday, I surrendered. I went to see a doctor about my right knee which has been bothering me for the past month and a half. I have mixed feelings about doctors , especially given my own health history in the past few years and my family’s health history reaching back way further. They can save your life (my dad is still here because of them), and they can also make life altering choices on your behalf with little care for your quality of life later. Most of the people I trust and respect the most are leery of doctors, each for their own reasons. This has rubbed off on me, but I’ve also found that sometimes the expertise and guidance of a doctor can be essential. Thus, I am often mentally strung up somewhere between the two approaches.

Thankfully, I trust the orthopedist I saw, who no longer performs surgeries. He has now helped me through a right foot injury, a left ankle sprain, and now a diagnosis and treatment path for patellofemoral pain syndrome (stemming from chondromalacia patella or a cartilage scraping behind the kneecap when it doesn’t track right with the groove in the femur), patellar tendonitis, and a sore medial collateral ligament, where it attaches to the shinbone.


My unruly kneecaps, as captured by an x-ray yesterday.

All of these have been further aggravated by lateral compression syndrome, where my kneecaps tend to ride toward the outside of my femur (as exhibited in the x-ray taken yesterday.) Unbalanced tightness and looseness in my thigh muscles may be the culprit for that problem. Repetitive movements that require knee flexion are out until I can untangle that jumbled ball of symptoms, causes and their respective solutions.

This is a nuanced physiological problem, I’m learning. Moving can make the pain worse. Yet sitting around can be at least as bad. Part of the answer is varying the types of activity I engage in and the ways I move, listening to my body, and adapting to the new reality. That’s the medium term. In the near term, I’m narrowing my reality down to ibuprofen every 8 hours and gradual but religious rehab on the floor to see what I can do with the gut-it-out treatment path. Could take up to four months I’m told, thus disrupting plans for backpacking, swimming, and work around the homestead.

With this latest body issue, I’m once again thinking about how we talk to sick or injured people. Having been through a few body snafus in the past few years, I’ve had time to observe patterns and give this some thought – maybe too much time and too much thought. So, I will offer some unsolicited advice on the topic.

We often seek to use humor to improve the situation for the person who is hurting. This can work beautifully if you know the person really well. But it can go way awry, too. Easy to crack a joke if you’re not the one suffering. And if we aren’t careful to direct the humor toward ourselves or some outside target, it can do unintended damage.

Or we say something that calls into question the legitimacy of their problem. Also a dead end.

Finally, what I too often hear is a comment that implies the question: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?” Let me assure you that anyone whose body is out of working order is asking themselves that question a million times per day. Leave them to it. It’s their question to ask and answer.

If you want to converse about why/how someone’s body is breaking down, think of a time when you experienced pain or your body didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t work as expected or hoped. Start there, but remember that everyone’s body is different, so they won’t all respond the same way. Ask questions about the person’s symptoms, options, experience and approach. Above all else, LISTEN. Be in solidarity with them.

It’s a frustrating setback that can force a radical rearranging of how we live, a time when life doesn’t go even close to according to THE PLAN. It’s also a tremendous learning opportunity for those of us who hurt. And for those of us around those who hurt, it’s a chance to make a lifelong friend who will help you up when you’re down (or remember if you don’t do the same.) If you can truly empathize, you can do a great service for people with these plan-defying health problems. And if you earn their trust by refraining from judgement or hasty reaction, the patient will soon want to know what you think, want to know who your physical therapist was, want to know how you resolved your own health issues.

My final suggestion: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. At least you will do no harm.

“You can go about living your life, and doing what you need to do,” my doc assured me. “Unless your life involves hiking uphill through the woods all day. That will probably not be so good for your knee.”

Point taken. But my doc, bless him, has obviously never been to Somes Bar or tried working at a watershed council.

Fortunately, I schedule all my bunk body parts for NBA season and post-season.