Friday, January 30, 2015

Lenny and Arnie: Knee surgery part 2

One of the things I kept wondering, as I laid on the gurney before each surgery is, "Why am I doing this? I can still walk..." But the deal is, it was starting to hurt real good most all the time and I was fast becoming bowlegged, as the interior parts of my knee rotted away with osteoarthritis. And the worse it gets, the less you walk or exercise, and the further you have to go with recovery, etc. etc. So at some point you got make a move. 

And of course, at this point, now that the surgery is all done, there's not that much point in revisiting the rationale. It's a done deal. Recovery is the thing now.

We upwrapped knee one, the left one, which I have named Lenny (le [ft]-knee) about two days out of surgery. Looks like a pretty clean job.

I wish I had had the wits to do a better documentation before the first surgery. But I didn't. Anyhow, here is a shot of Lenny (post surgery, and Arnie (R-knee) pre-surgery. You can see why I am doing both. If left with one crooked, shorter leg, my back would soon be toast.

There's not a lot to talk about during re-hab. Boring exercises that hurt like hell. But hey, look at that flex.

Two weeks later to the day I was back on the gurney for round two. And an hour or two later, back in the waah-bulance headed home.

 So now I get to do electrified leg lifts, with an zippy, zappy muscle re-education gizmo. Turns out my quadriceps forgot a lot of what they used to think was normal. A little shock therapy does wonders in reminding them how it all works.

  And the slow painful one: extended pole dancing for range of motion:

But nearly every day when I measure the flex with my goniometer (go-knee-ometer) I get rewarded with concrete signs of progress. Lenny broke 140 degrees yesterday. Amazing. Annie is already in the mid-120s. 

And some rubber band stretches.

A bit of biking. Ow.

And the post-stretch icing. My favorite part.

Two days out from the second surgery the comparison is re-assuring. Lenny is looking pretty clean, healed, and unsworn. Annie is a bit pissy but has a good path laid out ahead of him. 

And I ain't bowlegged no mo.

So now it is another month of the dance between exercise and recovery, stretching my limits and mitigating the swelling, pain and oxycodone, pushing it and backing off. Got say, it really does hurt a lot. But progress is so alarmingly visible each day that I remain pretty damned enthusiastic about the whole process. Unless you catch me at a bad moment.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Eddying out for structural repairs

For the last decade my knees have been sending me unpleasant nastygrams with increasing frequency as they slowly morphed into an old cowboy's bandy-legged profile. It seems the interior landing of both knees have been succumbing to a lifetime of playing hard, coupled with a pesky thing called osteoarthritis, which my parents gave me as a birthday present. The net result of all this is that my knees hurt pretty much full time, although sometimes even moreso.

But I just happened to stumble along at the right time. A fairly recent technology has come of age specifically for hapless victims like myself. It is a robotic surgery called MakoPlasty, and it replaces only the bits that have become defective, while realigning my anatomy to a straight-legged human. My old college pal Day tried it out two years ago and his enthusiasm sent me to investigate further. We tracked down a highly recommended surgeon down in Phoenix, Dr. Tarlow, and his robot Rio. The doc said I was a poster boy for this surgery. So I waited for the insurance calendar to begin a new deductible year and set sail for Phoenix.

Last week I got to go for a ride in the space age cat scan machine. It whirs and hisses as you slide in and out of the tube of power. They tell me it made a very accurate 3D map of my legs from hip to ankle. This data gets fed to Rio the Robot.

On Monday morning they gave me a handsome buttless gown, stuck some things in me and told me to say Good Night Brad.

Then they did some stuff. Here are some pictures of what they tell me happened next. First off, Dr. Tarlow and his friend Rio showed up. 

Then they screwed some antennae into my upper and lower leg and tuned them into Rio, so he (she?) would know very, very precisely where my anatomy was hovering in the space-time continuum. Then they sliced open my knee and, with a little grinder attached to Rio's arm, ground out the funky part of my joint and made an awesomely precise landing for some chunks of metal.

Here is a little four-part diagram. Upper left: My former left knee and current right knee. Meniscus worn out, bones sad and angry. Upper right: what would happen in a total knee replacement. We are not going there today. Lower left: Rio and Dr. Tarlow engraving my knee joint. Lower right: new metal and plastic gizmo epoxied in.

And it ends up something like this:

As recently as two years ago when Day got his MakoPlasty, it involved a hospital stay. But now it can be done as an outpatient procedure in a strip-mall surgi-center. They are now doing a smaller incision, have a lot more practice at it, but one of the main advances is an incredibly precise nerve-block, done with a long scary needle and a jazzed-up ultrasound outfit. Here is what they were looking at. I can't make head nor tail of it. But it enables them to turn off all sensation from knee to lower calf while leaving the entire leg, ankle, and foot fully operational.

