Get inspired: Small steps after knee surgery turn into lifelong strides

Linda Chandler could barely walk after knee surgery. Then, she dedicated herself to physical therapy, started competing in 5Ks and has lost 70 pounds.
Dec. 27, 2018

Climbing 13 stairs after knee surgery used to take Linda Chandler over an hour.

She could barely walk around the block.

Linda Chandler shows off some medals she has received from walks and runs. Signing up for events keeps her motivated to move. She loves the "bling" and has lost 70 pounds since May. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.
Linda Chandler shows off some medals she received from walks and runs. Signing up for events keeps her motivated to move. She loves the “bling” and has lost 70 pounds since May. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Now, Chandler, 53, has a collection of medals from 5K walks and runs and she’s lost 70 pounds since May.

Need some encouragement for your New Year’s resolution?

Let Chandler inspire you.

Stunning results from a tough surgery

Chandler’s orthopedic challenges started during the summer of 2017 when her left knee began swelling and hurting so badly that she was having trouble walking. She feared at first that she might have a blood clot. Her primary care provider, Dr. Kelly White, found that Chandler had a cyst and a rare type of meniscus tear and sent her to knee expert, Dr. Armando Vidal at UCHealth CU Sports Medicine – Colorado Center.

Vidal cares for professional athletes as the head team doctor for the Denver Nuggets and also tends to college players as well as regular folks like Chandler. He is also the co-director of the University of Colorado’s Cartilage Repair and Restoration Program and has dedicated his career to the management of these complex cases.

Initially, Vidal tried cortisone shots and physical therapy, but Chandler’s pain kept getting worse and her function continued to decline. She is somewhat bow-legged, which contributed to the pressure and pain she was suffering.

So, in August of 2017, Vidal suggested a surgery called an osteotomy, where he essentially had to break and realign Chandler’s tibia bone in order to straighten it. For patients in severe pain, who are too young for a total knee replacement, the surgery can be a good option.

In Chandler’s case, the results have been stunning, Vidal said.

“It’s amazing. You want to do a backflip. It makes your day,” Vidal said. “She’s the prototypical case. In my experience, a lot of these osteotomies are life-changing.

headshot of Dr. Armado Vidal.
Dr. Armando Vidal.

“These patients have had injuries, sometimes for years. Their activity level has decreased. It affects their wellbeing. They’re not happy. Then we can restore that function, and all of a sudden, they’re at a place where they can exercise. They want to eat well. Their energy level is better. They’re more engaged. It’s awesome to see the whole picture. That’s what drives me.”

Vidal doesn’t take credit for Chandler’s transformation. Instead, he highlights her dedication along with outstanding help from her physical therapist, Gary Harkness, who gently encouraged Chandler first to put weight on her leg, then to strengthen it and ultimately to walk and run.

Harkness, in turn, gives kudos to Chandler.

“It’s really remarkable. First, she had this debilitating injury before the surgery. Then, it’s painful afterward and you have to deal with someone hurting you every time you go in for therapy,” Harkness said.

“Now, she’s lost over 70 pounds. She’s doing these events. She’s slimming down and eating better. I think it’s really inspiring.”

Physical therapy for the body. Physical therapy for the soul.

Chandler is incredibly proud of how far she has come.

She said Harkness has been instrumental in keeping her motivated and helping her see herself as someone who could be fit and active.

“I had never done a race in my life,” Chandler said.

Now, she and her husband regularly sign up for runs and walks year-round, especially when participants get rewarded with a memento or medal.

“It’s all about the bling,” Chandler confided.

She’s thrilled about the person she has become because the transformation has been so dramatic.

When Chandler first learned she would need ongoing physical therapy to recover from the surgery, she worried she’d get a young therapist (PT) who might bark orders at her like a drill sergeant. She knew she wouldn’t respond well to orders or someone with little compassion. Instead, Harkness always focused on the positive. He has decades of experience and soon bonded with Chandler over their children and life’s challenges.

