When my chiropractor diagnosed me with osteoarthritis in my right hip I was devastated. For most of my nearly 25 years of dancing professionally with the New York City Ballet I was very conscientious about healthy training. I had prided myself on how logically I had worked in a world filled with overdoing in one sense or another. Forcing the turn-out muscles, over-stretching, straining the lower back by tucking the pelvis under...I consciously tried to avoid all of these injury causing movements.
Photo: Judith Fugate and her husband Medhi Bahiri
But here he was, telling me that my hip joint was deteriorating rapidly and I would eventually have to have total hip replacement (THR) surgery. The tears welled up and the doctor read my mind. He assured me that it was "not my fault." It was caused by heredity, anatomy structure or even from a forceful blow (like a car accident or serious fall), which caused the deterioration. Of course, the pounding that we dancers put on our joints on a daily basis, year after year, could not have been helpful. I did feel a little better, but was still faced with a pretty serious diagnosis.
I was in my early 40's, still performing and dealing with the ever-increasing pain associated with this injury. At first it would be OK once I was warmed-up, but as the months and years went by, every movement became more painful and my range of motion became more limited. I tried everything I could think of that had helped me with previous injuries: acupuncture, massage, ultrasound, in addition to the natural supplements that everyone was talking about: glucosamine, chondroitin, etc. I went with aspirin first, then stronger anti-inflammatory medications to relieve the pain. They helped for a little while, but this was inevitable. The doctor had told me that because I was so in tuned with my body, it would tell me when it was time to give up the stage as well as when it was time to have the surgery. Eventually it did.
Photo: Sylvia video shoot w/ Maria Tallchief and Judith Fugate.
Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
I knew a number of colleagues who had had the same injury and who had gone through the surgery. The dance world is a small world, so I asked around. Merrill Ashley, also a Principal Dancer with NYCB was my first source. She recommended Dr. Douglas Padgett at Hospital for Special Surgery and couldn't say enough wonderful things about him. I wasn't at the point where I felt it was time yet, but decided to consult with him anyway.
My first meeting with Dr. Padgett was to say the least, enlightening. He probably spent 1½ hours with me, explaining the injury and the treatments available, answering my questions (of which there were many), and reassuring me that the prognosis was very good. Because of my relatively young age, he also advised me to put the surgery off for as long as possible, purely because of the life span of the prosthetic. His sincere interest in dancers and their careers was truly unique and I left there feeling much more positive about the situation than I had ever been.
All this time, even though I was no longer performing, it was still necessary for me to be very active in the ballet studio. I am the Co-Artistic Director (with my husband Medhi Bahiri) of a small ballet company here in NYC called Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY (formerly DanceGalaxy). When we are in season, we are both very involved in the rehearsing of the ballets in the repertoire...teaching, coaching, etc. In addition to that, I stage ballets for the Balanchine Trust and the Robbins Rights Trust internationally, and usually have a pretty busy schedule. So I still needed to be able to demonstrate steps and choreography on a very regular basis.
During a rehearsal period for our company, I ran into a former colleague, John Meehan, who had been a Principal Dancer with American Ballet Theater (among other companies). I didn't know that he had THR until he mentioned it to me. I asked which surgeon, and he said Dr. Padgett. He had the same high praise that Merrill had, reiterated what she had told me ("You won't even remember the pain you're living with now", "It's like having a new life"), and told me I simply must go to Dr. Padgett. Well, by now my mind was made up. I got a second opinion from another well-respected and recommended surgeon, who basically said the same things as Dr. Padgett had, but knew all along that if I was going to have this surgery, it was going to be with Dr. Padgett.
As time went by, I found it more and more difficult to do my work effectively. I knew the time had come. I made the appointment for surgery-March 15, 2002-just after I had finished staging a Jerome Robbins ballet for Pennsylvania Ballet. I knew that I had the time then to recuperate properly, without interfering with my ballet schedule. And believe it or not, I couldn't wait!
A very strange thing happened shortly before my surgery. I was walking home from a company rehearsal, (I still tried to walk a lot because I found the more physical I was, the less stiff my hip was) and it was as though my whole body was breaking down. My hip was killing me; my lower back felt like it was out-I was in more pain all of a sudden than I ever had been. I spoke to a friend of mine who is a brilliant physical therapist, Katy Keller, and she said that this was a common phenomenon. Psychologically, when one is faced with this kind of circumstance, the body actually does "give out". Luckily it only lasted that one day. But by then, I was counting the days until surgery.
The Hospital for Special Surgery has an incredible program for patients leading up to this type of operation. They offer a class that prepares you for what to expect pre-, post- and during your hospital stay. They cover every aspect of the preparation necessary, what to expect on the day of surgery and recovery in and out of the hospital. They arrange for you to give blood prior and ready you for post-surgery situations. Theirs is a truly amazing and very helpful system that I found to be invaluable.
The day finally came-I was Dr. Padgett's first patient that day so I had to arrive at the hospital at 6AM, with surgery scheduled for 8AM. It seemed like everyone involved stopped into my room to see me before it began (anesthesiologist, interns, Dr. Padgett, etc.). Frankly, I was a little nervous, but also happy that it was finally happening.
They wheeled me into surgery at approximately 8:30AM and by 10:00AM I was already coming out of anesthesia. Dr. Padgett came to check on me and said that all went well and he would call my husband. Little did I know that when he spoke to Medhi he said, "It was a mess in there!" When I was moved to my hospital room (which by chance had a great view of the East River) I was attached to all sorts of machines, including foot pumps that prevented any circulation problems and sounded like balloons being inflated and deflated...even during the night!
Everyone at HSS was great, but I had one terrific nurse in particular, Richard Slote. It turns out that he was a big NYCB fan for many years and when he realized who I was we hit it off immediately! Now everyone had told me that they get you up and walking with canes the very next day, but when the therapist came into my room, I wasn't sure if I could. My first attempt was no good-nauseous beyond belief-but they said it was common. Second try was much better, but I was very tentative. But they were patient and every attempt got a little better. And better yet, THE PAIN WAS GONE!!!
Four days later, I was scheduled to go home. When Dr. Padgett came by to see me (which he had done everyday), he wanted to see me walk. So I showed him how they had instructed me. He said, "Judy, what is this gimping around? You can put more weight on your leg that that!" He didn't want me to baby it, and I'm glad he said that.
So now I'm home, and a PT comes to my house 2-3 times a week for the first 3 weeks. Exercises are minimal at first; in a prone position, seated in a chair, using the wall to push against. But guess what? The pain is gone!!! I went to a PT clinic near home (Westside Physical Therapy) and worked with Tim Roy, who was incredible! He would form my exercises based on what I felt comfortable with in the studio and was very creative. Now we've all had to do some kind of PT in our careers, but this was different. This was not to get back on stage or aim for performance standards-this was to live a normal pain free life. And I was happy to do it.
I noticed daily improvements and after about 6 weeks we mutually agreed that I could continue on my own at the gym, which I did. I still do strengthening exercises and stretches, and swim as well and I do it all with no pain!!!
My colleagues were right when they said, "You won't even remember the pain!" Family and friends who were with me every step of the way tell me now how much happier and better I look since the surgery, and I know they are right-because I am living PAIN FREE!!!
Ballet NY's website
Interview with Mary Cargill for DanceView: about Ballet NY and Judith's days with NYCB
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