As a result, when I woke up--in what seemed less than a nanosecond after watching them do the nerve block--I could get up and walk to the potty and pee. Fully weight bearing on my new magic knee. Without pain. With an audience of three.

Then it was time to get dressed and blast on back to Flagstaff. Lora is speeding us north in our slipshod waaaah-bulance.:

One of my great concerns was how do I, with a freshly rebuilt knee, get from my driveway up the long, muddy switchbacks, to my house? Wheelbarrow? Furniture dolly? I was over-thinking it. Get out of the car and walk up to the long, muddy switchbacks to my house.

And walk up the stairs, sit in my chair, and play my ukulele. I find this more than mind-boggling. At 7:30 a.m. I was lying on a gurney in the pre-op room in Phoenix, wondering if the surgery would happen soon. At 1p.m., 5-1/2 hours later, I was 135 miles north, sitting in my living room, able to walk around, with a partial knee replacement.

That was four days ago. The rest is not very exciting. It took the nerve block more than three days to fully subside, so I missed a lot of the quality pain I paid for and had every right to expect. A few days of mild discomfort, a few days that I could call minor pain. Lots of exercises and stretches, lots of friends being astonishingly kind to me, and a few walks around the house, down the street, and about the boatshop.

Physical Therapy starts in three days, staples out two days after that, and five days after that: a new right knee to match. Woohoo!

Gigantic thanks to my dear friends Lora (whose RN skills and kind words and actions  were invaluable) and Day (who came down from Utah to help guide me through this wonderland). I owe you big.

Postscript: Ow. On day five the nerve block finally wore off and I found out just how irritated my knee was about all this. Turns out it is hard to follow the "let-pain-be-your-guide" activity plan when you can't feel the pain. I think I overdid it. Days five and six were pretty painful. Today is day seven and I am on an oxycodone holiday and doing my exercises a lot more gingerly. I think I'll be back on track here pretty quick.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Down Und Oars

My fascination with oar-making got another infusion in New Zealand last fall. We made a short stop, on my way to build dories, at the Gull oar factory in Palmerston North. Gull oars are known for being are light, straight, and affordable--three things that are hard to find in a wood oar.  We met Bruce Woodfield (on the right) who runs the company and carved his first oar by hand back in 1967. At that time they were making ladders, cabinetry, and some small wood boats, and needed to make oars for the boats. Bruce soon began devising the machinery to make them en masse.

Peter (on the left), who had been running the machinery for about three decades, walked us through the factory. The first giant gizmo takes a piece of square stock and rounds in into a giant dowel. Really fast.

They have a wide array of cutters, so they can make just about any size shaft. Sadly (for me) this precludes the possibility of making tapered-shaft oars, which I have an addiction to. Luckily for Gull, this is not a universal malady among oarsmen.

This gizmo makes the blades out of flat boards, onto which it cuts a perfect concave edge which fits perfectly against the dowel shaft.

Next, this giant monster of a machine grabs the blade parts, glues them onto the shaft, clamps them, and zaps them with a radio frequency that instantly cooks the glue. 

That gizmo then hands it off the the next gizmo that cuts the taper into the blades. 

 And drops it in the basket for Peter. It is a loud and very impressive process.


Finally the hand of man (Peter) takes it over to the giant drum sander and quickly smoothes the blade.

The oars are then dip-varnished and allowed to drip dry.

 After which they are pushed into the handle-cutter.

And there you have it. A really straight, light oar. Peter said that when everything is running properly, he can produce 600-700 oars a day. Which makes them affordable. That's even better than my shop.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2015 Boating Extravaganzas

Time for a bit of shameless promotion. Friends and curious onlookers often ask what river trip would be a good one to join me on. Well, 2015 is lining up nicely, but most of the trips I will be running are charters and not open to the public in general. There are two notable exceptions, which happen to be two of the coolest trip I will get to do. Here they are:

Arizona Raft Adventures

Dories and Stories Trip

April 23 – May 6.

We have been doing this trip each spring for about ten years now. I get to row a dory in the daytime and stand around the fire each evening and tell wild stories of Grand Canyon lore. Two of my favorite things to do in the whole world. It is early in the season, before the heat and crowds arrive, so the days are nice for hiking and the evenings are cool enough for a nice juniper campfire and stories. It is my favorite Grand Canyon trip to do each year, and there is still room on the 2015 trip. Check in with AzRA if you are interested. There is still room but hurry.

Click here: AzRA

Tom Tavee photo

Tom Tavee photo

Dory Moon / CRATE

Upper Colorado River and Music Adventure

July 5 – 16

Back in the 1980s and '90s I began setting up "extended play" dory trips in the upper basin of the Colorado River system. These were trips that went more miles at a slower pace than any other commercially trips available. I marketed them to friends and passengers who liked that kind of thing. They were wonderful.