Linda Chandler has lost 70 pounds after knee surgery. She pauses during a run to show off her new slimmer figure.
Linda Chandler struggled to walk around the block after knee surgery. Now, thanks to regular physical therapy, she’s competing in walks and runs and has lost 70 pounds since May. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Ten years ago, Chandler suffered the greatest sorrow a mother could endure. Her oldest son, Daniel Weaver, was serving in the military when he was in a bad car accident. The injuries from the accident forced him out of active duty and left him severely depressed. A year later, at only 21, he killed himself, leaving a wake of devastation for his younger brothers and sisters, all four of his parents and many other relatives and friends.

Chandler always will have a hole in her heart over the loss of her son. In the early days after her surgery, when she couldn’t put any weight on her leg and needed help doing everything including getting to the bathroom, the darkness she felt after Daniel’s death sometimes returned.

During twice-weekly physical therapy visits, Harkness learned to read Chandler’s moods and did all he could to lift her spirits while working on her joints and muscles.

“He not only ‘PT’d’ my body. He ‘PT’d’ my heart and soul,” Chandler said. “There were days when I was so depressed and he was so kind and positive. He’d always tells me that I was doing great. Now, he calls me his poster child.”

Small steps, big accomplishments

When Harkness met his patient for the first time, she was still in a wheel chair about one month after her surgery.

Job one was to help Chandler get her knee moving again.

Headshot of Gary Harkness
Gary Harkness.

“Can she bend it? Can she tighten her thigh muscle? There’s a lot of soft tissue and range of motion work we can do to prepare them for when they do get mobile again,” said Harkness, who practices at the UCHealth Sports Therapy Clinic – Colorado Center.

Each patient is different, but Harkness said he loves to focus on what a person can do, rather than on limitations.

“Then I try to have them give a little more,” he said. “With Linda, we got her partially weight-bearing with a walker, then full weight-bearing with a walker then to crutches then to a cane.”

Within three months after the surgery, he had her back on her feet.

Compassion and empathy worked wonders with Chandler.

“I’ve been doing this for 24 years. I’ve had five knee surgeries of my own. I played college football and when I have people like Linda, I can tell them, ‘I’ve been there before. I know what this feels like. It isn’t easy.’”

Over time, Chandler shared more about her life.

A woman running in a park.
Linda Chandler credits her physical therapist, Gary Harkness, with lifting her spirits and getting her moving after a tough knee surgery. “He ‘PT’d’ my body. He ‘PT’d’ my heart and soul,” said Chandler. .Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

“Over the course of seeing people for 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, you get to talk. The more visits you have the more you get to know what they are going through,” Harkness said. “Linda shared the tragedy about her son and his suicide. That’s pretty challenging. We became friends.”

He commiserated over her sorrows and cheered her victories, all the while, helping Chandler move and improve.

The two have worked together throughout 2018, eventually shifting from twice weekly appointments to once a week. Chandler likely will graduate from PT early in 2019.

“She has been a fantastic patient. She has accepted challenges. She’s got so much determination. It’s remarkable.”

For others looking to make big changes like Chandler, Harkness emphasized the importance of small steps.

“We tend to look at long-term outcomes. But you’ve got to have steps to get you there. Some people are great at self-motivation and can get to that end point,” Harkness said.

Others need a team to support them. And breaking down a big goal into many smaller ones can increase success.

“Create a plan, but also have staged goals,” Harkness said. “Get to know where you are and where you want to be.

“We went from the wheelchair to the walker to the crutches to the cane. Then, we did all this strengthening and she wanted to do the weight management and exercise. She began to slowly lose the weight, then a little more and a little more. The thing that has impressed me is how she has stayed with it.

“She has worked her butt off.”

Nervous to do her first 5K

Along with her medical team, Chandler is immensely grateful to her husband and family.

“I have an incredible support system,” she said.

Immediately following the surgery, she had to sleep in a recliner in the family room since she didn’t have the upper body strength to climb the stairs to her bedroom without putting any weight on her leg.

