By Seth Rogovoy
(Saturday, January 12, 2019) NEW YORK CITY – I go under the knife on Monday morning. More specifically, my right foot will be cut open and bone spurs (the real kind, not the fake kind with which “patriotic” “nationalist” presidents evade the call-up) that are impinging on my first metatarsal joint will be “shaved down” in an effort to stop any further damage from being done to the joint. This, as I understand it, is a temporary fix for what will presumably be a problem for the rest of my life. And as such, it is the first such real symptom of “getting old” that I am facing.
To be clear, I am not old. I am 58-going-on-59, which, as I understand it, is the new 40s. And indeed, before the onset of this particular ailment, I was doing pretty well. Having recommitted myself to exercise a few years back (that’s a joke, you see – having for the very first time in my life committed myself to exercise), I was in the best shape I had been in many years, possibly ever. I had shed 20 pounds off a body that, while possibly having grown soft, had never turned round. I worked with a physical trainer two to three times a week and saw muscles sprouting on my body where none had ever before been seen by mankind or womankind or any kind. I went a couple times a week to a high-intensity-interval-training exercise class tailored for 20-somethings and, while I mostly huffed and puffed to keep up with them on the intense cardio exercises, I held my own and then some on strength-based exercises, including planks and push-ups. Take that, yuppies!
To be clear, I am not feeling sorry for myself. Anytime I find myself going there, I remind myself that just over a year ago, one of my very best friends went under the knife because a tumor was growing behind his eyeball, pushing it out of his skull! Miraculously, Frank’s surgery went off without a hitch and his recovery was swift and total. (He could have easily lost sight in one eye, and even if that had happened, it would have still been a better outcome than the worst possible, unspeakable scenario – fortunately, the tumor proved to be benign.) Around the same time, one of my wife’s best friends since childhood had a similar thing happen to her ear. And I’m not even including the reality that people my age are beginning to peel off terminally, or that earlier this decade my then-girlfriend’s 51-year-old heart exploded right before my very eyes. That gives one perspective. My operation, even if it gets complicated, simply can’t compare to those scenarios.
Nevertheless, this time out, it’s me, and this time out, it’s my right foot. Would it be different if it were my left foot? Probably not much, other than that I’m right-handed, and, as a result, presumably right-footed. In either case, it’s a foot, and you need both feet to walk, and I love to walk – around town, in the country, and, especially, in the city, where I’m a fancy-footed would-be flaneur, stumbling aimlessly down the avenues and around the side streets of lower Manhattan, looking for what I don’t know in fine flaneurial fashion.
But since this past August, when my foot first really started to hurt, I haven’t been able to enjoy walking, much less to do jumping-jacks alongside soon-to-be-millionaire Wall Street analysts still in their 20s. As a result, I’ve gained back most (but not all, to be perfectly clear) of that weight I had shed. My endurance isn’t what it was nearly a year ago on my wedding day. And my beloved new muscles are already disappearing. (So far, my wife seems to be sticking with me in spite of all these indignities.)
What exactly happened to my right foot? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to remember. It’s hard to know for sure. I do recall that for about a year beforehand, before last August when my foot began to hurt, my right big toe sort of hurt. It felt jammed, like it needed one good hard pull to stretch it out. It felt better for a few minutes after I soaked it in a hot bath, but the relief was fleeting. I probably should have had it checked out, but it didn’t seem like much of a big deal, so I just waited for the joint to pop open on its own, which it never did.
