Welcome to my
Just a 20-Something Girl,
Whose Hips were Living on
This all started back in 2013...
I was 25 years old, and 5 years into my career as a hairstylist. I spent very little time off my feet and have never led a sedentary life. All my favorite past-times kept me active and outside as much as possible. For all intents and purposes, I was young, healthy, and living an otherwise normal life.
One day I was standing behind the chair, cutting a client's hair, and my hip went mushy. I don't know how else to describe it. It felt detached from my body and numb - like someone replaced my hip joint with a dense, wet sponge. It was startling, to say the least. I played it cool as I wondered what I’d do if it didn’t stop. I didn’t trust it enough to put weight on it. So, I put all my weight on my right leg and hoped for the best as I continued cutting my client’s hair.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed and everything seemed to go back to normal. That was weird, I thought to myself, but shrugged it off as a fluke.
The next day, it happened again. Within a week, a sharp and intense pain set in. I started arguing with myself about how bad it really was in an attempt to convince myself it wasn’t that bad. There I was, limping around day-in-and-day-out, telling myself it was fine.
When the pain would spike, it would render me barely able to walk, which wasn't a great problem to have when your livelihood depended on you being on your feet four-five days a week.
The pain was relentless for weeks at a time. I'd hold it together during the day, but the moment I'd get home, I’d crawl into an epsom salt bath and cry. Then miraculously, after weeks of constant pain, it would taper off. Not entirely, but just enough for my naive 25-year-old self to believe it wasn't a big deal. I was certain it would correct itself.
A few months later I went on a Caribbean vacation with a group of friends. My pain had been manageable for a couple weeks leading up to our trip, so I thought it would be okay. But, two days into vacation the pain got so intense, it stole the air from my lungs. I couldn't even float in the ocean without the subtle movement of those clear blue swells causing excruciating pain. So, I stayed posted on a lounging chair, with an inflatable pink inner-tube shoved under my hips. This is bad, I thought to myself. I remember one of the women who worked at our tiny resort, she was one of those wise elders, who you know has seen it all and is the keeper of much sacred knowledge. She told me it was going to be okay and not to worry, it was probably nothing. I wanted to believe her, so I did.
About 4 or 5 weeks after we got home, my other hip decided to join the party. She skipped right over the mushy part and went directly to pain. This was my, "Oh, shit" moment. One bum hip I could handle. But two? That was pushing it. The pain in that hip only stuck around for a few weeks, but I raised the white flag and made an appointment to see a doctor.
The doctor ordered an x-ray and some blood work. When she got my x-ray back, she said,
"Well, it shows some narrowing in the joint, and your blood work came back borderline for Rheumatoid Arthritis. So, I'm going to refer you to a rheumatologist."
I wasn't shocked by this, as I have an aunt with RA, who also had hip problems at one point. What I didn't know then, was that RA is not hereditary.
The Rheumatologist called for more blood work before stating,
"I don't feel comfortable with this diagnosis. You're young and otherwise healthy. You might've injured your hip from jogging or one of your other activities. It will likely correct itself. Take some ibuprofen for now and if it doesn't get better, go see someone."
It was a vague answer. But, he said the magical words I needed to hear, "It will likely correct itself." Whatever else he said, didn't matter to me at the time. I wanted it to be something that equated to no big deal. I'd never had any major health issues. I've never even broken a bone. In my mind, there was no way something was legitimately wrong.
So, I dove deep into denial and my newly dubbed, “Granny Hip” and I went about our life.
My pain ebbed and flowed from mild to intense, but never fully went away. I lost my ability to walk without limping. And as the years went on and the pain got worse, I compensated as best I could. If I couldn't stand up to put my pants on, I sat down. I tried to keep doing my physical activities as best I could. A lot of times, in the moment, the pain wasn't terrible, my hips would just go numb. It was later, once I stopped moving or sat down when the pain would get horrific. I used momentum to keep me going, but often times I pushed myself too far. During those times, nothing would stop the tidal wave of pain and nausea. All I could do was grab an ice pack and heaping glass of wine and hope for the best. Life wasn’t going to stop, and neither was I.
