Talk is lively at the quarterly reunion luncheon for hip- and knee-replacement patients in the nearly full conference room at St. Luke's Community Health Education Center.
A slide show plays photos of smiling people after their surgery - walking dogs, doing yoga, climbing stairs and riding bikes.
Ordinary activities to most people, but not to this group. For them, it's miraculous, because each person has changed his or her life with a hip or knee replacement.
Dr. James Holstine, medical director of the Joint Replacement Center at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, and one of nearly a dozen surgeons performing joint replacements at the hospital, asks the group for feedback on the program.
"Why did I wait so long," comes a nearly unanimous answer.
Even more unusual is the positive response about what some people consider a scary surgical procedure.
"It was wonderful," says 69-year-old patient Madeleine Lindaas of Sudden Valley, who had a knee replaced almost a year ago. "Awakening in the recovery room, I managed to wiggle my leg and was amazed; bone pain was completely gone!"
One of the first of its kind, the center opened seven years ago, receiving awards of excellence for an innovative, patient-centered program.
Each patient is assigned a "joint replacement team" consisting of an orthopedic surgeon, registered nurse, physical therapist, PT assistant, occupational therapist and a care coordinator. The team communicates from start to finish, from the first interview to surgery to post-operative exercise.
Holstine says more and more people, including the elderly, are getting new joints.
"Over 600,000 people in the U.S. get joint replacements annually," he says. "With the number of people over 65 in the U.S. increasing from 40 million in 2010 to 55 million in 2020, this is going to dramatically rise. We wanted to be ready with the best possible program."
"Every patient has a different set of needs and physical makeup, like weight, strength, health, diabetes, age and more," he says. "We want you to come in as healthy as possible for a good outcome, and we'll help prepare you for it."
So, when is it time to get a joint replaced?
Holstine says, "You'll know when it's right."
Lots of people are figuring the time is right. The center now does more than 700 hip and knee replacements a year.
"We are more active, demanding and living longer," says Shevaun Rudkin, program manager. "We want to get back to our favorite activities."
Sandy Harnden-Warwick, a physical therapist with expertise working with older people, works with joint-replacement patients during their hospital stay.
"People who start the exercises before and continue after are much happier with the end result," she says. "We have them up and walking within five hours of surgery."
"I love it when we get people moving and they take their first longer walk, and how excited they are afterward," she says.
Part of the post-surgery care is preparing patients for their departure from the hospital.
"We spend about an hour to an hour and a half talking about how to take care of yourself at home," says Susan Nichols, a registered nurse. "We use physical and occupational therapy and teach how to care for your incision, look for signs of infection, and monitor medications. We encourage patients to call us if something isn't right."
There are numerous physical therapy centers in Whatcom County that offer recovery programs for people recuperating from joint surgery. Wherever a patient receives it, supervised exercise is a key to recovery.
After surgery, most of the Joint Center's patients receive their physical therapy at the "Joint Gym," an outpatient facility at St. Joseph's South Campus on Chestnut Street. Working alongside other patients and their personal coaches (often spouses or friends), offers companionship, moral support and just a touch of competitiveness.
"A big guy is much less likely to complain about pain when watching an 80-year-old woman doing the same exercises," Holstine says with a laugh.
Lindaas, who volunteers at the center, says she worked hard to follow recommendations and do exercises after her knee surgery.
"It has been not quite a year and I am completely recovered," she says. "I now have a fully useful knee; dependable, flexible and pain-free. I can walk as far as I wish, dance and, best of all, keep up with my grandchildren."
Taimi Dunn Gorman is a Bellingham freelance writer.