Fresh from his early morning swim, basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton, 60, relaxing in his backyard overlooking Balboa Park, threw his endlessly long arms toward the blue sky, and over the sound of The Grateful Dead’s “Ramble On Rose,” shouted, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world!”
Instead of another championship, Walton was celebrating his brand-new, prosthetic left knee, which has allowed him to return to an active lifestyle of daily swimming, cycling and weight training.
“I am so fortunate to be living a full, pain-free life now,” Walton said, flashing a grin and recounting his recent 1,000-plus-mile bicycle ride through the Colorado Rockies, just four months after his April surgery at Sharp Coronado Hospital. “When you’ve got your health, anything is possible.”
Walton, sadly one of basketball’s most injured players, recounted how he initially hurt his left knee when he was a teenager, playing against some “really old guys”— they were in their 30s.
“I was having a big day, absolutely torching them, and they didn’t like it, so they took me down,” he said. “I had to have my first operation, I was just 14, and I dragged that bad leg around for the next 46 years. I just accepted it, managed it and figured it was simply part of life.”
Over time his condition worsened and finally, early this year, Walton reached out to local sports medicine expert Dr. Paul Murphy, a longtime family friend and primary physician to Walton’s four sons who all grew up in San Diego.
Murphy ultimately referred Walton to Sharp HealthCare-affiliated orthopedic surgeons, Dr. Peter Hanson and Dr. Joseph Jankiewicz, for a total knee replacement aided with computer navigation.
“These surgeons and the hospital staff worked as a team,” Walton said. “The collaborative nature of their approach was totally reassuring. I’m a big team guy.”
The surgeons considered developing a custom knee to accommodate Walton’s giant 6-foot-11 frame, but tracked down a prosthetic knee big enough for the job — the largest one available — from Stryker, a medical technology company headquartered in Michigan.
The knee replacement was Walton’s 37th orthopedic procedure. His past surgeries included fusion of the bones in both of his feet and ankles, and a spinal fusion. Careful to avoid aggravating one of his many other injuries, the surgeons sought input from two different foot and ankle specialists in the San Diego area.
To further complicate things, Walton’s natural knee was valgus — meaning it bent outward, a condition commonly referred to as “knock-kneed” — and the team needed to ensure that the new knee was straight, with no outward or inward angle.
“The computer navigation was such an essential part of Bill’s surgery,” said Dr. Hanson. “Because even a slight variation from the correct angles would be compounded by his height, we felt that the margin of error with traditional, mechanical surgical methods was too great. The computer tells you when you’ve got the right angles so you can make an extremely accurate cut.”
“This process is virtually fool-proof,” Dr. Jankiewicz said. “We were able to straighten his knee out completely.”
Walton’s busy schedule as a sports broadcaster presented special challenges to Sharp Coronado’s Orthopedic Program Manager Gia Wendt, who works closely with patients and the orthopedic program’s clinical team to ensure the best outcomes.
“Just as we do with every patient, we personalized Bill’s care, providing him the necessary education and tools to ensure a smooth admission, recovery and discharge home,” Wendt said. “Bill was heavily involved with March Madness broadcasts during the time leading up to his surgery, so we identified brief periods of downtime to allow for thorough coordination of his care — the key to setting patients up for a successful surgery experience.”
Although Walton was under general anesthesia during the procedure, on the advice of the operating room staff, the surgeons also played The Grateful Dead during. Walton is a longtime, devoted fan and friend of the band.
“I went into surgery on a Monday, and I was home for lunch on Thursday,” said Walton, adding that he was using his walker on the same day of surgery and riding his stationary bike two weeks later. “My new knee feels great, and my whole body feels better.
"Exercise is just part of life for me and I can do it every day again, because those doctors and caregivers breathed new life into me. For that, I’m forever grateful. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
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