Growing up in a rural part of Taylorsville, Utah, with the state's great outdoor experiences at her fingertips, Rhetta McIff was an active and busy child. She fell in love with volleyball at a young age, playing the sport from the time she was in elementary school.
Rhetta first began to experience problems with her knees at the age of nine, when she fell down and dislocated her knee. She felt an intense sharp pain as her kneecaps popped out and back in. This was the first time her knees would dislocate, but certainly not the last.
After that, Rhetta began to limit her physical activities. "You start pulling back because it hurts," she says. But even the pain couldn't curb her absolute passion for playing volleyball. Her coaches put the team through intense training to build stamina, which took a real toll on her knees. Rhetta's knees would end up swollen and sore at the end of the day, but she had no idea why.
The continued pain began to raise suspicions for Rhetta's parents. So, just before entering high school, they finally decided to see an orthopedic physician to get an X-ray. To her surprise they found an anomaly in her bone development. Rhetta discovered she had a very shallow patellar groove, which causes the kneecap to wander instead of staying in its track. This anomaly explained why her knees constantly dislocated with little to no force.
Throughout the majority of her life, Rhetta wore knee braces. She joined a summer physical therapy program at University of Utah Health to strengthen her muscles to hold the patellas in place. Her husband, being an exercise and sports science specialist, helped Rhetta stay active at home. She was advised that surgery should be her last resort and she should continue to take anti-inflammatories and wear her knee braces to cope with the pain. "It's like you had to stick with your factory parts for as long as possible," she says.
Soon, Rhetta's kneecaps started to migrate outwards, making even the most basic movements difficult. She had to stop doing sports all together. Every other physical activity exerted immense pain upon Rhetta's knees. She couldn't cycle, swim or hike. "It even got to a point where sitting down, my knees would throb," she says. Soon, the only exercise she could manage to do was run. Running, once a hobby, now became her therapy.
After almost three decades being diagnosed with her condition, Rhetta turned to her last resort: surgery. She saw Christopher Peters, MD, an orthopedic specialist at University of Utah Health, and he immediately confirmed that she had no choice but to have her knees surgically replaced.
"I got scared. It's realizing that you're changing your body, and hoping that your body accepts it," Rhetta says. The rate of success with these types of surgeries is typically high, but there are always risks, especially with double-knee replacements. "Knowing this was the beginning of a life of knee replacements at my age was terrifying."
Artificial knees have a synthetic pad that act as a cushion to prevent metal-on-metal contact. That pad has a certain lifetime before it starts to disintegrate and requires revision surgery. Any high-impact activity on the knee joints, such as jumping or running, should be avoided.
Having surgery meant Rhetta could no longer run, and hearing this, she broke down in Peters' office. "Running became special to me. I would just run for hours and just get into the zone, and it's almost like nirvana," she says. But as one door closed, a whole world opened back up for her. Rhetta could now do all the sports she missed out on. She could go hiking with her family or bike across her neighborhood with no issues.
Rhetta scheduled her surgery in May for one knee, and the second for eight weeks after. After her surgeries took place, the doctors immediately had her get up and back on her feet. She felt no pain standing up, a pain that once felt so familiar. "It was weird to think that this was going to be my new normal," she says.
"In the end, I'm glad I got this surgery. You have to find a physician that you trust, and a support team to help you throughout the process. Let them take care of you."