NextGen Story No. 859
Walk or Die
As Lonnie Saathoff walked the two-mile round-trip across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in July 2009, he really should have had the Rocky theme music blasting in the background. To the drivers on the bridge, he probably looked like any other 64-year-old man they might encounter. But with every step, Lonnie was walking further away from the sure death that awaited him just months before.
Lonnie’s life had come down to a single mandate: Walk or die. From the time he was in his early 20s, he had lived with bronchiectasis, a debilitating disease that makes it difficult to clear out the normal secretions in the lungs. He describes his bronchial tubes as “a blister with the skin peeled off.”
When fluid gathers in Lonnie’s lungs, every breath becomes a major undertaking. At least three times a day, every day, for the past 40 years, Lonnie has had to make an effort to clear his lungs. When he was younger, he would get down on his hands and knees and force the thick fluid out. The repetition of that action year after year eventually damaged his back, and he had to stop. Walking became his only option.
The Last Straw
Then the unthinkable happened. The heavy labor Lonnie had put in on a farm as he grew up in Nebraska, then his long career as a carpenter and door hanger, finally caught up with him. One day while remodeling a freezer at a grocery store, Lonnie’s knees gave out completely, and he collapsed.
“My knees blew up like great big balloons,” he said. “It was about a year before I could even get back up on them.”
That was the last time he was able to work. The cartilage in both knees wore down to the point that, for the last five years, he was walking bone-on-bone. The pain was excruciating. Bowlegged since birth, Lonnie found it nearly impossible to get around.
“I could walk just a few feet, then I’d fall to the floor,” he recalled. “I tried using braces, but they cut into my knees and left scabs.”
For a decade, Lonnie lived in misery, not able to walk and desperate to keep his lungs clear.
“At one point, all I could do was pump my arms because I couldn’t walk,” he said. “I had to do something to clear out my lungs.”
The Light Dawns
After several years of doctors’ visits and insurance negotiations, Lonnie got the news he was waiting to hear: He had been cleared to have both knees replaced at Methodist Hospital. Determined to make the most of this opportunity, he poured all of his energy intro preparing his body for the physically demanding surgery and recovery. He spent hours every day at the gym, exercising to the extent that he was able to in order to increase the strength and flexibility of his legs and knee joints.
Then on September 27, 2008, orthopedic surgeon Gary Moscarello, MD, replaced Lonnie’s right knee joint with an artificial joint during a surgery at Methodist Hospital. Lonnie had been told that his right knee was in worse shape than his left knee, so he was overjoyed to discover that the surgery was a tremendous success. A day after the replacement procedure, he was already able to bend his new knee to a 90-degree angle.
“The doctor was really surprised by how soon after surgery I was able to bend my knee,” Lonnie said, attributing the feat to the work he did before surgery to increase the strength and flexibility of his knee.
Less than three months later—the week before Christmas 2008—Lonnie was back at Methodist Hospital for Dr. Moscarello to replace his left knee. Although recovery with that knee has taken longer than with his right knee, the combined surgeries have literally saved Lonnie’s life by putting him back on his feet.
“For me, my bigger goal than my knees is getting my life back,” he said. “Without the surgery, I would probably have been dead in a year or two.”
Watch Him Go
Today, Lonnie is making up for all the years he spent trapped in his home, unable to walk. He and his girlfriend, Alice, spend three to four hours a day doing weight training and stretching at the gym. They have a 12-block walking route that ends at the Huntington Beach pier. They enjoy watching the geese and swans as they walk the path that encircles the Cerritos Sports Center.
Lonnie loves discovering fun new places to walk. He’s thinking about Yosemite, Bodie (a ghost town in Mono County, California) and home—Lincoln, Nebraska, where he’ll proudly show his relatives how healthy he has become.
“I drive a convertible, so that will make the trips fun,” he said.
One day as they were walking and discussing where they’d like to go, Alice threw out the idea of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“How long will it take you to get dressed?” Lonnie asked her. “Pack your toothbrush!”
And just that quickly, the couple was off to San Francisco—as Lonnie described it, “eight hours up and eight hours back.”
But that brief trip captured the essence of what Lonnie had longed for during his years of severe disability: the simple pleasure of being able to walk, to breathe freely, to live his life to the fullest. On that trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, Lonnie triumphed over his disease.
“The only thing that passed me was bicycles,” he said.
To attend a free hip and knee seminar at Methodist Hospital, call (888) 8NEXTGEN.