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Employee Turned Patient: After years of living in pain, Weiss’ head of maintenance undergoes radical knee surgery

Today, Ken Kolakowski walks effortlessly and without pain.Today, Ken Kolakowski, head of maintenance at Weiss Memorial Hospital, walks effortlessly and without pain—a vast improvement compared to his previous 25 years, when he was barely walking at all. His right leg bowed outward, and his knee joint was misaligned, two inches out of plumb. He limped down the hospital’s hallways in pain, the bones of his knee joint rubbing against each other without any cartilage or padding to protect them.

“Every year it was deteriorating,” Kolakowski said. “Everyday I walked I was in pain.”

But he did not have to live that way, and one of the surgeons he passed in the halls told him that over and over again. His name was Henry Finn, M.D., medical director of the Chicago Center for Orthopedics and chairman of surgery at Weiss and professor of surgery at the University of Chicago.

“It’s time to fix your knee, Kenny,” Dr. Finn would say. “When are you going to let me fix that knee?”

“Eventually, Doc, and you’ll be the one,” Kolakowski would reply.

“He’s such a great guy, but he was scared to death to have anything done,” Dr. Finn said. “And he could be one of the most difficult total knee replacements that I’ve done. He had a severe knee joint deformity from previous trauma, which involved fractures and injuries to the soft tissues.”

The two had known each other for 15 years, meeting at Weiss more than a decade after the accident that caused Kolakowski’s physical troubles. In 1979, Kolakowski was on his motorcycle in Calumet City when a car slammed against him from behind, pushing him through a brick wall. He was 22 years old.

“The only thing I remember was being in St. Margaret’s Hospital after that,” he said.

Doctors gave him two options: They could attempt to keep his knee together with pins that would last a maximum of 20 years, or they could amputate his leg from the knee down.

Kolakowski chose the pins. The doctor, he said “did what he could to get me together.” Afterward, Kolakowski’s flexibility was extremely limited. He continued to ride his motorcycle in a cast and crutches. “I wasn’t scared,” he said. “I was young and dumb.”

Twenty-five years later, Kolakowski’s leg started to bow and cause him extreme pain, despite medications. No matter how bad he felt, though, the idea of surgery was more daunting. Just the thought of surgery made him anxious.

Dr. Finn said he believes that Kolakowski’s anxiety came from the patients he witnessed coming into the hospital on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Some of the worst cases in the region passed Kolakowski in the halls, drawn to Weiss by the collective expertise of the surgeons who are now part of the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss.

Finally, after years of living in pain, he agreed to let Dr. Finn operate.

“I was scared at first. You’re put between a rock and a hard place, but I know Dr. Finn and I know what he does,” he said. Kolakowski told Dr. Finn he wanted to remember going into the operating room and nothing else.

That is exactly what happened. On August 5, 2010, nurses wheeled Kolakowski into the operating room. The entire surgery—which typically lasts an hour—went more than two hours due to the severity of Kolakowski’s condition.

Dr. Finn skillfully released the tightened ligaments associated with Kolakowski’s deformity. The severity of his injury required the expertise of a revision knee surgeon as well as a revision knee implant invented by Dr. Finn (the Vanguard Super Stabilized Knee, a knee replacement typically used for fixing failed knee replacements). Dr. Finn had to be careful. Many of the tissues bordered nerves and arteries, and the slightest error could have resulted in severe limb-threatening injuries.

Calling the surgery “very high risk,” Dr. Finn added, “I always give my patients 120 percent, but when it’s someone you know, it feels to me like more than a regular game. It’s the playoffs.”

Kenny Kolakowski attended rehabilitation therapy everyday during his recovery.

Ken Kolakowski attended rehabilitation therapy everyday during his recovery.

 

A therapist was in Kolakowski’s room within hours of the surgery, asking him to first sit up in bed and then stand. Those movements were possible because of the pain cocktail—a special concoction of drugs injected into all of the cut tissues during the procedure. The therapist explained that the longer Kolakowski sat still, the harder it would be for him to regain mobility. He returned home three days later, already feeling the benefits of the surgery by decreased pain and correction of his deformity.

But there was still work to be done. Kolakowski attended rehabilitation therapy everyday, driving into Weiss from his Indiana home for a 9:45 a.m. therapy session. By the fourth week he said he felt “good.” He walked laps around the physical therapy room and used a stationary bike to re-acclimate his muscles and knee with bending and flexing.

Six weeks after surgery, Kolakowski returned to the hospital, only this time as an employee. “It’s been a good experience coming to Weiss, knowing that everything would be taken care of. I was in good hands and relieved everything went well.”

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