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For Valerie Michalski, walking is a part of living

When Valerie Michalski pushes a patient by wheelchair to the front doors of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital so they can go home after a successful knee replacement, she sometimes offers a little advice or encouragement.

Valerie Michalski

When she explains that she had both of her knees replaced at L+M Hospital, people listen.

“I don’t tell them it’s all going to be easy,” she said. “I tell them, well, you may have pain, but it’s worth the pain. You have to push yourself during recovery and do the exercises, because it’s so important. And that new knee, if you do the right things, it will change your life.’"

For Michalski, 73, the freedom of movement she gained from her knee operations remains, to this day, a key factor in her happiness. It’s a happiness that drives her passion as a hospital volunteer, pushing patients to tests or toward rides home. It’s a happiness demonstrated by active involvement in the lives of her five grandchildren. “Walking, to me, is key to living,” Michalski said.

“At the hospital, I take one patient out, and I come back and there’s another one ready to go. I live for that because I want to do as much as I can for each person. I love talking to them, because that little conversation can make their day and make them happy when they’re in the hospital. And it makes me feel good that I’m helping people.”

Life wasn’t always so mobile for Michalski. Like so many people who end up with bad knees as they get older, Michalski said her pain gradually grew worse over the years. She remembers the specific moment when she finally said to herself, “Enough is enough.” It was during a trip to Bermuda with her late husband.

“We were walking on the beach and all of a sudden I actually almost fell,” Michalski recalled. “My knee buckled and I was like, ‘What the heck! Oh my!’ My husband and I used to go on a lot of vacations, and all of a sudden I thought, ‘I can’t even walk on the sand anymore!’”

Christopher Hutchins, MD

Soon thereafter, Michalski met with Christopher Hutchins, MD, one of the orthopedic surgeons on staff at L+M. A regional leader in hip and knee replacements, the L+M Hospital team, which also includes orthopedic surgeons R. Justin Thoms, MD, and Daniel Gaccione, MD, takes a holistic, safety-first approach to care, guiding patients through every aspect of the experience to ensure the best outcomes.

In Michalski’s case, she had her left knee replaced first, then, after a full recovery, she followed up with the right knee. Dr. Hutchins said Michalski was a textbook example of someone who reached the tipping point where anxieties about surgery were finally outweighed by a world shrinking because of limited mobility.

“We never push people into surgery,” Dr. Hutchins said. “We guide them and they tell us when they are ready. In Valerie’s case, she had very bad arthritis so we replaced the worst knee and then, when she was ready, we replaced the second knee. She was also a star patient in the way she followed through with physical therapy after the operations. She was a true advocate for her own recovery, and we encourage that in all our patients.”

Michalski did have one possible motivational edge: her daughter, Monica Pepin, RN, is the surgical clinical program manager for L+M’s Joint Replacement Center.

“My job is to coach our patients and teach them about pre-operative and post-operative care,” Pepin said. “I give all our patients a pretty hard sell on the importance of movement and strength exercises during recovery. I was definitely hard on my mom, too.”

“Considering that the hospital performs about 750 hip, knee and shoulder procedures each year, to be reminded by my mother of how our program improves lives makes it extra special.”

Michalski doesn’t only offer encouragement and advice to the patients she pushes around. She tells her friends who balk at having knee replacement surgery, “A new knee will keep you active and that will keep you living. I tell them, ‘if my hip goes, I’m going to see the doctor tomorrow, because I want to keep on walking!’”

*This article was written prior to the coronavirus pandemic

The Joint Replacement Center at L+M Hospital

Led by expert, board-certified orthopedic surgeons, the Joint Replacement Center at L+M Hospital is accredited by The Joint Commission. Advanced methods are used for knee, hip and shoulder replacements, including implant options tailored to each patient.