Bellingham man finds patience, physical therapy crucial after knee surgery


Name: Roger Barnhart, retired surgeon.

Age: 85.

Hometown: Bellingham, since 1969.

Family: Barnhart lives with his wife, Nancy, 65, who retired from nursing at St. Joseph hospital last June. He has two children and a grandson.

Worn down: Roger was an avid skier and sailor, but knee pain forced him to set aside his favorite hobbies. After many active years, both of his knees were in a naturally degenerate state, although his years as a U.S. Army paratrooper certainly put some extra wear and tear on the joints, he says.

From her perspective, Nancy noticed that walking up stairs had become a task for her husband. Prior to his surgery, she says, his left knee was so worn that he looked a little bowlegged.

Artificial knee: Roger had surgery last June to replace his left knee - the worse of the two - with an artificial joint. The surgery relieved some of the pain in his right knee as well, because the left knee became stronger and able to bear more weight.

"Quite often people don't have to do both knees," he says.

Therapy crucial: Many people worry about finding a good surgeon, a focus that can neglect physical therapists, who are essential to helping a patient's knee become usable again, Nancy says.

In the months after surgery, Roger encountered some unsteadiness, but his sense of balance is expected to return, he says. While recovery has been difficult and painful, it's worth the effort, he says, because his daily pain has been relieved.

To relieve pain and regain his mobility and flexibility, Roger does physical therapy and exercises.

"The physical therapists that you spend time with are very, very good at exercises necessary to make (the pain) go away," he says.

Team approach: Nancy has served as her husband's coach and helper. They attended classes at St. Joseph's Joint Replacement Center to know what to expect before, during and after surgery. She also attended physical therapy sessions with her husband to learn about exercises to do at home.

"Especially for people that are older, it's probably imperative that you have somebody as your coach who can actually be with you in the home," she says.

Pills and spills: Medication was one challenge they encountered early on, Nancy says, because patients shouldn't take too much of a painkiller, yet needs enough for the medication to be effective.

Also, joint-replacement patients are allowed to leave the hospital only if they can negotiate stairs safely. The Barnhart's three-story home has a lot of stairs. To master the challenge, Roger took one stair at a time, keeping most of his weight on his left knee while he stepped up with his right leg. The slow but efficient process enabled him to recover at home.

Adjusting: With his new knee, Roger needed higher chairs, because after such surgery it can be difficult to get up from a low chair, Nancy explains.

At first, Roger used a walker after surgery, but within a few months, thanks to exercises, he is able to move freely without it, Nancy says. Generally, patients are expected to have good mobility six months after surgery. After one year, the new joint should feel natural, with the patient unable to tell the joint was replaced, Nancy says.

With Roger's muscles functioning smoothly once again, his pain is nearly gone.

"There are tissues, like muscles and tendons, that are doing something different than what they were doing before," Roger says. "Now that those are beginning to function, I'm virtually without pain."

Staying busy: Nancy has noticed that using stairs now seems easier for her husband, and he is able to drive more comfortably and walks with an easier gait. However, extended travel can still be uncomfortable for him.

Physical therapy exercises remain a part of his daily routine. With skiing and sailing no longer an option, Roger spends much of his time reading. He and his wife also walk up to a half-mile at a time.

"We go a little bit slowly now, but we're working that up," Nancy says.

Now that they are both retired, they have been able to enjoy several weeklong road trips. In the future, they hope to drive cross-country and perhaps visit Europe. Movies, theater and time with family also fill their time, Nancy says.

Alisa Gramann is a freelance writer in Bellingham.

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