For Bruce Stoltenow, a retiree living near in the Shawano County Village of Cecil, conversations about what to do about joint pain are commonplace within his group of friends and relatives.
The 67-year-old knows the struggle well. He had been living with chronic, debilitating knee pain for about two years before seeking care.
Decades of wear and tear caught up with Bruce. As a teen, he worked alongside his dad, who was a mason. After high school, Bruce joined the Navy. Following his military service, he began a 40-year career as a lineman for a telephone company, a job that required him to climb up and down poles.
“My knees took a beating,” he says. “I went in finally because I couldn’t do anything. I knew was in trouble because when the doctor looked at the X-rays, he said, ‘Oh, my.’”
The X-rays revealed that both of Bruce’s knees were bone-on-bone, meaning the ends of his bones were rubbing against each other.
The doctor gave Bruce a cortisone shot to help with the pain, but the relief only lasted about a week. He knew then that he would need to consider knee replacement surgery.
While Bruce says many of his friends and loved ones are fearful of the prospect of surgery, he was more than ready.
For Bruce, who’s always enjoyed an active lifestyle, his knee pain was disruptive. In addition to being an involved father and grandfather, Bruce’s passions include hunting, fishing and gardening.
Hunting required Bruce to walk 80 to 100 acres through uneven terrain, and that became increasingly difficult. Ascending tree stands and using climbing sticks to hunt became perilous and led to falls. When Bruce was on a fishing boat, it was difficult to balance.
“It was not fun,” he says. “My quality of life was just not good.”
Doing activities with his grandchildren was also difficult. The kids love to play catch, but getting into catcher’s stance and moving quickly to go after a ball became impossible for Bruce.
“I would sit in the bleachers at a game, and when I got up, my knee was dead,” he says. “I had hardly any power.”
All of that meant that Bruce was eager for his knee replacement. He underwent surgery on his right knee with ThedaCare Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Michael Ziegele in November 2022.
Recovery and Beyond
Bruce’s right knee was in rough shape. That meant a painful recovery initially, but Bruce says after about three months, he felt much better.
Completing physical therapy and home exercises were key to recovery, Bruce says.
“I took rehab seriously,” he says. “You’ve got to do the work to keep your range of movement.”
Dr. Ziegele echoes this and says he often tells his patient that post-surgery therapy is the most important part of the whole process.
“Bruce has gone on to do a lot of work with his post-operative rehab, and he’s done excellent,” Dr. Ziegele says.
As Bruce recovered from his right knee replacement, he decided to pursue replacement of his left knee as well. He had a goal in mind when he chose to undergo the second surgery in February 2023.
“I want to be climbing my tree stand in the fall,” he says.
Now about four months out from his second surgery, Bruce is recovering well. He continues to do his exercises, and he’s happy to report that he can garden, mow his lawn, play catch with his grandsons, and get out on the water for fishing.
Advice to Others
Bruce says he understands the fear that people feel around joint replacement surgery, but the result is well worth it, and the alternative isn’t worth considering.
The community where Bruce lives is home to a lot of retirees. He says those around him who stay active tend to live longer, healthier lives.
“I have a lot of years left,” Bruce says. “Am I going to just sit there and not play catch with grandkids? Not take them hunting or fishing? Am I going to just sit there and watch ‘The Price is Right’ all day? No. That’s not me.”
As for his future, Bruce is optimistic, yet realistic.
“I asked my physical therapist, ‘Do you think I’ll ever run bases again?’ She said, ‘You’re not going to steal the base, that’s for sure,’” he says with a laugh.
Dr. Ziegele says seeing Bruce return to what he loves to do is gratifying.
“Having the ability to give a patient like Bruce the ability to live his life, to do the things that make him happy, it generates for me a reward that you really can’t get anywhere else,” he says.