In the early days, her husband, Keith, slept nearby on a couch so he could help her get to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Her ex-husband and his wife are close friends. They regularly took shifts to help Chandler as did all the grown children. And, Chandler’s mother offered support too.

“She’s 90 and still works at the Pepsi Center. That’s one tough woman,” Chandler said.

Once Chandler got moving again, her primary care doctor gave her a referral to the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center so she could work on healthier eating and getting more exercise.

She loved the positive approach there as well. Nurse practitioner, Kristin Stockman, didn’t scold her about her eating habits. Instead, she encouraged small changes: protein shakes instead of Carnation Instant Breakfast in the morning (to cut down significantly on sugar) and one less meal of pasta per week.

Linda and Keith Chandler pose after a Christmas 5K at Denver's City Park. She shows off her 3rd place medal for her age group.
Linda Chandler recently placed third in her age group at the Christmas Carol Classic in Denver’s City Park. Here, she poses with her husband, Keith Chandler, who participates in runs and walks with his wife. Photo courtesy of Linda Chandler.

Chandler learned how to read labels and look for protein. She loves fruit and learned she could enjoy fruit as long as she paired it with protein, like Greek yogurt.

Exercising began with a challenge, at first, to simply walk around the block.

Then, Keith encouraged his wife to join him at 5K events.

“At the first one, I was so nervous. What if I can’t run?” Chandler said.

But, she was hooked after the first one.

“I realized anybody can do them. There’s no pressure to run. Now, I’ve gotten to where, at least every mile, I run a bit. And I’m running longer and longer. I guess that’s what I like. Anybody can do it. Police officers and volunteers are high-fiving you,” Chandler said.

At the end of her first race, tears streamed down her face as she came to the finish line.

“It was really emotional for me. I cried a lot. I didn’t think I could do it. I was 52 when I did the first race of my life.”

Recently, to ring in the season, Chandler participated in the Christmas Carol Classic 5K in Denver’s City Park. And she was stunned and thrilled to place 3rd in her age group.

“I’ve always placed in the 70s,” Chandler said.

Let other people help you

The possibilities for 2019 seem endless. Chandler would like to lose about 60 more pounds and plenty more running events await her.

After years of putting everyone else’s needs first, she has learned she has to make her health a priority.

“You have to be the best you can be in order to take care of the people around you,” Chandler said. “I have a lot more energy now. We like to travel.”

Every day, she tries to log at least 5,000 steps. When she goes on walks, she makes them long: about 4.5 to 5 miles. She’s come a long way from the first post-surgery walk when she struggled to go around the block.

Linda Chandler tries to log at least 5,000 steps a day and enjoys long walks as often as possible. She also competes in walks and runs with her husband to keep her motivated to stay healthy. Here, she enjoys a walk near her home in Aurora. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

When she feels like a couch potato, she reaches out to her support system for help. She’ll text her daughter or son or another family member and tell them she needs some motivation to get out and move.

“My best advice is to be as stubborn about getting it done as you were stubborn about make excuses,” Chandler said with a laugh.

As for eating, she’s kind to herself when she splurges on an unhealthy treat. For the most part, she’s able to stay on track with positive goals like eating more vegetables.

“I really try to stop the negative talk, like saying, ‘I’m going to screw this up.’”

At Thanksgiving, Chandler enjoyed a lot of vegetables, like Brussels sprouts. She helped herself to other favorites, but didn’t go crazy. She weighs herself every day and was thrilled to find she had actually lost two pounds after the holiday.

Chandler is convinced that she never could have accomplished so much without her team.

“They took such good care of me,” she said. “Honestly, I think Gary saved my life several times. There are days when you’re in so much pain and you’re tired of being a burden. I would cry and he would understand.”

Chandler learned the hard way that she had to let go of some of her burdens.

“Let other people help you,” she said. “It’s really hard, but so important.”


About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.