• Rhys walking the Inca Trail. Photo: Supplied (Supplied)
By the time he was 31, Rhys has had 11 knee surgeries. He explains how he went from severe depression due to the extreme pain, to hiking the Inca Trail.
By
Gemma Wilson

Source:
Insight
14 May - 4:26 PM  UPDATED 15 May - 8:29 PM

By age 31, Rhys Donnan had had 11 knee surgeries, three of them arthroscopies.

While most people start looking at having joint replacements in their later years, Rhys underwent a partial knee replacement at just 24.

“I'm quite tall, I'm six foot five, I grew eight inches in about a year and a half in my mid-teens,” Rhys explains to Insight host Jenny Brockie.

As a result of Rhys’ rapid growth spurt, his kneecaps ended up being too high and they became prone to dislocation. He was 13 when he dislocated his knee for the first time.

“I dislocated my right knee eight times between 13 and 18 [years of age] which led to my first surgery. At the moment I would have dislocated my right knee well in the thousands of times,” he says.

As a way to deal with Rhys’ knee issues, doctors he saw recommended surgery.

His third, fourth and fifth knee operations were arthroscopies, a procedure which examines the inside of the joint using a special illuminating instrument inserted through a small incision. During this procedure it is common to also perform a surgical repair of the knee joint. But these procedures haven’t always given Rhys his desired result.

“Straight after the first operation, I had a lot of swelling, had a lot of pain. I stopped eating,” he says.

“I lived on Panadeine Forte, pretty much any pain medication I could get my hands on.

“I lost fifteen kilos in four weeks. At [age] 18, 19, I got down to 53 kilos.”

At just 24-years-old Rhys says he lost the ability to walk unaided.

With the pain persisting, and the surgeries not providing the solution he was looking for, Rhys says he became suicidal.

“Of more recent times…just living on pain relief and just so hopeless because you know, just the dependence on it to get through the smallest task in life just tears you apart,” he says.

Rhys, who says he is tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, was eventually referred to a physio, who he says has changed his life.

“He did communicate [with] me, he did explain why I was having pain, he did explain what the effect on me that causes,” Rhys tells Insight.

“By gaining a better understanding of what I was experiencing, and having an understanding of what it meant, [it] allowed me to get past a lot of issues because I was informed.”

After working with the physio Rhys has since hiked the Inca trail and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge with “absolutely no problem at all.” And he plans to hike the Kokoda trail.

Looking back, Rhys isn’t sure the arthroscopies were worth it.

“I find it challenging to know whether my arthroscopies provided a benefit or not. At the time I believe they did, but with what I've learnt over the last couple of years, with my physio I see now, my opinion's dramatically changed,” he says.

He now believes surgery should be one of the last steps offered to patients.

"I think we need to go through a progression of steps before it gets to the point of surgery,” he says.

“I think alternatives in less invasive and less dramatic methods can be achieved and I think better outcomes can be achieved and I think it would be a massive saving from a medical funding point of view if people are going to a physio half a dozen times rather than having a major surgery.”

If you or someone you know needs support contact Lifeline 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust. 

Insight cuts through the confusion to ask how patients, surgeons and other specialists can make a joint decision about when to operate – or not.