My favourite activity has always been running – feeling the wind in my hair, being able to zone out and feel my body relax into the movement. It was my way to combat stress, and once upon a time it was the best way I knew to stay in shape.
But all good things come to an end, and after injuring myself, I was positively forlorn for lack of my go-to exercise. In an attempt to recapture my next marathon, I decided to forego surgery but try the stem cell approach, instead.
I’ve had many people interested in the procedure and the results, and so I’ve assembled the posts I did for friends into a series articles that are based on my experience. If you have knee or other joint issues, I hope you’ll find it helpful.
An Origin Story
When I blew out my meniscus back in 2015, I started going to see a physio at the Sports Medicine Specialists, which has now rebranded as the Cleveland Clinic Canada. She recommended seeing one of their sports doctors to look into orthotics and a couple of other treatments.
Dr. Julia Hamilton is who I got in with – a great doctor with a bedside manner that makes you want to hang out with her at your cottage. She also knows her stuff, and is an athlete herself. She has had this same procedure done herself, so she knows first-hand what the procedure can do for you and what the recovery is like.
You may need a referral from your family doctor, but if you call them directly, they’ll be able to let you know. The doctor will send you for an MRI after your consultation so she can get a good look at exactly what’s going on in your knee(s). I should mention that it’s also appropriate for joints other than knees, and I’ve considered having it done on my bad shoulder, for example.
Because this procedure is new, it’s still considered ‘experimental’ by the government and it is NOT covered by OHIP. Where I went, the cost was $3500 for both knees. There are other doctors in the city who do this, but their pricing may be different. For instance, my first referral for this procedure was to another doctor who quoted me $7000.
It took an hour, roughly. They start by removing some adipose/fat tissue, because that’s where the stem cells are stored. They will freeze you (she did it in the back of my hip), and then make a tiny incision.
The uncomfortable part is that she had to dig away at my hip “to break up the fat,” and this is not too fun…a couple of times she had to refreeze because she got outside the frozen area or it started to wear off and began to hurt a little bit.
Next up, they drew blood, and they spun this in a centrifuge to separate and remove the platelets. Then they spun the adipose tissue to separate the stem cells. Lastly, they mixed the two together.
On to the knees! They need to freeze the area, of course, but I’m afraid of needles, and it stung like heck.
To inject the stem cells, she had me lie on my back on the table with a leg hanging off the side. I didn’t look at this needle, but I was sure it was the size of the Seattle space needle. She maneuvered my leg and knee to create the space she needed, and then she jammed in the needle…or at least, that’s what it felt like. However, it was over fairly quickly, so there’s that.
I should also mention just how incredibly SUPER nice the nurse was. Full disclosure: I may have cried more than a little (needlephobia), but she held my hand very patiently, which helped.
With both knees done, I grabbed my (borrowed) cane, and met my friend in the waiting room to drive me home, because I was definitely hobbling. Once home, I slept off the experience (and the Ativan I was prescribed for the needle anxiety), and then I was basically immobile for a week.
Three and a half weeks later…
This is the first day I felt like I was ‘back to before’…it’s been about 3 and a half weeks, and most of that has been spent on the couch.
In that time, I’ve been to the physio 3 times, and she gave me extremely light exercises for the last 2 weeks of that. I wasn’t diligent too about the first week, but VERY diligent after getting in a routine – after all, I didn’t want to undo the expense and effort of the procedure because I didn’t do my followup properly.
I was on a cane until the start of the third week. I didn’t need it too badly during week 2, but I was still limping quite noticeably, so it was more for my nervousness than anything else.
I was limping because I couldn’t get full extension on my knees, which were still swollen after the procedure. However, the cane did come in handy on TTC, because standing was painful until about the end of week 3.
While there was still a little achy-tightness in my right knee, it was also not stopping me from doing anything by this point.
My left knee WAS the BAD knee and my right knee was my better knee. Interestingly, although the better knee showed the first sign of improvement, the BAD knee ended up feeling the better of the two.
By this point I was seriously fighting the urge to go for a run in the beautiful spring weather. But I was DETERMINED to do it right and build up my biggest weaknesses instead of undermining them.
…stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, coming up soon!
Catherine Chan is the Founder & CEO of FitIn.io, a new fitness platform connecting Canadians with personal trainers/instructors, fitness, exercise or movement classes near them in mere minutes. A mental health advocate, she has dedicated a part of her platform to mental health and wellness classes, promoting movement + mindfulness in order to find profound, sustainable health.