Memoirs of an ACL reconstruction

Weeks 1 - 2 

Granary Square

I recently had knee surgery to reconstruct my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). It was a planned procedure following a rather traumatic fall last summer when my ACL tore completely away from my left femur. Alongside physiotherapy, part of my recovery will be seeing how RoboLola, our prototype connected leg brace can support me both in terms of stability, but also by providing good reliable data on my progress. Read more about the beginnings of RoboLola here.

The Good
After approximately 6-months of intensive physio which gave me back full movement in my knee, I was still left with random instances of swelling, soreness and cold-related aches. Going from being very active to having on-and-off weeks and ongoing therapeutic measures, I knew I wasn’t going to be one of those people who avoided reconstructive surgery. It was a relief to finally go in for surgery, knowing that the short-term pain, discomfort and hard work would all be worth it in the long run. Having experienced the pain the first time round, I felt somewhat prepared for it, knowing that at least with RoboLola I’d have all that useful data!!

The Bad
It hurt. A lot. My first 24hours were gracefully supported by a self administered morphine drip. I later found out that this was because they had to shave away additional bone to get enough room in my small knee (consultant’s words, not mine!) to see what they were doing. Aside from the pain, my knee was so swollen it looked like a chicken drumstick, a frozen one with fetching support sock to boot.

The connected leg brace - RoboLola

After being disconnected from my lovely drip, I was taken through an initial set of physio drills. This included using RoboLola to walk a corridor and go up the stairs before being discharged to go home. Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there.

The first couple of days I had limited movement due to swelling, but following that, I fell into a rather deep well of pain which meant I couldn’t wear RoboLola at all. I had to cut down the physio drills and take the strongest of my pain killers. I’m not a big fan of strong pills. I lost entire days where I was barely conscious and nodded off every two minutes. This was frustrating as I knew that unless I got the pain and swelling under control, I wouldn’t be able to get through the physio exercises, or walk around enough to really kick-start going back to normal. Now, I'm not a good patient. I struggle to sit endlessly for hours and I suffer extreme FOMO (fear of missing out) thinking the whole world is just moving on and leaving me behind. So it’s fair to say that days 3-8 were appalling. It’s absolutely to be expected that I would experience a lot of pain and discomfort, but the added drowsiness and drug-haze made it a total nightmare for me.

Thankfully I’ve gotten over that hump. From day 9 onwards I was able to get through my morning physio drills without much drama. I even added a couple of exercises in once I got the hang of applying ice to control the swelling. I’m now about to add hydrotherapy in the pool and I’m looking forward to feeling more and more at one with my knee!

The Ugly
Naturally, you can’t get a wound wet immediately post-surgery. So for the first week, I had to shower using a waterproof leg sock. This combined with the dressings meant I hadn’t really seen my knee properly until I went for my first post-surgery appointment with the consultant. On day 11, the dressings came off, and it was hideous. Like, really hideous. Along with the crusty bits of blood (sorry for those who are queasy), I had two medium-sized angry looking scars, two tiny looking and sore scars and an awful lot of tight, dry skin. I won’t do you the diservice of sharing a picture, but it’s fair to say it wasn’t pretty. My stitches are dissolvable which is handy. However, like most patients who go through this procedure, I have numbness down the left side of my knee.

It essentially feels like I have someone else’s skin attached to the most painful part of my body. Skin tightness can really affect my ability to do the physio exercises so I’ve got to keep the scar well moisturised and massaged. I’m also confident that whilst the bigger scars look like Frankenstein right now, they're going to heal into the skinniest of lines that won’t be visible to many but me.

Verdict on the first 2-weeks

Overall verdict is that it has been tough. Having an operation is expected to knock you. As someone who considers herself to be both physically and mentally strong, I wasn’t immune from pain, crying and needing to be looked after. On the upside, the pain is now under control and I’m managing to make small incremental improvements every day which makes all the difference to my confidence. As for RoboLola, with each wear, I’ve increased my step count and increased my range of movement. In addition to that, I’ve been able to ditch one crutch relatively quickly so I’m able to focus on weight balancing on both legs whilst also working on range. I can already see a number of improvements we can make to the prototype:

  • In the first two weeks, wearing it while you’re swollen can actually hinder not help movement. Obviously the idea is to provide a safeguard against accidental injury, but many of the physio drills can’t be done well whilst wearing the brace
  • I can’t see my history properly within our web app so I can’t see my previous step counts, one for the next iteration!
  • The Flexion view is not an intuitive as it could be, it made sense when we designed it, but I find myself always having to stop and think before I really know what’s going on
  • We don’t need to show days when the brace hasn’t been worn as these just have blanks
  • The brace is only 1/3 of the equation, I need weight sensors and something to detect muscle movement, particularly for the sensitive quad muscle that I need to wake up from it’s slumber!
The bespoke RoboLola app interface showing flexion

Now as I haven’t been moving around as much, I think the next two weeks will really put RoboLola through the paces, daily wear, including commuting to work and lots more steps! Watch this space for the next update!

by Lola Oyelayo

Director of Strategy and UX

A passionate UX designer and researcher, Lola has developed her skills in large organisations and digital agencies, delivering delightful digital products and services. A self-confessed perfectionist, Lola is extremely vocal and knowledgeable about user-centred design. This journey has seen her become Scrum Certified, an official member of the "Agile is best" club and spokesperson for Agile UX development in our agency.