Manitoba

Knee Club keeps patients tough during lonely months of rehab

Every month about a dozen Winnipeggers meet up a rehabilitation centre to catch up over coffee and talk about a subject that has dominated their lives in recent months — their knees.

Laura Reimer started the informal group after knee replacement surgery and struggling through recovery

Laura Reimer started the Knee Club in the summer after she had a knee replacement in May. (Laura Glowacki/CBC)

Every month about a dozen Winnipeggers meet up a rehabilitation centre to catch up over coffee and talk about a subject that has dominated their lives in recent months — their knees.

Joint replacement is one of the most common surgeries in Canada and will only increase as our population ages. But for new knees to be successful patients have to override an instinct to rest and push themselves through months, sometimes years, of rehab.

Patients can feel "crippled, pained and discouraged" during the process, says Laura Reimer, founder of the "Knee Club."

The 57-year-old had her left knee replaced in May with the hope she might be able to run again with the new joint.

In 2003 she smashed her knee into a curb in a cycling accident. Arthritis formed eventually caused constant, excruciating pain. 

Reimer went into the surgery knowing she was signing onto 18 to 24 months of recovery. But it's one thing to know something, another to live it.

"Somewhere at about 12 weeks you finally realize when the surgeon told you it's going to take two years to recover, you actually believe him."

Debbie Voyer (right) has been meeting with the Knee Club since this summer on and off. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Three months after her surgery, she still couldn't sit in a movie theatre. Taking a plane was out of the question. Just getting in and out of the car or using a public toilet was an ordeal. It's a time when supports fall away.

"Your family is sick of it. You're sick of it. If you don't have some kind of health care you're starting to have to pay for rehabilitation which is expensive. It's very discouraging," said Reimer.

In the summer, she started meeting with other knee patients on a regular basis to share information and commiserate. Out of those meetings the Knee Club was born. 

Now the 15-member club meet monthly at the Total Rehabilitation and Sports Injuries Clinic on Provencher Boulevard. They wear black Knee Club t-shirts when working out together, keep in touch over text and have a Facebook page.

"We kind of shifted from being … lonely warriors to being a group of inspired people," Reimer said. "We kind of fed off of eachother."

Laura Reimer went on a sailing trip in Mexico in early 2018. (courtesy Laura Reimer)

For Reimer the progress of regaining movement was so painfully slow she tracked each degree of movement she got back. It took from August to December to bend her knee five more degrees — one degree every four weeks.

More than 1,500 people receive knee replacement in Winnipeg every year. Most, 86 per cent, say they are satisfied with their new knees, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Between 90 and 95 percent of new knees last 15 years and most patients report years of pain-free movement.

Debbie Voyer has had both of her knees replaced in recent years. She has met up with the Knee Club on and off since it started.

"Just to know there's other people and you're not alone in this. You go through all kinds of different emotions," Voyer said.

Many people, even partners, don't understand what a person recovering from knee surgery is going through, she said. 

Marta Breul is an athletic therapist at Total Rehabilitation and Sports Injuries Clinic who says she has taken on more clients since the outpatient program for full knee replacement was cancelled. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Marta Breul, an athletic therapist, works with Reimer and other members of the Knee Club. Good rehabilitation is essential for patients in their recovery, she said.

"It makes all the difference. It takes you from not being able to climb stairs or even want to get out of bed to having your life back."

In nearly every total knee replacement, Breul says patients see their normal supports — kids, partners, friends — drop off after about three months. A community like the Knee Club gives patients nearly 24/7 access to others sympathetic to what they're going through.

"You need a big support system," she said. "Just have something to look forward to … whether it's every two weeks, once a month and book it on your social calendar and have it boost your mood a little bit."

Last year an outpatient knee recovery program was cut by the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to save money. The health authority encourages patients to seek out private rehabilitation clinics and do exercises at home. Previously, hospitals across Winnipeg offered free physiotherapy classes to groups of between five and 10 people, twice a week after their surgeries. 

Breul said that's driven more knee patients to seek out her help, she said. 

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spokesperson Bronwyn Penner Holigroski said in an email while the Knee Club is not affiliated with Concordia Hospital or employees within the health region, the WRHA will "work with Ms. Reimer as she continues to make connections within the region to grow her support network."

Every month about a dozen Winnipeggers meet up a rehabilitation centre to catch up over coffee and talk about a subject that has dominated their lives in recent months — their knees. 2:10

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa and Winnipeg. Previously, she worked as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.

with files from Erin Brohman

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