Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Few Words About Hurricane Sandy (And What It Meant for My Knees)

For anyone living in the New York City area, there’s been only one story this week: Hurricane Sandy.

The weekend before the storm, I said to an acquaintance, “I’m worried less about the wind than the possible flooding.” I had seen water gushing from the ceiling of subway tunnels during no more than a heavy thunderstorm.

Sure enough, the big story turned out to be disruptions related to the incredible storm surge (not that the downed trees were minor -- strolling around my neighborhood post-Sandy, I counted 10 trees within an hour that had either fallen across the road or had crushed a car or smashed into a house).

Manhattan, as I’m sure most are aware, is an island. Those of us who live in the outer boroughs (such as Queens, where my family has an apartment) board long silver subway trains and are magically whisked through the bedrock, and under the East River, to arrive at our workplaces in the heart of the city.

Monday morning, there was no magic. The tunnels under the river had been overwhelmed by a wall of water and closed indefinitely. Whereas I usually walk three-quarters of a mile to a subway stop (not the nearest one either -- I just like to walk a little) and choose from E, F, M, and V trains, suddenly I had no choices.

Monday and Tuesday I worked at home. Wednesday, however, I had to get to work to lay out the weekly publication that I edit. I had no other option. My company was providing a bus shuttle, but it wasn’t conveniently located, so I thought:

What the heck.

I had for a while pondered what it would be like to walk to work. Make no mistake: it’s a serious walk to my office building in Manhattan from the east end of Forest Hills, where I live. Door to door, the distance is 8.4 miles, according to a Google estimate of the route.

So I set out at 6:42 a.m., into the pre-dawn, as the city was just rustling into life. I went most of the way down Queens Boulevard, then turned onto a street that took me (and lots of other New Yorkers, on bicycle and foot) over the Queensboro Bridge. By the way, on the bridge there were no slackers: everyone kept a brisk pace.

At 9:02 I walked through the doors of Bloomberg’s offices at 731 Lexington Avenue. At the end of the workday, I wound up walking back (I did the return leg in 2 hours and 18 minutes, 2 minutes faster, because I was motivated due to some of the neighborhoods I had to walk through ;))

So that’s 16.8 miles (actually probably 17, because I took a wrong detour on the way back and, on the way in, took the wrong approach to the bridge and had to double back a little).

The good news: I had a little sore spot on the back of my left heel, but my knees did just fine. That, I figure, is because I have spent the last three years strengthening them with 60 miles of vigorous cycling each Saturday, powering over the small hills of western Long Island.

I can remember a day, that seems not so long ago, when I lived in Hong Kong and was trying to heal my bad joints and would force myself to stop walking on trips after about 3,000 steps. I would make myself sit down and go no further because I knew I had to be very, very patient to restore my knees to good health.

Walking 17,000 steps in the morning -- and then 17,000 more in the evening -- would have been unthinkable. But that’s the nice thing about beating knee pain. Your knees get stronger. They no longer tell you what to do. You tell them what to do.

And that’s a great freedom, because it allows you to do something a bit offbeat and crazy -- like walk 8.4 miles to work when there’s no public transportation.

(By the way, for anyone thinking, “That’s dumb -- why didn’t you just take a taxi?”, the roads were clogged and a co-worker who did hire a car into work got stuck in traffic and ended up getting out and walking at the end -- and he arrived half an hour later than I did going the entire way on foot!)


  1. Hi Richard
    When you were healing your knees, did weather changes affect them?
    I find that when the weather is worse, especially when it rains, my knee is worse too

    1. Yes, bad knees are notorious for being biological barometers. When my knees were at their worst, they could tell when severe weather (such as a monsoon) was rolling in. I believe it has to do with the extra fluid in the joint.

  2. Hello Richard,

    I'm so glad for you and hope you were all ok in the storm.

    I have a small question to you, I would appreciate if you could answer it. I had (have) pain at the front of the knee.
    However a few days the back of my knee started hurting. I checked online and they said something about only the front cartilage can regrow, but the cartilage at the back of the knee cannot regrow (something to do with it being more hidden). That seemed very strange to me. Why would one part heal and the other not?

    Anyway I wanted to ask your opinion about this. Also, in your personal experience, did you have any pain in the back of the knee (the "inside" so to speak)?

    Thanks a lot.

    1. I'm not sure exactly where this "back of the knee" cartilage is that you're referring to. Still, is it possible that cartilage in one place can heal and that in another location can't (or can't as well)? Two things: (1) The meniscus does have zones that have different levels of blood supply, which does affect healing. (2) While articular cartilage doesn't have a blood supply, I suppose there may be better prospects for healing in an area where the cartilage is used more (as the tissue takes its signals to change from loading). Just my musings on this, for what they're worth. (And no: no back of the knee pain for me.)

  3. Hello. I don't think your ideas is that radical. One of the best PTs in my country called me up because I'm not improving with my knees. He told me I need motion, good motion wich my knee likes. He didnt mentioning strengthening specific muscles and such.

  4. There's hope yet vitsvan! That's good to hear.

  5. Richard, my knee was hurting 2 months ago, then got better. My MRI showed nothing wrong. After climbing the stairs of a high rise many times during the hurricane (one day only) my knee is killing me. The orthopedic surgeon said I don't need surgery and offered me a cortisone shot if it still hurts. I am starting PT next week. I have read your blog but don't see how you got better. I am at the point where I would let them do a scope because even with Aleve for the past week and ice many times a day, it still hurts, mostly on the inner, medial side and right below my knee. Any advice please? With this severity of pain, do you think I can heal without surgery? Thanks.

    1. First, climbing stairs is very hard on knee joints. That said, your knees may have been close to the pain zone even before the hurricane. (Earlier musings from me on mending and breakdown points:

      Here I talk about how I healed, in brief:

      Obviously it's your decision on surgery. But if your surgeon says you don't need it (and he actually makes money off doing surgeries, so his economic incentives would seem to align with performing them), I would seriously consider taking some time to try to work things out. I would look for a smart PT who thinks bad knees can be fixed, but focuses more on activities for the joints than the muscles. Healing is slow, but it can be done.

  6. I am in the same situation as you, Karen. I can't even walk without severe pain now.. My MRI showed that I have roughened cartilage and a tear in it. I will agree to a surgery because I am desperate now but I am not sure it will help

  7. I had the operation 3 days ago, they removed a small tear of the cartilage and part of synovium which was locking the patella. Knee is very swollen at the moment.