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Getting Bunion Surgery

What it's like to take care of the BIG TOE.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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The BIG TOE.

My husband and I were driving to a friend’s apartment in the city with our two kids in the back seat. When we stopped at a red light, our 4-year-old noticed a lady crossing the street wearing sparkly high heels. “Oooh, I like her shoes!” she said, “But Mommy can’t wear them, because she has… the BIG TOE.” We laughed because she was right.

The big toe. She was referring to my bunion.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is my BIG TOE. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

“A bunion is an increase in the space between the first and second metatarsal bones in the foot,” explains Dr. Douglas Livingston, my podiatric surgeon at Northwell Health. “As that angle increases, the first bone becomes prominent on the side of the foot. This misalignment can lead to arthritis, foot pain and many other problems.”

Yup. And my kids, I guess, took notice. It ached all day and night, even if I was barefoot and doing nothing. Sometimes I felt twinges of sharp pain, depending on how I had treated my foot that day. I couldn’t really tolerate pumps anymore, and on the rare occasion that I soldiered through a night of pain in the name of fashion, I paid the price for the next two days. I pretty much wore Doc Maartens every day, as a style choice balanced with the need to wear low-heeled, wide shoes.

The B word

Bunion is such an ugly word. I had never spoken it aloud before. Just thinking about it conjures up images of mangled old lady feet for me. When I was little, my mom had big bunions on both of her feet. She had considered getting them fixed, but stories of a barbaric procedure and long, painful recovery that left you out of commission for months on end sounded too awful for her to take seriously.

“Back when I was a resident, patients used to be completely out of commission for as long as eight weeks. And only then did they slowly begin the rehabilitation process,” Dr. Livingston explains. Thanks to medical advancements that include specialized fixation—screws that help hold the bone in place as it heals and allows for weight bearing forces earlier than before—people are much more eager to have their bunions fixed, he says. Like my mom, who at the age of 59 opted for the surgery—first the left foot and then the right—and became my inspiration.

With my 40th birthday looming, I decided to give myself a gift. I had suffered for so long. And now that I had a secure job and kids who were relatively independent, the time seemed right—my dream of pretty, pain-free feet now within reach.

What is bunion surgery really like?

The consultation was easy: three quick X-rays done right in my doctor’s office. Dr. Livingston answered all my questions and explained that bunions are a result of genes (thanks, Mom!) rather than shoe choice. “Bunions affect both men and women, but because of the shoes women usually wear, their issues are more symptomatic and problematic.” They can also develop, he explained, as a result of a structural defect, stress on the foot or a medical condition, such as arthritis.

"Cheesin" for the camera with Dr. Livingston. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

As my surgery date neared, I worried about how I would handle the demands of my life as a full-time working mom while healing, but my kids (9 and 4) were not impressed. “How are you going to make dinner if you can’t walk?” my older child demanded. Well, that settled it—I booked the dates and decided to think about my surgery as a “vacation” from life.

On the morning of the surgery, I showered with a special antiseptic wash, took a Pepcid (which they provided) to cut down on stomach acid, put on my “loose fitting pants” so that I could get my post-op bandaged leg in when I went home (“This is not a time for leggings,” the nurse warned), and off I went to the hospital.

All dressed up and nowhere to go as I wait to be taken into surgery. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

The staff was so kind and all the nurses made sure I was comfortable and informed about what was going on. I put on a standard-issue hospital cap and gown and was given one sock to cover my non-bunioned foot, a warm blanket and the TV remote to watch while I waited my turn.

All smiles, Dr. Livingston puts me at ease before my surgery. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

At this point I was nervous. Dr. Livingston came in to say hello and we joked a bit before he left to prepare for surgery. Then the anesthesiologist came in to give me something to “relax.” As he plunged something into my IV, a wave of calm swept over me. WOAH. Hello, vacation. “What was that?” I asked. I didn’t hear the answer. The next thing I remember was waking up in recovery.

My sutures are removed and replaced with steristrips one week post-op. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian
“‘Oooh, I like her shoes!’ she said, ‘But Mommy can’t wear them, because she has… the BIG TOE.’ We laughed because she was right.”
Michelle Avedian, former bunion "owner"

Jimmy Choo, here I come

Later, Dr. Livingston told me he had spoken to me in the recovery room, but I don’t remember that at all. I hope I was on my best behavior. Everything was a bit of a blur. My husband helped me get dressed in my loose sweat pants because my foot was completely wrapped and bandaged. I felt nothing from the ankle down. And I managed to walk out of the hospital myself with a medical shoe and a small cane. I put my foot up on the dashboard as my husband drove me home and I spent the rest of the day in a painkiller-induced haze.

Four weeks post-op, Spencer and my foot get some fresh air. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

Recovery these days is easier than ever, Dr. Livingston points out. “You can walk on the foot right after the surgery and get back to life faster than ever before. That’s a big difference from the way it was years ago. Pain-wise, everyone is different, but most people are off the meds in a few days, if they even need them at all.” Another advantage to the way bunion surgery is done now is that you don’t need general anesthesia. “It’s a local anesthetic and sedation, which makes for an easier recovery.”

My new bling-post-op X-ray shows the screws in my foot. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

According to Dr. Livingston, most people are in a surgical boot for about two to three weeks after surgery. “The specialized bone screws that help to stabilize the bone and enable you to support your own weight do not go off in metal detectors and 90 percent of the time, patients don’t notice them,” he says. But on the rare occasion that they cause discomfort, they can be removed. And the bunion is less likely to recur with this newer method of bone reconstruction, as opposed to the old-school variety where they would shave off the excess bone.

The more you can ice and elevate the foot, the better and quicker the recovery will be. How fast can you get back to work? “It depends on your job,” he says. “If you work in an office, you may be able to get back in a few days. If you’re a roofer and climbing up ladders and balancing on roofs, I’d advise you to wait a bit longer.” He says each surgeon will guide his or her patient as to the best plan for proper recovery. “We also do some physical therapy in the office—some whirlpool, some ultrasound—to reduce swelling and increase recovery rates,” he says.

At the "spa" (aka rehab), dunking my sore foot in a whirlpool to reduce swelling. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

In a few weeks, most people are able to put on a comfy pair of sneakers and get back to their usual routine, minus exercise, which he says I’d have to wait another few weeks to jump back into.

Hello, old friends. Oh how I've missed you. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Michelle Avedian

Now at six weeks post-op, I still limp a bit, and I can’t wear all my shoes yet. But every day I see progress. I don’t have that ever-present pain anymore—I just feel myself healing. It will take a while longer, but it’s what I expected. And not having the BIG TOE means sparkly high heels for New Year’s Eve!


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Published July 10th, 2018

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