An Orthopaedic Success Story
Leon Luker lives with four artificial joints and severe arthritis, but he survives on faith in orthopaedic medicine and the fact that he can still feel his ATV accelerate beneath his feet.
Leon Luker finds pleasure in simple joys, like picking wild asparagus, tending the garden and taking long rides on his Honda ATV through and over 400-some acres of land that his family owns. He’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t always easy, the last to say “I can’t” and slowing down is something that he generally detests.
This is because Luker, who lives in Black Wolf with his wife, Jane, has had nine orthopaedic operations and is living with four artificial joints. Most days are accomplished with the help of a catnap, the support of his family and optimism like none other.
The 65-year-old has lived a labored life. His first taste of contact sports was as a 10-year-old and his active lifestyle carried on through high school where he was considered one of Oshkosh’s top athletes.
“As a young man, I knew I was putting myself through a lot,” Luker says. “But I pushed myself. That’s just who I am.”
He bounced between football, basketball and track and field in high school before joining the men’s basketball team at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Not long after starting college, he dropped out to work for his father, Leon Luker, Sr., in construction. Labeled as the “big guy,” coworkers would request Luker to help with heavy lifting. From strains and dislocations to bumps and falls, Luker’s body took a beating.
A couple of short decades later, the damage control would begin.
Disjointed: Operations and replacements
Luker had his first reconstructive surgery performed by Dr. Roy Buck at Mercy Medical Center in 1983 to repair the ligament and cartilage in his right knee. A doctor at a different hospital performed an arthroscopy on his right knee in 1995, and that same doctor operated on Luker when he was in a serious accident at work involving a forklift in 1999. He suffered a right leg fracture, right ankle injury and left leg injury.
Severe arthritis was the reason Luker had surgery twice in 2007 – his right rotator cuff in January and a right knee replacement in November.
But three years later, Luker experienced a rare orthopaedics emergency.
Half way through the day on February 14, 2010, Luker noticed his right knee was stiff and he started to feel ill. Forced to cancel Valentine’s Day plans with Jane, he went to bed. The next day he was running a fever and experienced tremendous swelling in his knee. Trying to bend it was no easy task. He decided to go to the hospital, but even that proved difficult.
The only way Luker could get to Mercy Medical Center was by laying down in the back of his suburban.
After a short visit in the emergency department, Luker was admitted to the hospital’s second floor – orthopaedics. Dr. Davis Tsai, orthopaedic surgeon for the Kennedy Center at Mercy Medical Center, arrived to assess Luker’s knee.
The unusual illness and stiffness Luker experienced was caused by septic arthropathy (disease of the joints) with sepsis (an infection in the bloodstream).
According to Dr. Tsai, the professional rule of thumb is the surgeon who did the surgery should take care of the joint. But a doctor in Green Bay had performed Luker’s right knee replacement and since he had been admitted to Mercy Medical Center, Dr. Tsai had to step in.
“At that point in time he was fairly ill,” explains Dr. Tsai. “The leg looked horrible with ankle ulcers, but his organs were threatened and had not begun to fail.”
Dr. Tsai removed the hardware of the implant and positioned a cement block with a high concentration of antibiotics in his knee.
After the surgery, Luker was restricted to a hospital bed without a right knee. He was now considered an “explant” patient (when a joint is “explanted” from the body) and the long journey to recovery began with basic rehabilitation. Dr. Tsai couldn’t replace the knee until the infection healed.
“My leg moved like a snake,” Luker says. “It would go in every direction. The nurses knew just how to position and move my leg to relieve my pain.”
Luker was moved up to the subacute unit on the fifth floor in Mercy Medical Center, which is an in-hospital based nursing home. It was there that he met two individuals, Chris Barczak and Tami Morrow, who worked in two different departments. Both Barczak and Morrow would be crucial to his recovery.
On the mend
Barczak is a physical therapist and the clinical coordinator of inpatient rehabilitation services at Mercy Medical Center. He has seen cases like this before, sometimes even a couple of times a year, but he had never met anyone like Luker before.
“He’s a big and tall guy, and I’m 5’4” and 140 pounds,” Barczak says. “We’re a mix-matched duo that way.”
