The Ms. has a thorn in the meniscus

February 21, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I am suffering from what is referred to in the unmedical annals as Middle-Aged Jock Syndrome.

This is a syndrome which begins at that precise moment in life when all the advice that we have hitherto followed to remain hale and hearty, fit and firm, aerobic and athletic goes belly up on us. Or back up. Or leg up. Or, in my case, knee up.

Suddenly, body parts we never knew existed and cannot spell begin to rip, tear, inflame and disintegrate. We discover a new verse to the old skeletal lyrics: the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone . . . and they are all connected to our age.

This physical betrayal, this treason on the part of the one body politic from which we had expected a modest amount of loyalty, is immediately followed by a crash course in anatomy. And, often, the verdict delivered by a much too cheerful doctor is that we can either repair our machinery or continue down the road of life like an old clunker.

The formerly unknown body part in question today is something called the meniscus. Who knew I had such a thing? Meniscus sounds like something you would find in the White Flower Farm catalog, not in your body. See the lovely yellow meniscus over there by the hibiscus.

Alas, this bit of cartilage that provides a cushion between my leg bones is unlovely. It is, moreover, torn. It is, moreover, my fault.

Middle-Aged Jock Syndrome, as anyone can tell you, is often brought upon you by Middle-Aged Hubris Syndrome. The onset of this particular disaster came from playing tennis with my niece, an ingrate who returned my years of affection and lessons by -- what else can you expect from a lawyer? -- finally beating me.

You know that ad where the middle-aged father is whipped at hoops by his son? The one where dad scoffs down a couple of cans of nutritional supplement -- where is the Drug Czar when you need him? -- then goes out and beats the stuffing out of the kid?

Let us just say that in my case, the rematch didn't go quite that well.

In one fierce rally, carrying the pride of an entire generation upon my racket, I lunged right, my knee went left, and a generation gap opened behind my kneecap. Suddenly the meniscus had a thorn.

Itsy-bitsy minor

So it is that I have arrived at my pre-op visit reading an Informed Consent form for what has been described to me as minor -- no, check that, very minor, outpatient minor, itsy-bitsy minor, good-as-new minor -- arthroscopic surgery.

Until now, as far as I understood it, arthroscopic knee surgery is this ''little procedure'' wherein the surgeon makes a couple of holes in your leg. One hole is for the instrument that lets him look around. The other is for the little doctor-gremlin who is sent in -- Fantastic Voyage II -- to snip off the torn hibiscus, uh, meniscus.

Maybe I have that a little wrong, but you get the idea.

According to my Overinformed Consent form however, I am subjecting myself to the risk of everything from a blood clot to damage to my vocal cords to -- oh, yes, I almost forgot -- loss of bodily function or life.

This is the wonder of modern medicine. Back in the 1960s, you could have open-heart surgery and be told only that ''everything would be just fine.'' Now, after an entire generation of lawsuits and bioethicists, you go in for a knee trim and they have you sign a form saying you were warned about the danger to your teeth. (The knee bone's connected to the bicuspid?)

It reminds me of that letter to the New England Journal of Medicine some years ago about the two patients who were informed against their wishes about the gory details of their upcoming operations. They each immediately dropped dead of a heart attack. True.

At the same time, no Overinformed Consent form ever warns a patient of the doctor who took out the wrong kidney, or -- my favorite-of-the-month -- the addicted anesthesiologist who kept his patients' drugs for himself.

Do I sound alarmed? No, no, not to worry. This is Middle-Aged Jock Talk. At this stage of life, we exchange hot tips about anti-inflammatories the way we used to exchange phone numbers. The only decathlon event left is in the O.R.

But my match awaits. I shall sign on the dotted line, sketch a ''Do Not Touch'' sign on the healthy knee and give a drug test to the anesthesiologist.

If anything goes wrong, remember: Meniscus is my favorite flower.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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