Mary Ellen Wonders, left, with her siblings and her mom.
Pain really can affect your disposition.
The infrequent yet always memorable paper cut really does a number on me, but I can usually get through the day. Lately, I’ve had a nagging lower back issue. While the pain fluctuates, my mood remains consistent.
I’m crabby to everybody.
That’s why talking with Mary Ellen Wonders was just what I needed. For a very long time, she has confronted the kind of knee pain that hurts just about all the time, turning simple tasks into Herculean efforts.
She began our conversation by dismissing what she’s endured.
“Oh goodness, there are people who have had to deal with so much more than I have,” said Mary Ellen, who invited me into her Oshkosh home, a welcoming and vibrant place that perfectly reflected its owner.
Sitting in an overstuffed chair with her cane propped nearby, Mary Ellen was rehabbing from her second total knee replacement in 2016. Like many following such a surgery, you could sense she was coming from a place very different from the one she had occupied for so long, a place of pain.
I asked a question I often ask: “Do you think you waited too long to take this step?”
Her answer was both thoughtful and immediate: “You choose to do what you do when it makes sense at that point in your life.”
At that point in her life, Mary Ellen wanted to spend as much time as she could with her mother, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Her husband, recently retired, was dealing with a number of health issues related to his diabetes. Additionally, Mary Ellen worked full-time.
For 39 years, Mary Ellen has worked at U.S. Bank, the last eight as Regional Operations Manager. She didn’t miss a day of work because of the pain in her knees. Mary Ellen prides herself on the work ethic instilled in her by her parents. Her father, a professor at UW–Oshkosh, didn’t use a sick day in a career that spanned five decades.
And as someone who has spent her life in customer service, Mary Ellen understood the importance of a positive attitude. The pain in her knees, a constant companion, didn’t affect her treatment of customers, clients, or her team.
She would not let that happen.
Several years ago, Mary Ellen saw Dr. Kenneth Schaufelberger in Neenah for cortisone shots. Injections for both knees provided relief, the effectiveness of some lasting for nearly a year. She immediately connected with Schaufelberger.
“It’s important to have somebody who really listens, who takes his time, and explains the situation and the options clearly and with compassion,” said Mary Ellen. “That’s Dr. Schaufelberger.”
Following a shot that supplied a particularly lengthy period of respite, she returned for another injection, only to find that Schaufelberger was no longer at the Neenah clinic. She continued with cortisone injections, as well as the obligatory ibuprofen.
Eventually, shots and over-the-counter medications were no longer doing the job. Mary Ellen’s knees went from bad to worse. Thinking out loud about that next shot and who was actually going to provide it, she complained to a colleague about how she was sad that she could no longer see Dr. Schaufelberger.
Her colleague said, “You mean Ken Schaufelberger?”
“Yes, I wish he was still practicing in the area.”
“He is, at OSI in Appleton.”
Mary Ellen said it felt like she hit the jackpot. She called the Orthopedic & Sports Institute of the Fox Valley and made an immediate appointment.
When asked what types of activities were affected by the pain and stiffness, Mary Ellen highlighted some very basic things many of us take for granted, like sleeping through the night. Every evening was literally spent searching for the spot that would not hurt, a continuous process of shifting that lasted until morning.
“Everything was a struggle,” she said.
Reuniting with Dr. Schaufelberger at OSI, Mary Ellen said he summed up how bad things had gotten with her knees in a single sentence.
“It hurts me to look at the x-rays of your knees,” said Schaufelberger.
In layman’s terms, Mary Ellen had windswept knees. Simply imagine a wind coming from the side with the ability to move the knees. Both knees are swept to the side, one moving inward towards the body (knock knee) and the other moving out (bow leg).
Mary Ellen described it differently.
“Man, I was crooked,” she said. “And I lost three inches in height!”
Mary Ellen opted to go with injections of hyaluronic acid, one of the building blocks of synovial fluid, the thick substance that allows bones to glide smoothly against one another.
