A Young Patient's Experience with Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can affect anyone. Millions of Americans suffer from this disease, which can be caused by several factors. Especially in younger people, the development of osteoarthritis can often be induced by an accident. In this issue of ARTHRITIS INFO we introduce:

 Ms. Julia D.,

a young woman who wanted to become a police officer ever since she was a child. She worked hard for her dream job, but suddenly a terrible car accident changed her life forever.

Diagnosis:    Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Treatment:    Ongoing Therapy  

It was only a few months before Julia was scheduled to complete her basic training in the Police Academy. She was doing a great job, loved her training, and was one of the few members of her class selected to join a special elite squad.

After a day of hard work on Valentine's Day, Julia and her best friend Verena enjoyed a relaxing evening. They drove to a movie, and on the way home they stopped off at a café for coffee. And that’s the last thing Julia remembers about that night.

A Life-Changing Accident

She doesn’t remember their drive home, when an oncoming car abruptly swerved across the center line into their lane and smashed head-on into Verena’s car. She didn’t notice the young driver stumbling out of the other car. And she didn’t see the flashing red and blue lights of the police cars and the fire engine, nor did she hear the screeching sound of metal being sawed apart when she was rescued from the remains of their car.

When the rescue workers arrived, they immediately saw that Julia’s condition was extremely critical. She was unconscious. The car’s engine had been forced into the passenger compartment, severely injuring Julia’s legs. After breathlessly cutting, peeling and prying, they lifted Julia out of the car and rushed her to the hospital. Julia’s friend had suffered only minor injuries and was also hospitalized.

Torn Knees and Fractures

Julia had injuries all over her body. Her face, arms, and especially her legs were affected, but she had also suffered internal injuries. As always when a patient with life-threatening injuries is brought to the emergency room, the surgeon on duty had to make quick and firm decisions. The first thing to do in Julia’s case was to take care of her internal injuries. She was also kept in an artificial coma to give her body time to rest and recover. The treatment of her legs would have to wait until her overall condition had stabilized.

Her parents and her brother were with her when she woke up from her coma. Three weeks had passed and they were grateful that their prayers had been answered – Julia was alive and they would be with her every step of her path to recovery.

Nearly a week after the accident, the doctors began the slow process of rebuilding Julia’s legs. The right thigh and shin bones had a total of 26 fractures, and there were another eight in the left shin. Also, both of her knees were badly injured, the ligaments frayed and the cartilage torn off. It was necessary to divide the treatment into small steps. First, Julia’s legs were provided with external braces and splints. Then, in one operation after another, the doctors repaired the fractures. They had to fix the broken bones with special plates, nails,
and screws. Her knees were not yet ready for treatment. The injured bones would have to grow together first, and later the metal would have to be removed.

Spending most of her days immobilized in bed, Julia felt that time was standing still. This required a lot of patience and strength from her. But she trusted in her doctors and the hospital staff. Her family, friends, and colleagues helped her to go on.

Growing Stronger and Stronger

Twelve weeks after the accident, Julia was released to a rehabilitation center. At first, she didn’t have the strength to move her legs, so a therapist had to move them for her. But after several days and with great effort, Julia could bend her knees on her own. She grew stronger and stronger and finally one morning, she took her first steps. Quietly, she celebrated her progress – soon she would be able to walk!

Julia wanted to return to normal life and to her job as soon as she could. So she kept on her exhausting training schedule with persistence and all her energy. 

In August she walked out of the rehabilitation clinic with her parents and went home. A few weeks later she had a frank conversation with her father. They were talking about her future and he quickly came to the point and told her in his calm and rational manner, “Julia, it’s over. You cannot go back to the Police Academy. You’re going to need to do something else with your life.” At first, Julia felt angry and deeply disappointed, but she knew he was right. As always, he was just trying to make her face the facts. Deep inside she’d known it all along. She’d seen it in her colleagues’ eyes when she had talked about going back to the academy. Her legs wouldn’t be strong enough for police work any more.

Starting a New Life

Family and friends didn’t allow Julia to fall into depression. And Julia knew that it was important to go on with the treatment of her knees. Her doctors had discussed the treatment plan with her. In a few months the plates and screws in her legs would have to be removed, and it would take some time to heal afterwards. Then, they planned to fix the tendons and ligaments to stabilize her knees. This was a very important part of their effort to slow the progressing osteoarthritis that was caused by the damaged and torn cartilage.

She prepared for the treatment with a structured daily routine, including swimming every morning and physical therapy every afternoon. Drawing and writing had been her hobbies before she had started her training at the Police Academy and she took them up again. She also started to plan for a new career. During the months in the hospital and rehab she had grown more and more interested in the medical field and found that there were some interesting options open to her.

And how does Julia feel after all these months of treatment and pain, and after losing her dream job?  
“I have become very calm,” she says, “I used to get so worked up about little everyday problems. But I’m really a lucky girl, because I survived this accident. I can walk. And there are still so many things I can do, so many countries I can visit, so many people I can meet. Now, I’m taking the time to enjoy things, not just running through life. I’d never realized how great life is.”

We thank Ms. Julia D. for the moving account of her experience with her severe injuries. We hope her perseverance will encourage other readers who are recovering from an accident, and we wish them all the best.

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