Hip Replacement Surgery Keeps Dance Pioneer Moving

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October 14, 2019

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Movement has been a constant in Karen Peterson’s life. Ever since she took her first dance class as a young girl, she has been enthralled by what the human body can convey as it moves through time and space.

As the artistic director of an innovative dance company that showcases dancers with disabilities, including those in wheelchairs, along with able-bodied artists, Ms. Peterson is cognizant that every body is different. But when her own body began to betray her, she wasn’t sure what to do.

Her company, Karen Peterson and Dancers, was performing in Vienna in 2015 when she became concerned. “I noticed as I was walking that there was a sensation in my right hip,” she said. “This was like a new pain that I had never experienced before, and I knew something wasn’t right.”

Upon her return, she sought advice from orthopedic surgeon Alexander Van der Ven, M.D., with Miami Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute. X-rays revealed severe arthritis in both hips. Although she was hoping for a different answer, hip replacement surgery was her best option.

(Watch now: The Baptist Health News Team hears from patient Karen Peterson and orthopedic surgeon Alexander Van der Ven, M.D., with Miami Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Institute. Video by Steve Pipho.)

Dealing with the problem

Like many patients, Ms. Peterson, 65, was reluctant to undergo surgery at first. “I really suffered with the pain for three or four years,” she said. Eventually, she started using a cane to get around. But the pain was debilitating — and getting worse.

Dr. Van der Ven replaced one of Ms. Peterson’s hip joints a year ago in August, and then the other this past May. To rebuild her strength, the Institute matched Ms. Peterson with a physical therapist with a dance background who could tailor the rehabilitation program to her demanding career’s specific needs. 

“Now I’m pain-free,” said Ms. Peterson, who recently presided over a groundbreaking dance festival in Miami that showcased four physically integrated dance companies, including her own. “We are trying to create a new language for dancers with and without disabilities. It’s really about looking beyond one’s disability and viewing the whole product as a piece of art, as a piece of choreography.”

Her hip surgeries have allowed her to resume her active life, including directing her dance company and teaching youths with disabilities and special needs. “I move with the dancers,” she said. “We warm up together. I take yoga class twice a week. I walk and stretch every day.”

Taking a gentler approach

An expert in knee and hip replacements, Dr. Van der Ven said Ms. Peterson’s recovery was aided by the less invasive anterior approach he takes with most hip surgeries, which means a smaller incision is made from the front of the hip rather than the more traditional approach from the side or rear.

“The surgical approach we do has much less muscle trauma,” he explained. “We go around the muscle rather than taking down the muscle. In fact, we don’t cut any muscles. All the studies show that active individuals, especially working individuals, will recover much faster and with less pain, a shorter time with a walker and, overall, will be much happier with this approach.”

In a total hip replacement, also called total hip arthroplasty, the damaged head of the thighbone and the socket where it joins with the hip are replaced with an implant to create a smooth and gliding surface that will reduce pain and improve mobility. 

Following surgery, patients get up and walk within hours to help with their healing. “The most important thing is to empower patients to get up and move around, to encourage them to act not like patients but like healthy people after surgery,” Dr. Van der Ven said. The Institute even offers an innovative program that allows some patients to go home the same day, quite a change from the average six-day stay in the hospital for hip replacement just 10 years ago.

“The majority of patients will still stay for one night, but it is really amazing, considering what we do in surgery, to have people up and walking six hours later,” he said.

Dr. Van der Ven was gratified to hear Ms. Peterson is feeling fit and is continuing to break barriers for people with special needs, changing the way audiences view physical beauty.

“This is why we do our surgical training, to work with people like Karen who really want to get back to full activity level for themselves, but more important in her case, who want to help others do the things that they love,” he said. “Karen cares so much about other people — it feels good on my end to be a part of something she does for other people.”