After I ran out of steam (putting them together is a lot of work) my dear friend Andy Hutchison took the reins with his little operation he calls Dory Moon. For 2015 we are doing a resurrection of a trip we did back in 1997 with great success. We will start on the upper Colorado River near Grand Junction and spend twelve days floating to Lake Powell. We will go through Horsethief, Ruby, Westwater and Cataract Canyons and float through much of Canyonlands National Park and Deadhorse Point State Park. Rapids, scenery, hiking, relaxing, and some great music.

Our crew usually consists of Andy and his wife Kate Thompson, both amazing musicians; RJ Johnson, renown—or should I say infamous—geologist; and myself, relentless blabbermouth. We work with some of the best outfitters in the west. This year we'll be working through Colorado River and Trail Expeditions (CRATE) and Adventure Bound.

Click here:  CRATE -- it's the 12-day trip at the bottom. They have full information to pass on to you.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Oar quest

I've been on a tear for the last few years about oars for aging boatmen's shoulders, elbows, wrists, tendons and muscles--mine in particular. The last few published treatises on oarmarking, written nearly a half century ago, already bemoaned the fact that decent oars were no longer being made, and it has only gotten worse. Way less dynamic flex, way more needless weight outside the oarlocks. The result is an oar that sends shockwaves through your entire frame rather than absorbing the impact of waves, and far more weight (called "P-weight") that you have to lift from the water with each stroke, resulting in tendonitis and associated other grievances. Bludgeons. When we were young we were tough enough not to care. But now--I care. And, still rowing five to ten Grand Canyon trips a year, I hurt.

Even the synthetic oars, which are light and flex well, are not dynamic enough to function quite right. Too much flex inboard of the oarlock where you need stiffness, and not quite enough flex way out toward the blade. The perfect flex, thus far, can only be created with perfectly tapered wood.

When I went to work for AzRA ten years ago, rowing rafts in Grand Canyon, I was allowed to grab oars from the garbage pile. Amazingly I found four very ugly but straight 11' oars. I took them home and power-planed off several pounds of wood from the outboard ends and approximated the nice flex of the Smokers I had long used on dories. More recently I decided that 11' was just too much oar for an old guy. Some of our guides were using ten-foot oars happily, so I cut mine to 10-1/2', dropped my oarlocks an inch, and bingo, my shoulders quit hurting as much. This past season I loaned these Frankenstein oars to a couple friends and they waxed rapturously. I think I am heading somewhere with what I need oar-wise. And what more and more of my aging boatman friends are coming to need.

When I went to WoodenBoat School in June, I learned how to make devine oars from scratch, and I made a pair from nice, light, strong spruce.

By inference, I learned how to make bad oars better. I learned what wood you can and should remove, what wood must remain for strength. One of the big tricks is keeping them perfectly centered and straight--assuming they were straight in the first place.

The lovely set of spruce oars I made in school worked magnificently in Grand Canyon last September, but, being afraid spruce was not quite strong enough, I had left a bit of beef on the blades. Turns out they are heap plenty strong and a bit too stiff in the blade department. I like a springy flex. It makes my wrists and arms and elbows and shoulders all much happier.

So with a bit of trepidation I pulled them out a few days ago and re-marked all the center lines and began symmetrically removing blade. Not a lot--but I think it may be enough to make me happy. And of course, every ounce you remove from the blade not only adds flex and spring, but lightens the P-weight of the oar in your hand.

Once I went as far as I dared with the plane and spokeshave, I smoothed it our with a succession of custom shaped foam sandpaper blocks of diminishing grit size--40, 60, 80, 100, 120, 180, 220. Smooth as a baby's bottom. Next time I get out in the dory I'll find out if I made a difference.

So then I pulled out a clunky Smoker oar I had--made for modern hacker oarsmen, they now carry far more weight outboard of the oarlock than they need to. And they are among the nicer modern oars you can buy. I started in by drawing all the centerlines, and establishing goals to thin to.

I got my rough cut done last night with plane and spokeshave. I was about to start in again this afternoon when Greg Loehr walked in. Greg, the epoxy guru, Greg the surfboard shaper. Away went the spokeshave, out came the big goddam board grinder with a 24-grit disk. Yikes. The thing simply vaporizes wood. But Greg has a light touch after decades of grinding styrofoam boards.

In a matter of minutes we felt out way into creating sweet, concave tapers on the blades, climbing to a raised spine in the oar's center.  Leaving that spine saves most of the blade's strength. Removing everything else saves your arms.  We tapered the blades to about 3/16" around the edges. We ended up with an oar about a pound and a half lighter than its siblings, with a balance point 2-3" closer to the oarlock. This is very good.

We also reduced the size of the shaft between the oarlock and neck of the oar--more flex, less weight.

I finished up with my foam sanding blocks and oiled it up this evening. Wow. I think we are onto something.