I tried seeing a chiropractor, massage therapists with various specialties, hot yoga, and marijuana. I tried various brands and forms of Icy/Hot. I tried meditation. I tried releasing whatever ancestral baggage I was carrying that might've been creating trapped energy in my hip joints (I can't type that without chuckling to myself). The Woo crowd almost had me believing I could cure myself with “cord cutting” and getting in touch with my deepest, truest self. I tried everything short of finding new doctors.
Fast forward to 2017. My life had gotten flipped on its head and I was feeling burnt out with being a hairstylist. I also wasn’t sure how much longer I was going to be able to walk. I loved being a stylist and I was damn good at it, but trying to deal with the normal day-to-day stress of that career while also living with chronic pain, had taken a toll. I was exhausted all the time and I didn't want to do it anymore.
So, I sold my business and most of my belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Italy. Because, that still seemed like a better idea than going back to the doctor. I have such little faith in doctors. I was pretty sure I'd go and find out there was nothing they could do. And I didn’t feel like paying a grand to find out they couldn’t help me. Instead, I resolved to live the rest of my life in pain. I didn't advocate for myself. Instead, I gave my bum hip a nickname and brushed off people’s concerns. Very few of my friends and family knew how bad it really was.
"Why are you limping?" Someone would ask.
"Oh, it's just my Granny Hip." I’d respond as I pat my hip fondly.
A few weeks before I was set to leave, my new (at the time) girlfriend threw me one of her concerned faces and asked if I’d considered postponing my trip in order to get my hip situation figured out. “No no, I’m not postponing. They won’t help me anyway and I don’t have insurance. I just want to go.” So mid-way through December of 2017, I went.
A couple months into my European adventure, I found myself on a 20 hour bus ride from Northern Italy to Split, Croatia. I was using Workaway to find people I could stay with for free, in exchange for a few hours of work each day. Croatia brought me into the flat of a girl named Heidi. She was my age, had a young son, and was in med school full-time.
A few days into my stay, we sat at the kitchen table one night, chatting over rosé, when Granny Hip came up. Heidi made it her mission to help me figure out what was going on. Healthcare in Croatia is free for citizens and very affordable for non-citizens. Her neighbor helped us schedule an appointment with an orthopedic doctor and in the meantime, she took me to get an extensive blood panel done. I started feeling hopeful. Could I really live without all this pain?
The doctor examined my hip, called for some x-rays and sent me on my way. A week later. He popped the x-ray disk into his cd-rom and stared intently at the screen. Several nerve-wracking moments stretched between us before he finally removed his glasses, turned to me and in his thick, Croatian accent said, “Well Veronica, I don’t have good news.” I raised my eyebrows.
He went on to tell me the damage in my left hip was extensive. He said it was caused by hip dysplasia and there was little to no cartilage left. It had to be replaced.
“When are you going home?” he asked.
“I was planning on traveling for another few months…” I trailed off as he looked at me sternly and said, “I’d suggest you go home and take care of this now. I don’t know how you’re still walking.”
My mouth fell open and my mind went blank. "So like, can I start snowboarding after I get it fixed?" Was all I could think to say."
"I don't recommend it," He said.
He gave me some advice on what kind of prosthetic to get, wrote me a prescription for ibuprofen (which I never filled) and suggested I get some crutches. Then he handed me all my paperwork and x rays and sent me home.
Before we move on, I'd like to mention that the entire diagnostic process in Croatia cost me about $120. Let that sink in for a minute. Get your shit together, USA.
This development felt shocking. I know it seems kind of like a "Duh, Ronni," moment. But I had myself convinced there was nothing serious going on. I thought it was going to be something stupid, like finding out I just needed to start wearing inserts in my shoes. Part of me thought perhaps he was mistaken and when I finally made it home, the doctors would confirm I was right and it was nothing. The expert level of denial I’m able to reach pertaining to my health is award worthy.
I already had an epic adventure down the east coast of Spain planned with a friend, and I had no intention of cancelling, so I powered on. Sheer determination had kept me going for 5 years, so why stop now? But only a couple days into our Spanish adventure, all the walking and constant on-the-go theme of our trip rendered me nearly immobile. So, I took the doctors suggestion and acquired some crutches.