Then, last August, one sleepy morning I missed the last few steps leading down from my loft bedroom to the first floor, and I landed in a crumple at the bottom of the staircase. I felt pretty banged up all over. But nothing felt broken, just bruised. I had a few sore spots here and there, on my hip and my leg and my back and maybe a wrist. It didn’t seem like anything I needed to address. Slowly, almost all of the aches and pains that resulted from that fall went away except one. My right foot felt funny. More specifically, the joint below my right big toe didn’t feel right; it felt like it needed to be cracked back into place. It wasn’t a pain as much as it was a discomfort. I felt an unsatisfactory “click” in the joint when I walked, unsatisfactory because the “click” didn’t result in the satisfactory feeling you get when, say, you crack your knuckles. (I say “you” because I have never cracked my knuckles and I don’t think you should either, especially if I am your father.) Over the course of the next few weeks and months, the discomfort led to pain if I walked more than a couple of blocks. Finally, in October, I actually looked down at my foot for the very first time, and … wow! There was a big red bump on top of that joint! Ouch. Aha. No wonder my foot didn’t feel right; no wonder it hurt.
I guess I should see someone about it, I thought.
A week or two later, I was at home upstate in Hudson, N.Y., listening to WAMC Northeast Public Radio, and sure enough, I heard one of those underwriting messages from something called Hudson Valley Foot Associates – a network of podiatric offices around the region, including one right there in Hudson (n.b. underwriting works!). A quick phone call followed by a quick visit and a quick X-ray ensued, followed by a quick diagnosis – something called hallux rigidus – and plans were set in motion, plans that included getting a second opinion from a podiatrist in Manhattan (recommended by a Berkshire friend who coincidentally has a place in the city right around the corner from mine), a podiatrist who it turns out my daughter had heard of because every dancer in New York City goes to him, including one of her best friends. I’ll spare you the details, but he was great, and along with recommending that I immediately get a pair of Hoka Bondi running shoes because of their unusual sole and the way they make your foot bounce off the ground before you engage that front joint that on my foot was now dysfunctional (I got them around the corner from his office and, in addition to being the most comfortable shoe I have ever worn, they are apparently very on trend, such that anytime I walk into a boutique or retail establishment, some 20-something salesperson inevitably says, “I love your kicks,” or, “Are those Hokas? Cool!”), he prescibed me an MRI and passed me along to a surgeon, who, as it turns out, graduated from Williams College about 10 years after I did (not that I ever set foot in a bio or chem lab there as I’m sure she did), and who will be chiseling away my bone spur on Monday morning around 9:30am if all goes according to schedule.
To take a step back (no pun intended), I have no idea if the big bad bone spur began with my bad big toe, or if my spill down the staircase damaged my foot or kickstarted the growth of the bone spur in any way. As one of the doctors I saw put it, the only way we could know for sure would be if we had taken an MRI of my foot moments before I fell and then another MRI a week or two later and compared the results. So, we will never really know. Apparently the only reasonable way to think about what “caused” this podiatric affliction is that dreaded term, arthritis, which apparently simply means “what happens to joints when they get old.” There is, of course, no cure for arthritis, just as there is no cure for old age. My surgeon says that if what is going on in my foot joint was going on analogously in my hip joint, I would be a candidate for an immediate hip replacement. As it happens, they don’t do metatarsal joint replacements … yet. In 10 years or so, when the metatarsal joint replacement technology catches up to hips, I’ll probably be a prime candidate for a fake toe joint.
In the meantime, I can look forward to a slow but steady recovery of the use of my right foot. I might even be able to stand on two feet without crutches and walk around the apartment the day after surgery! (I find this hard to imagine, but that’s what Doc Williams says.) I might be able to venture outside for a few breaths of fresh air by the end of the week. In two weeks or so, maybe I can shed the surgical boot and walk around the block – or just 2.5 blocks to the subway? Well, let’s not get carried away. I’ll have a very similar pain and discomfort level for a few months compared to what I have now, except it will be the pain and discomfort of recovering from surgery rather than the pain and discomfort of continued damage to the joint. It will be a long time before the post-surgical swelling fully abides. Like, months. I can probably go back to my personal trainer in two or three months or so. Maybe I will even be able to go back to the insane HIIT exercise class in four months, although I’m wondering if I might instead find something more age-appropriate. After all, I am, apparently, beginning to get old.
Other than wisdom-teeth extraction and a vasectomy, Seth Rogovoy has never undergone surgery.