A New Hip

There are 330,000 hip replacement surgeries in the U.S. each year, and the majority of people who undergo this operation sing its praises after a few months. But it's not something you jump into.

X-ray scan of a hip; a replacement joint is highlighted.
Replacement part: Allowing yourself to be cut open and having a small saw cut out part of your skeleton is something you contemplate over time. The author limped along for two years before going under the knife.

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A few years ago, a friend of mine had his second hip replaced. The first surgery had gone well, but the second did not. He got an infection, one of the most dreaded complications. They had to remove the prosthetic hip entirely, and he was left with a floppy leg. The leg wasn’t attached to his pelvis, forcing him to use crutches to get around, and when he sat down, he could swing it from side to side like a pendulum. He joked about it, but it took eight weeks for the infection to heal, and then he had to return to the hospital to get another titanium hip installed.

That was a messy ordeal, and one that haunted me when my own hip reached bone-on-bone pain. I limped along for over two years, thinking about my friend’s travails, but after an agonizing two-week trip to Poland in the dreary cold of November, I decided enough was enough. I had to try to get back to some kind of normal life. I wanted to play paddle tennis again. To walk in Runyon Canyon near my home. To not grimace at the gym, even when I worked out gingerly. I wanted the quality of my life to be better than it was, and there really seemed to be no alternative. Either get a hip replacement or continue to suffer.

There are 330,000 hip replacement surgeries in the U.S. each year, and the majority of people who undergo this operation sing its praises after a few months. The most frequent refrain I hear or read about is, “Why did I wait so long?” Well, waiting is part of any decision to be anesthetized, get cut open, and have a small saw cut out part of your skeleton. It’s not something you jump into. It’s something you contemplate over time.

My doctor had recommended a surgeon he liked, and I went to see him. He was personable, knowledgeable, and had confidence that I would do just fine. I took his card, which read that he was a specialist in shoulders, knees, and ankles. The word hip appeared nowhere on the card. My doctor assured me that the surgeon did over 200 hip operations a year. But that missing little word made me want to search for a second doctor, just for some reassurance.

A friend told me about this orthopedist, Dr. Brad Penenberg, who did 900 hip replacements a year, as many as seven a day. I asked my doctor about him, and he said, “Yes, I know of him. He won’t give you any personal attention, you won’t get to know him, but he knows what he’s doing.” I looked him up on the Internet and found an article in The New York Times that said he had developed a different way of cutting the posterior muscle, avoiding the usual long incision, and that it resulted in quicker healing. When I went to his office, I noticed the words Hip Institute outside the door. Being a word man, that was important to me.

I didn’t meet Dr. Penenberg on the first visit, just his assistant — a bright Asian woman who would make a good car salesman. She convinced me that her boss practically walked on water and that his results were more than amazing. I signed up.

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