At first, my pride took a hit. Now I couldn’t hide (as if no one noticed my severe limp). But after having them for a day or so, I realized they were a total game changer. They drew unwanted attention from strangers and caused my hands to blister, but they made it possible for me to continue exploring, so my periwinkle crutches and I came to love each other.
After about four weeks in Spain and another week in Munich, I headed home.
It took about two and a half months after getting home to get my health insurance squared away and get in to see my primary doctor. Finally, at the beginning of July 2018, I got in to see an ortho. He took a look at my x-rays from Croatia, came in the room and after shaking my hand, looked at me, shook his head incredulously and said,
"Have you seen your x-rays??"
"Yep," I said.
"Are you ready for your replacement then?" He asked.
"Yep," I said.
He was floored at the amount of damage. My doctor in Croatia was right, a Total Hip Replacement was the only option. This new ortho referred me to the doctor who would be my surgeon and a week later, I met Dr. Heisler for the first time.
He ordered several more x-rays because the x-rays from Croatia were focused primarily on my left hip. He wanted to see both. Afterward, he came into the room and sat with me to go over them. He pointed out the numerous bone spurs caused by bone-on-bone contact, he showed how there was no cartilage remaining and how a cyst had started growing, again, from the bone-on-bone contact. Then he directed my attention to the other hip.
"You're already down several centimeters of cartilage in this hip as well. It's only a matter of time before you'll need this one replaced too. It's likely you are having more pain than you realize, but you don't have a healthy hip to compare it to. So, compared to the other one, it probably doesn't feel as bad."
I swallowed hard, feeling momentarily defeated and a little like crying. "Why is this happening?" I asked.
He couldn't say. He could only confirm it wasn’t hip dysplasia, even though it says so in my medical records. With hip dysplasia, the cartilage is typically worn out in one spot, whereas the entirety of my hip joints were worn out. “It might just be your anatomy,” he said. He also said there’s likely nothing I could've done to prevent this, which felt both relieving and incredibly frustrating.
Over the course of the previous 5-6 years, I lost the ability to do the majority of my physical activities (jogging, walking, dancing, biking, yoga, weight lifting). I lost the ability to put on pants while standing, to walk up the stairs without heavily relying on a handrail and to walk longer than a few minutes without crutches. I always thought about people who lived in chronic pain like, "Wow, I can't imagine what that must be like." Except, I had become one of those people. I think that's the amazing thing about the human spirit - you can be going through something other people can't even imagine, and think it's not all that bad. I'd become so accustomed to living with chronic pain, I had a difficult time imagining a life without it.
On August 8th, 2018 I received my first of two Total Hip Replacements. My surgeon used DePuy prosthetics. He took an anterior approach, which made recovery much easier. About 10 weeks later, on October 31st, 2018 I received my second hip replacement. I spent longer than expected going through physical therapy after my second hip surgery, because once my hips were fixed, the pain in my lower back that I’d previously been ignoring, continued worsening. This led to several experimental injections and eventually a nerve ablation.
My hips healed beautifully and aside from occasional soreness and being able to read barometric pressure with my hips alone, they haven’t given me any problems. But, I’m not out of the woods yet. They still don’t know what caused the deterioration to begin with. I have a lengthy list of chronic symptoms my doctor is still trying to diagnose.
Now that I have my ability to walk back, I want to give up on finding the culprit all the time. But I promised my 25-year-old self I wouldn’t let her down. I let the 2nd half of my 20’s and very beginning of my 30’s pass in a blur of pain and I refuse to allow this to happen again if I can help it. No one can say whether or not my other joints will be impacted by whatever took my hips, so I have to keep standing for myself and being my own biggest advocate.
It has taken a great deal of time and effort to find doctors who are as determined as I am to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes it feels like a full-time job managing all my doctors appointments, tests and procedures. But, if a few years of determined action helps me keep my other joints in tact for as long as possible, it’ll all be worth it.
We have to be fierce advocates for our own health. When doctors brush us off, we have to find new ones. We deserve to live our healthiest lives. We need to stop delegitimizing our pain. We know our bodies and we know when something isn’t right.
If you’ve been where I’ve been, or you’re there now, I see you. Don’t give up your search for answers. It’s imperative you trust your instincts and stand up for yourself. Be your own fierce and relentless advocate. You’re worth it.