Luker’s size made rehab a little difficult. Therapy started with the basics: rolling side-toside, sitting up and lying down. It took Barczak and the assistance of a student therapist just to help Luker stand.
“The problem was the pain he was in because of the whole body infection,” Barczak explains. “The infection attacked both shoulders, both hips and his good knee, which also needed to be replaced. He basically didn’t have a ‘good leg’ to stand on.”
“Chris would get me up without a knee,” Luker says, his voice giving way to a great sense of pride in his therapist. “He said I had to stand and I would.”
Having only been a registered nurse for about a year, Morrow had never cared for an explant patient before Luker. From the very first time they met, the two were like old friends.
“When patients tell you what their goals are, it makes you feel really connected,” she says. “He called himself a bionic man. I remember him saying he wanted to get back on that four-wheeler.”
Changing his dressings caused Luker a great deal of pain. The two developed a system where they would lift up his jointless leg together at the same time. There was a great deal of swelling in the lower part of his legs because of his venous stastis, a condition where blood flow is slow in the veins. Morrow, along with other staff, would assist in putting on “special” tube socks each day, sometimes twice a day.
“The tugging and pushing that was required to get the socks on was excruciating for him, but he’d describe what I had to do,” she says.
When he wasn’t doing rehab, Luker was in the company of his family and also received regular visits from the spiritual services team at Mercy Medical Center.
Six weeks later, Luker returned to orthopaedics to have Dr. Tsai replace his right knee again.
After Dr. Tsai completed the replacement surgery, Luker returned to the fifth floor where the plan was for him to finish about one more week of rehabilitation. After many long weeks in the hospital already, Luker asked Barczak point blank what he had to do to go home sooner.
Luker had to walk to the end of the hall and back. So he did that. Then, he had to go up and down a series of steps. He did that, too; not without pain, but he did it. His nearly 12-week hospital stay had finally come to an end.
“It was Leon’s hard work that got him through it – gritting his teeth, pushing through the pain, actively working on getting better and moving better,” Barczak says. “It was meaningful for me to be a part of that and see him through.”
Today, Luker walks with the help of a cane but enjoys it most when it’s strapped to the front of his ATV.
Luker’s most recent surgery was in February 2011. Dr. Jeffrey McLaughlin orthopaedic surgeon with the Kennedy Center, replaced his left hip.
“The cartilage around his hip bones had worn away and was like sandpaper rubbing together,” Dr. McLaughlin explains. “I don’t know how he walked on it as long as he did.”
According to Dr. McLaughlin, the techniques of orthopaedic surgery have modernized. Today, he can accomplish a hip replacement surgery in about 40 minutes. “It’s not a small operation, but it used to be a very big operation,” Dr. McLaughlin adds. “You used to be in the hospital for 10 days and recovery took about four months. Now, a patient spends only three days in the hospital and six weeks to recover.”
Strength of steel
Dr. McLaughlin predicts that Luker’s right hip will have to be replaced sometime down the road, but until then, Luker pushes on putting his pedal to the metal.
If you ask him about the support system he has in his parents and Jane, he gets choked up.
“Jane never missed a day,” he says. “She was my rock. She’d watch the nurses and catch on after seeing it once.”
Morrow fondly remembers Luker’s mother, Ann Marie, and father, Leon Sr., and the amount of devotion they had for Luker while he was in the hospital.
“His family was there to bathe him so the nurses never had to,” Morrow shares. “They wanted to be involved and they’d do anything for him as far as his personal needs went. They were remarkable.”
Ann Marie, who fits snuggly in the underarm of Luker as he pushes up against her for a hug, says simply, “We made it.”
But not without the help and dedication of the hospital team at Mercy Medical Center.
Luker contributes his recuperation to the surgeons, nurses, therapists, pastoral staff, administrators and Network Health Plan representatives.
“The only time I don’t feel handicapped is when I’m on my ATV,” he says. “But who knows if I’d even be able to ride that thing if it weren’t for Dr. Tsai and Dr. McLaughlin. They have given me the opportunity to have my life back again.”
If you’re experiencing shoulder instability, immobility or pain, attend our Nov. 9th talk: Shoulder Pain – Causes, Treatment and You. Click here to register.