Schaufelberger told Mary Ellen the hyaluronic acid injections would make her knees feel about as good as they were going to get, possibly prolonging surgery for another year or two, if that was the road Mary Ellen chose.
“This was the last stop before replacement,” said Mary Ellen.
On three consecutive Fridays in September of 2015, she received injections in each knee. As with the cortisone shots, there was some relief, but it was relatively short-lived. Schaufelberger had told her that by mid-October, her knees were going to be how they were going to be.
By mid-October, Mary Ellen had reached the moment when she knew that next step made sense.
“I was going to get new knees. Plural.”
Her right knee joint was bone on bone and gave Mary Ellen the most trouble and the most pain. Prior to the surgery on the right knee, her job was to strengthen her less painful left knee so as to help in the rehab of the right.
She met in January with Kim Jablonski, OSI Total Joint Program Coordinator, who coordinates and oversees the entire care path experience for patients undergoing total joint replacement. Mary Ellen just happened to be the first total joint replacement candidate to utilize Wellbe, an online program that guides patients and families through the preparation and recovery from surgery.
Mary Ellen had never undergone a medical procedure before; nonetheless, she slept like a baby the night before surgery.
“I had such faith in Dr. Schaufelberger,” she said. “He looked me in the eye and told me what was going to happen. And things happened just as he described.”
On February 1, her first total knee replacement was performed at OSI. Mary Ellen awoke to an unusual feeling.
“The pain that was my constant companion was no longer there,” said Mary Ellen.
Mary Ellen rehabbed at Recovery Inn, OSI’s attached skilled nursing facility. She was up and walking (with walker and immobilizer) and began physical therapy the same day. She went home three days later.
After two weeks, she was where she was supposed to be at a month out.
Said Mary Ellen, “I really put in the physical therapy work.”
Twelve weeks later, Mary Ellen repeated the process, this time on the left knee: joint replacement at OSI with Dr. Schaufelberger, then on to Recovery Inn. According to Mary Ellen, the surgery on her left knee was trickier and posed somewhat of a challenge to Schaufelberger. As with the first surgery, she was ecstatic with the results.
Following her second successful surgery, Mary Ellen wanted to say thank you to Dr. Schaufelberger, his Medical Assistant and right arm Shirley Sitter, and the rest of his staff along with the team from Recovery Inn in her own special way.
Schaufelberger tried to dissuade her, but Mary Ellen brought lunch in for everyone.
“They don’t know how good they are because they have no other way of being,” she said. “I could start a fan club.”
Mary Ellen is now fully rehabbed from both of her knee surgeries, but she’s not done with surgery quite yet. Early on, before she took care of her knees, she knew she had issues to resolve with her left foot. Mary Ellen had been told that surgery was a distinct possibility. Her response was typically straightforward.
“Let me get my knees taken care of first.”
At the time of this writing, Mary Ellen had just begun her rehab from surgery on her foot, performed by OSI podiatrist Dr. Todd Derksen, which included talonavicular fusion, subtalar fusion, first metatarsal cuneiform arthrodesis, and lengthening of the left Achilles.
Or, as Dr. Derksen translated, “Your foot will be back where it belongs: under your left leg instead of out to the side.”
Mary Ellen knows that her foot surgery will be the final piece of the puzzle that returns her completely to her lifestyle. Without the full function restored to her through two knee replacements, the surgery to fix her foot would not have been an option.
At the close of our chat, I asked Mary Ellen to return to something she had said earlier: “You choose to do what you do when it makes sense at that point in your life.”
Mary Ellen said the time she spent with her mother before she passed were moments as profound as any in her life.
“My mother, even at the end, was not defined by her Alzheimer’s,” she said.
The story of her mother is one Mary Ellen tells willingly. She believes the lessons of such an experience are universal.
Mary Ellen likens her mom’s story with the one you have just read. It too is a story she is passionate about. She shares it here, without reservation, to provide encouragement to anyone who is at that point in life where taking action is a serious consideration.
“Dr. Schaufelberger changed my life,” said Mary Ellen. “There has not been a day that has passed that I have not thought about how monumental this journey has been.”