Knee Surgery and Rehab Help Tom Walker Raise the Jolly Roger
The sun rose over Tom and Carolyn Walker’s home in Gibsonia and glistened off the snowy roof. Tom struggled to stand up from his bed and start his day.
He didn’t have to pitch a major league baseball game that night or drive to begin a 12-hour work day. At 66, Tom was now poised to relish retirement, peppered with golf strokes, garden weeding, grandchildren’s birthday parties and 81 Pirates home games to see his son, Neil, protect second base with the Bucs.
But arthritis had different plans for Tom.
The often debilitating joint pain had worked itself into the crevices of Tom’s left knee. He had already had his right knee replaced two years earlier, so he recognized this past winter that it was time to once again call his orthopaedic surgeon, Nicholas Sotereanos, MD, of the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Orthopaedic Institute.
“It is a horrible disease that afflicts so many people – young and old. It runs in my family, and I haven’t escaped it at all,” Tom explained.
As a former major league baseball player who pitched for six years with the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and California Angels, Tom has been tormented by arthritis in his shoulders, hips and both knees.
Arthritis is not a single disease; it is a term used to describe more than 100 different diseases and related conditions that affect people’s joints and the tissue surrounding those joints. Characterized by inflammation, pain, stiffness and decreased range of motion, it is the leading cause of disability in the United States with nearly 53 million adults and 300,000 children having some form of arthritis.
Symptoms may come and go for many, and they can be mild, moderate or severe. When at its worst, arthritis can result in chronic pain, an inability to perform daily activities and difficulty walking, and it can produce permanent joint changes.
“Arthritis has caused me to temporarily give up things in my life that I have looked forward to. My wife and I wanted to travel, but I couldn’t walk even a quarter mile,” said Tom, who rather than feeling sorry for himself instead decided to proactively alter the course of his condition.
“We are blessed with four children, eight grandkids and one on the way, and we have Neil playing major league baseball in our hometown. We can leave home and be in our seats in 40 minutes. Not many parents can say that, and that’s not something I want to miss.”
After retiring from baseball, Tom spent 25 years in the healthcare industry and wrapped up his second career about a year ago. Not long after, Tom had his other knee replaced at Allegheny General Hospital on March 31 by Dr. Sotereanos. He recovered in the hospital for four days, and Tom is gradually progressing his way back to an active life with his wife of 40 years.
“It’s challenging to go through this, so I feel fortunate to have had Dr. Sotereanos as my surgeon and to have the excellent crew at the Wexford Health + Wellness Pavilion that’s rehabbing me,” Tom said. “I go three times a week and should be finished by the end of July and back playing golf by September.”
Also a patient of the AHN Orthopaedic Institute, Neil expressed confidence in the team that takes care of both his father and his teammates, as AHN is the official medical provider of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I know that we are in expert hands with our AHN doctors and staff, and I’m grateful that they have my dad walking again with more strength and without pain,” Neil said. “My dad has always taught me that if you want something, you have to work for it. He keeps living that lesson, even today as he works hard through rehab.”
Tom wouldn’t give up a day of playing baseball, even if it meant avoiding arthritis and these surgeries, he said. He’s a true believer of taking in stride whatever comes his way.
That includes the extraordinary story of how on New Year’s Eve 1972, Tom helped Roberto Clemente load relief supplies on a plane for Nicaraguan earthquake victims.
Tom and Roberto had come to know each other while playing winter ball together in Puerto Rico a year earlier. Tom asked to join Roberto on the trip to Nicaragua, but there were no empty seats. Almost immediately after takeoff the plane crashed, killing Roberto, the two pilots and two young men who were assisting Roberto.
“The fact that I wasn’t on that plane is not something I have ever taken lightly,” Tom reminisced. “There are many days that I thank God that I wasn’t on that plane, and it makes me think that I was kept here for a reason.”
Tom continues to find those reasons.
A pragmatic optimist, he said his knee surgeries and rehabilitation have given him a platform to share information with others about the viable options available to treat their joint conditions. He also devotes a great deal of his time to the Arthritis Foundation to raise both awareness and funds for the disease.
“Arthritis has negatively impacted my life for years and the lives of so many others. There are ways to take control of it and to become active again. And hopefully, one day, research will provide even more solutions.”
AHN Orthopaedic Institute offers knee replacement surgery at several locations in the Pittsburgh area. Call 412.DOCTORS (412.362.8677)