Remembering My Doctor Who Let Me Walk Again

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When I was 17, I broke my hip at the Grand Canyon. A boulder I was sitting on rolled over on top of me, crushed my hip and pelvis, trapped my leg and dragged me to the very rim of the canyon. It would have taken me over the edge if not for a skinny pinyon pine growing up from under the rim right at that spot.

I was lucky to be alive. But my hip was badly broken. A first surgery to pin the joint together had failed. So when my mother read about Dr. Philip Wilson Jr., named in a magazine as the best orthopedic surgeon in New York, where we lived, she took me to see him.

It would be the beginning of a 43-year bond.

Dr. Wilson, the chief surgeon of New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, was a tall, straight-backed man who wore bow ties and spoke quietly, but with calm assurance and confidence. His steadfast resolve would turn out to be a very good thing, because my broken hip was not going to be a simple fix.

Dr. Wilson was one of a handful of pioneers in the United States of the total hip replacement, the surgery that has transformed the experience of aging. But for me he proposed a very different operation — a partial hip replacement. Instead of replacing the entire ball-and-socket joint, he would file down and reshape both the joint’s socket and the head of the femur, cover the femur with a metal cup, and ensure that both parts make a secure and smooth-operating fit.

It was an older and much trickier operation, notoriously prone to failure. It was performed only in a few medical centers, and only in cases like mine, on young people with severe injuries, because back then total hip replacements were lasting an average of only 10 years. Dr. Wilson wanted to spare me a lifetime of repeat surgeries.

And so the day before my 18th birthday — I have a dim memory of a birthday cake amid the pain meds — he performed the surgery. And then we were off on our journey through a doozy of a rehab.

I was on crutches for two years. In the beginning I wasn’t allowed to sit for more than 45 minutes at a time. I wore a timer that rang to remind me to stand or lie down. For my first job, writing for the New York mayor’s office for the handicapped, I brought in a lawn lounge chair and wrote while lying on my belly, the typewriter on the floor beneath me.

My mother, worried that I would never be able to walk without crutches, took me to other doctors for second opinions. Those other physicians were unanimous: The operation had failed. I should get a total hip replacement.

But Dr. Wilson held firm. Every few months I went in to see him. Those visits routinely took three hours, because of his large number of fiercely devoted patients and his willingness to spend time with each of us; I used to nap in the exam room.

And every time, he would counsel patience. Give it time, he told me serenely; it would work.

He was unflappable. The only time I saw him do a double-take was when I told him about my personal investigations of the effect of marijuana on hip pain, something his elderly patients were not exploring in the 1970s. Alas, it made my hip hurt more.

Time passed. I made it off crutches, though 10 years after the surgery, now living in Chicago, pain occasionally forced me to use a cane. Even 20 years on, I was getting twinges and was wary about walking long distances.

Then, around my 40th birthday, something amazing happened.

My pain disappeared. I could walk a mile without my hip hurting. Two miles. Five miles. Eight miles. Some of it uphill.

I was ecstatic. I took up hiking, rock climbing, downhill skiing. Every year I wrote a holiday letter to Dr. Wilson, telling him of the adventures his hip had taken me on that year, enclosing photos and thanking him.

I came to realize how unusual my surgery was, and how uncertain its success. The procedure he performed on me, the cup arthroplasty, has become extinct. I am one of the last people on the planet with that metal cup. It is considered a medical antique.

I last saw Dr. Wilson four years ago, when he asked me to come see him next time I was in New York. He was putting together an archive of his most noteworthy surgeries, and wanted to include mine.

He was in his 90s and held emeritus status but came into his office regularly. To my nostalgic delight, I still had to wait an hour to see him.

His eyesight was failing and he walked with a cane himself. But he was otherwise unchanged and matter-of-fact as ever, even as my throat tightened when I thanked him, filled with gratitude after all these years.

He was having none of it. I shouldn’t be nostalgic about my hip, he told me briskly; if I ever developed severe pain, I could always have a total replacement. And total replacements today routinely last lifetimes. He had bought me that time.

Time, however, finally caught up with him.

I didn’t know that his life was ebbing this past summer. But eerily, my hip seemed to. My pain returned, for the first time in years. I dug my cane out of the basement and, fearing that my latest exercise binge had ruined Dr. Wilson’s handiwork, worriedly wrote to him.

That’s how I found out he had just died.

A coincidence — and yet it felt like something more. It was as if we were connected at the hip he had crafted for me, as if my hip could thrive only as long as he did. Or, perhaps, as if my hip were grieving.

The pain receded, but then returned. My Chicago doctor and I are in the process of figuring out whether this is just a temporary flareup, or whether Dr. Wilson’s handiwork has finally run its wondrous course.

On a trip to California not long after his death, I walked out onto a hiking trail on a ridge high above Palo Alto, Calif., for a memorial service to Dr. Wilson. It was a private one — my own tribute to the doctor who had enabled me to take countless hikes like this one. I made my pilgrimage onto that hiking trail, and there, surrounded by those hills of glorious golden grasses, I silently bade Dr. Wilson thank you, and farewell.