Schaefer gets new knee joint

State comptroller has been suffering from osteoarthritis

October 15, 1999|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who has increasingly been hobbled by bad knees, underwent joint replacement surgery yesterday at Kernan Hospital.

The former governor had surgery on his right knee to address what had become a debilitating problem with osteoarthritis. His surgeon, Dr. Claude Moorman, a University of Maryland orthopedist and head physician for the Baltimore Ravens, said the left knee also needs to be replaced and may be operated on in the next year.

Schaefer, 77, will spend three days in a post-surgical unit at the hospital to convalesce and then spend the next week in therapy in a rehabilitation area there named in his honor in 1996.

Hospital therapy manager Lori Quigg said Schaefer "shouldn't be walking in any parades" soon, but he could return to normal activities within a few weeks.

In his absence, Deputy Comptroller Stephen Cordi will manage the day-to-day activities of the office. However, Schaefer is expected to continue working at bedside.

"He's still in charge," said his director of communications, Paul Edwards.

Moorman explained that he conducted the surgery to relieve severe pain that Schaefer had experienced for several years.

"As you know, he's a pretty stoic guy," said Moorman, who is accustomed to operating on professional and college athletes. "But it finally got to a point where it was intolerable, even for regular daily activities."

The procedure, which took about 1 1/2 hours, replaced ragged cartilage in the knee with smooth plastic held in place by a metal rod fitted into the end of the shin bone and a metal cap at the end of the thigh bone.

"This is one of the most common afflictions that affects people as they age," Moorman said. "It's really just wear and tear in the joint that causes it. It's like the shock absorber's worn away. When the cartilage gets too irregular, it becomes extremely painful, and we can turn to this procedure."

The problem for Schaefer had become more noticeable in recent months. Even though he has often joked that his rolling gait made him look like a duck, the harmful effects of his distinctive walk finally became too much, Edwards said.

"We had a public television crew over at the office this week to talk about e-commerce," he said, "and when it came time for Mr. Schaefer to stand up to put his mike on, he moaned and groaned. Just standing has become an ordeal that he couldn't conceal anymore."

Given Schaefer's characteristically indefatigable temperament, his staff has been joking that they will soon see him on a playing card -- Schaefer's head superimposed over a Ravens' football player's body, ball tucked firmly into his side, one arm outstretched, right knee high in mid-stride.

Hospital officials said they decided to hold a news conference because they believed the former governor's celebrity could be used to educate the public about knee surgery and osteoarthritis.

Although knee replacement surgery is often associated with athletes, the procedure is not usually recommended for people under age 40 unless absolutely necessary, said Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, head physician for the University of Maryland athletic teams, who assisted in Schaefer's operation. The average age of those who elect the surgery is 60.

"The knee replacement has a lifetime of about 15 years," she said. "So if you're young, there's a good likelihood that it will have to be replaced more than once. Naturally, the more that happens, the less effective the knee will be."

The knees and hips are the most common joints that need replacement, she said, followed by shoulders. The procedure has become so common, Moorman said, that hundreds of thousands of knee replacements are performed every year.

Although full rehabilitation takes about six months, Schaefer is expected to begin walking today. By the first of next week, he will begin full physical therapy at the hospital and gradually go from the use of a walker, to crutches, to a cane.

Moorman would not say if Schaefer is the most celebrated of his patients -- Johnny Unitas, after all, had knee replacement surgery at Kernan Hospital, he said. But he was clearly pleased with his call to serve the former governor.

"We take care of a lot of athletes whose names you'd recognize but no one more special to us than Mr. Schaefer," he said.

Because the surgery only required a local anesthetic, Schaefer and the doctors were able to talk during the operation.

What did they talk about? Moorman was asked.

Politics, of course.

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