Good Athletes and Bad Knees



772f/1248375210-picture_1.png Charles Gerber is 53 years old. He had two total knee replacements in February of 2007. And last weekend he played in the finals of the University Club tennis tournament.

In other words, there is hope for injured lifetime athletes who think they might never play again.

"I haven't even taken an Advil in 18 months," said Gerber, principal with Gerber-Taylor Investments.

Several years ago Gerber had arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus, a common procedure to repair or "scrape" knee cartilage suffering from wear and tear. It allowed him to keep playing tennis and other sports. But the damage was severe, the pain never went away, and finally got so disabling that he considered replacements.

Doctors at Campbell Clinic in Germantown told him he would probably become, at best, a "two-step" tennis player, or in other words, he would be able to hit balls but not move around much.

"I think they were just trying to lower my expectations," said Gerber.

The double knee replacement was done by a right-handed surgeon, Dr. James Guyton, and a left-handed surgeon, Dr. James Harkess, working simultaneously so there would be one dose of anesthesia and one recovery period. Results exceeded expectations. Gerber took the prescription anti-inflammatory Celebrex briefly but quit because it tore up his digestive system. He did physical therapy at Campbell Clinic, where, if it's any comfort to the weak-kneed, the people with shoulder injuries appeared to be in worse agony.

A year later he was playing tennis again, and in the 2008 University Club singles tournament he lost in the finals in three sets to a younger player. That's not two-step tennis, that's high level club tennis. He has also resumed mountain hiking and downhill skiing.

Last Sunday, he and partner Jack Knight made the finals of the doubles. At 5-4, Gerber was serving for the first set when he felt a pain in his heel, possibly a bone spur, that forced him to default. It's always something, but this doesn't appear to be a case of one old injury leading to another. Gerber said his knees are fine, and he expects to be back on the tennis court in a week or two.

I know several men and women with bad knees who have had to give up sports. Dr. Terry Canale, an orthopedic surgeon and athlete, once told me that knee cartilage is like a tire. It wears out after a while. My impression is that Gerber's experience is exceptional. But if it gives hope to aching athletes, so be it.

I have had both of my knees 'scoped for torn meniscus by Dr. Tom Morris, with good results. For years I took Vioxx, and had the same problems as Gerber, but it did enable me to play sports wearing various knee braces and elastic sleeves. The worst part, oddly enough, was bursitis in one knee, which flared up when I was driving or sitting at a desk for a long time. Standing up and straightening my leg took a couple of minutes. I did not do structured physical therapy. But I continued to exercise, the pain (and the knee braces) went away, and I don't take anything except ibuprofen. I credit the good hands of Dr. Tom Morris, exercise, and good luck. Tom taught me a new word: asymptomatic.

If you have had a good or bad experience with a full, partial or double knee replacement and would like to share it, please post a comment.

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